Before the pandemic, networking for virtual events was seldom a priority for brands and event organizers, and was typically limited to text chat during a video presentation. Similar to how viewers can tune into a Facebook Live and have conversation in the chat with other viewers, most virtual events offered little more in terms of engagement and networking with other attendees.
But then in 2020 virtually all in person events were closed or transitioned to virtual, and that sparked an incredible amount of innovation. While some SaaS providers and virtual event platforms had already been working on ways to make these online summits and conferences more engaging, there was a sudden need to replicate the things that made in-person events special.
The opportunities for networking, for creating what I like to call “Magical Moments.”
I spoke at a recent Airmeet community event about the importance of Magical Moments and how it’s incumbent upon event organizers to create space and opportunities for these moments to occur. If it’s an in-person event, we’re talking about networking breaks between sessions that give attendees time to hang out in the hallways and talk to other attendees or the speaker, and other similar situations.
But if your attendees are tuning in online from their homes or remote offices, how do you replicate in-person event networking for virtual events? You can’t simply announce a networking break since for most attendees, there’s no one else at their location to network with.
Fortunately, virtual event platforms today make it incredibly easy to facilitate networking opportunities. In fact, I’m going to share eight different ways, using the Airmeet platform as an example, you can encourage networking for virtual events.
- Speed Networking
- Table Talks
- Cocktail Parties
- Breakout Sessions
- Session Chat
- Dedicated Profiles & Direct Messaging
- Event Chat
- Private Meetings
While there are a number of virtual event platforms you can opt to use today, many of which include some or all of the following features, Airmeet is the platform I’ve had the most and best experience with, and the solution I recommend to brands when advising them how best to proceed with their next online summit or conference. So that’ll be the example I use throughout. If you have or prefer an alternate virtual event platform, just check to whether they offer a similar feature, or ask me in the comments below!
You may have never participated in speed dating before, but you’re probably familiar with the concept. Folks get paired with someone else to talk to and after a certain amount of time, move to the next person, each time sharing a little bit about themselves to potentially spark some interest in the other person.
Speed Networking for virtual events works on the same principle. Attendees are paired up randomly with other attendees and have a set amount of time to talk to each other, then are automatically paired with someone else, over and over again, until the end of the session time.
As the virtual event organizer, you can decide in advance how much time you want to allot for the speed networking session, how much time to let each pairing talk for, and even give them some prompts of topics to discuss or questions to ask.
Here’s how to set it up in Airmeet.
Airmeet has two kinds of events, Social Meetup and Conference. Social Meetup is best for webinars, virtual meetups, and other kinds of short, single-session events, while Conference is designed for multi-session virtual events and includes support for sponsor booths and more. Both plans support a Speed Networking option which is offered as a type of session.
From your event dashboard, click on Schedule and you’l be looking at whatever sessions and activities you have scheduled for the day of your event so far. Airmeet will schedule a Welcome session by default at your event start time which you can edit or remove. Social Meetups can schedule Sessions, Breaks and Speed Networking, while Conferences can also schedule Booth time. Click on + Activity and select Speed Networking.
As you can see, you can customize the description of the session, as well as the length and how much time each pairing lasts. Be default, the session will last 30 minutes and attendees will get 5 minutes with each paired attendee.
If your virtual event attendees naturally break down into 2 or more groups, such as teachers and students, or agencies and prospects, you can set up matching rules so that the system will automatically pair someone from one group or segment with someone from another segment you identify. You can also specify segments that shouldn’t be paired, to create a complex and interesting networking opportunity. Perhaps you want teachers to be able to network with administrators and students, but administrators and students shouldn’t be paired up. You can do that!
Once you save your speed networking activity it will appear in the schedule for attendees. It will be visible alongside other sessions and activity scheduled to encourage attendees to participate, and will also appear within the Lounge above whatever tables you might have set up for table talks, which we’ll cover next!
Table Talks are a great way to encourage networking for virtual events. They create small groups, typically around a shared interest or background, which gives each participant an immediate rapport-building foundation to build on.
Represented as two-dimensional tables and chairs, the platform will show attendees a label for each table that you, the event organizer determined, as well as any other attendees who may be seated there already. Once they join a table, the attendee will then participate in a limited-participant group video call and have an opportunity to meet and talk to other attendees directly, just as they would at an in-person event.
The first key to hosting successful table talks at a virtual event is to pre-determine topics for each table and label them accordingly. These should be topics that are not only of interest to your attendees, but ones where many attendees will have actual questions and want to talk to other attendees about their experiences.
For example, at our next virtual event for marketing agencies, Agency Summit ’22, one of the tables we’ll likely create is one for Live Video Shopping where agency owners can join and talk to each other about how they’re working or wanting to work with their respective clients to support live shopping on Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, etc.
The second key is to recruit a table host or moderator. This person doesn’t have to be a speaker at your event, though it’s nice to give them speaker-like treatment in your virtual event promotion and materials, nor do they have to have prepared material. They simply need to be someone with experience in the topic and a stated interest in talking about that topic with other attendees.
In my live video shopping example of a virtual table talk, I’d likely ask an expert like Stephanie Liu to be my table talk host. I’d tell her when to be there and she’d simply be at that table during the designated time for table talks to help welcome other interested attendees and guide the conversation. Having a table host ensures that when attendees come to the lounge, they’ll immediately see at least one person at every table which will reduce the friction of joining and participating.
Which brings up the third and final key: have a designated time for table talks. While the tables may be there for attendees and speakers to use throughout the day as they see fit, just like an in-person event, your virtual event will be more successful if you strategically determine a time for table talk networking and add that to the schedule.
Airmeet makes this super easy.
First, go to your schedule and add a new activity, and just select the Break option. You can then edit the name to be Table Talks or whatever you’d like, and even add instructions within the description inviting your attendees to head over to the Lounge and find a topic of interest to discuss.
Now, head over to the Lounge within your actual event and you’ll see the default setup of tables. You can add or remove the initially available tables, adjust how many seats are there for each, and change the labels. You can even add images, which could be a great visual cue about the topic or even an opportunity for brand sponsorship.
You can create dozens of tables and tables can allow up to 15 participants at once (on the premium plan, 8 on lower plans). If set to allow Expanding, once a table has reached capacity and someone else joins, they’ll automatically start a new table with that same topic. You can also choose to allow participants to create tables of their own, which is particularly helpful!
The Table Talk networking for virtual events feature of Airmeet is identical on both the Social Meetup and Conference setup.
It likely comes as no surprise that one of the most popular aspects of in-person conferences is the parties that happen after the conferences. Like the event was just an excuse for all of us to fly to San Diego so we could hang out afterwards. And that’s at least partially true.
But the fact is, being able to engage socially with other attendees after the formally structured day of sessions is over, even if just for a little bit, is incredibly valuable. By referring to it as a party, you immediately remove some of the professional pretext that earlier sessions had and give attendees space to relax. And when they’re relaxed, they’ll be more open to conversation and meeting new people.
That’s how magical moments are born.
Run The World does a great job of facilitating after parties through their Cocktail Party feature. It’s actually a kind of session that brings everyone together at once, and includes fun aspects like the Groupfie which lets everyone smile at their camera and generate a memory-building group selfie.
There are a couple of ways I like to accomplish this kind of in-person networking for virtual events using Airmeet: Lounge and Session.
If you want to use the Lounge, and recreate the kind of atmosphere you might have at another event’s unofficial networking at a bar, just schedule a Break activity for the end of the day, name it After Party, and tell attendees in the activity description to go to the Lounge. There they can gather at tables and chat with whomever they want.
If you had labeled table talks earlier in the day, you could leave those labels or, spend a few minutes quickly switching out all of the existing table talks with new labels and images that are a little more social, such as where they’re from or other personal interests. Or mix it up with fun labels and different numbers of chairs to really get that Lounge vibe.
Another fun option is to schedule a Session but instead of a typical presenter with content, you’d schedule a performer such as a musician. Attendees would then show up and listen to the performer while talking to each other in the chat.
While a live performance from an artist will typically require a little more budget for your event, it’s also the kind of activity that adds an exponential amount of clout to your event and organization overall. The last memory and experience your attendees will have is that you saw them off with a freaking live musical performance. That’s next level.
A breakout session or room, in most virtual events, is when a particular session host has presented an initial teaching moment, such as a 10 minute talk explaining a topic, and then the attendees ‘break out’ into smaller groups to talk about the topic and potentially even work together on projects or questions around the topic.
For instance, at a recent event I ran for businesses and social media managers who wanted to get better at Instagram, we included a workshop on Instagram Reels. The instructor presented for 15 minutes on Reels best practices and strategies for success, and then the attendees split off into smaller groups to work on their ideas and then came back to the main room twenty minutes later to discuss. The instructor moved from room to room to check on progress and help groups get unstuck.
From a technical perspective, a breakout session is simply a small group video call but both the topic and the attendees have been designated in advance. Similar to a table talk in effect, but the conversation is more directed. Every attendee is there to talk about the Breakout Session topic and that may even include an assignment of some kind.
Some tools like Google Meet have a breakout feature integrated into their larger meeting functionality. With Airmeet, we use the tables in the Lounge to accomplish the same thing.
Just as with the After Party mentioned above, as the virtual event organizer all you have to do is schedule the Breakout Session as a scheduled activity and then ‘reset the room’ in the Lounge to match your table labels according to your breakout session needs.
Suppose you have a session on managing employee conflict for 45 HR professionals at a virtual event. You’d schedule the session and have an expert instructor share some prepared material for ten or fifteen minutes. While they’re talking, you can take a moment to set up your Lounge to have just three tables for Teams A, B and C. The instructor can divide attendees however they’d like, or that can even be done and assigned in advance, and then tell them to head to the Lounge and join their respective tables to role play the conflict assignment.
Some virtual event organizers might prefer to use a virtual event platform that has seamless breakout session capability more like Google Meet, which is fine. There are many platform options to choose from, and one of the conversations I like to have early on with brands wanting to put on a virtual event is to determine their goals and strategies, then select the best platform based on that. Once we’ve made that decision, then the rest of the event agenda and structure is determined based on the platform’s strengths and capabilities. This is an important shift in mindset that can forestall situations where we try to force a platform into a workaround solution that isn’t a good fit and might have been avoided.
It might seem obvious but in the not-so-distant past, most virtual events didn’t have much in terms of session chat – the ability for attendees to leave comments and talk to each during a live session. A lot of online conferences and summits still had that webinar approach where attendees could comment or ask questions, but only the host or moderator would see or respond to the attendee. And while that’s fine for a sales demo, it doesn’t contribute to networking for virtual events.
Today, the best virtual event platforms have robust in-session chat experiences for attendees that includes reactions, emoji, threaded conversations, and more.
In fact, one of the features I enjoy about Airmeet is the option for attendees to ‘grab the mic’ and, if allowed by the speaker, they can come on stage – be on camera for all attendees to see – and ask their questions live.
You might wonder what that has to do with networking? Well, the truth is, when we’re able to see someone’s face and body and hear their voice, we pick up on non-verbal communication cues that help to establish know, like and trust. And just because the attendee who grabbed the mic is focused on talking to the speaker who is also on stage, doesn’t mean they aren’t making an impression on every other attendee. In fact, to most attendees, that brave soul who went on stage in front of everyone is now even more interesting and relatable. Attendees might be even more inclined to sit at that person’s table or connect with them.
Dedicated Profiles & Direct Messaging
Speaking of connecting, one aspect of networking that virtual events pull off exceedingly well is accessibility of profiles.
Imagine that you’re at an in-person event and while standing in the hallway outside a session, you overhear two nearby attendees having a conversation and it’s really interesting to you. So interesting that you’d love to meet them and connect with them but to do so, you’d have to either interrupt their conversation and interject yourself, or wait until they’re done and hope for an opportunity.
During a virtual event, if the event platform supports dedicated profiles and direct messaging, any time you notice another attendee or speaker that you’d like to talk to further, you can click on their name to see what they’ve said about themselves in their profile, and then invite them to a 1:1 conversation. They might include links to their company or social profiles, or an email address or phone number for direct contact!
Some platforms even have built-in follow capability so that brands who want to build a community can encourage their attendees to build out profiles and connect with each other.
On Airmeet, you can encourage every attendee to complete their profile, particularly focused on sharing the information that the people they want to meet and network with would be interested in.
And from there, attendees can connect with chant directly with other throughout and even after the event.
Not to be overlooked in importance is the option for attendees to talk to other attendees, regardless of what session they’re in or that is going on, through a global event chat.
This is a great space for attendees to ask questions, help each other, and of course for the host or partners to share announcements.
A great virtual event host will not only remind attendees via chat that a particular event or activity is starting, they’ll use the event chat to hype up that activity or sponsor and prompt other attendees to chime in. “What did you think about Goldie Chan’s session? Wasn’t she amazing? Which of her LinkedIn tips do you think you’ll work on first?”
The more conversation that happens here, the more opportunity attendees will have to get to know each other, as well as your speakers and partners.
One final aspect of in-person events that you’re going to want to make sure is available to encourage networking for virtual events is private meetings.
Many businesses will attend in-person events, not just to meet new people, but to make it easy to schedule a face to face meeting with a key partner or prospect. That might be in a private meeting room or just sitting down at a convenient table. I’ve had countless meetings of that kind with influencers and potential brand ambassadors over the years!
At your virtual event, it’s great if you can easily offer attendees the same kind of capability! Whether it’s a video meeting they schedule through the platform, or the option of grabbing a private table.
With Airmeet, if you allow attendees to start their own table in the Lounge, then they can also host private meetings with 1 to up to 14 other attendees! They can start a table and then send personal invitations to other attendees to join them there, right from the table.
One other cool aspect of Airmeet is that if you’re using the Conference plan and have booths, every booth partner has a display booth and their own tables as well. So brands who are hosting a booth have a built-in place to invite key attendees to come and meet with them.
Encouraging Networking for Virtual Events
The good news for you as a virtual event organizer is that, not only do virtual event platforms like Airmeet make these kinds of event activities easy to implement, what you really need to focus on is simply planning your event agenda to include and allow for these activities.
Have specific times of the day during which it’s communicated to all attendees that now is the time for table talks or breakout sessions, and you’ll get an excellent participation level. Keep in mind that even during in-person events, many attendees go off and do their own things on their own timeframe, and that’s OK. You’re not there to dictate what 100% of your attendees are going to do during every moment of the event.
Just like Airmeet is the technical platform on which your virtual event takes place, the event overall is the platform on which your community comes together to learn and network and grow.
If you’d like more help determining your virtual event strategy and walking through all of the elements that you need to plan to ensure your next event is a Sold Out Summit, I have limited VIP Strategy Days available for select brands. You can learn more and apply for consideration here.