After studying a whole bunch of professional conferences, it’s very clear to me what separates a thriving event from one on life support. For multi-day conferences, a growing number register and return because of who else will be there. Our attendees have more choices than ever for professional development and acquiring purchasing intelligence. Today, it’s difficult to differentiate and grow without strong networking value and a tribe-like vibe.
It’s no longer enough to just attract the movers and shakers to provide social proof of networking value. Moving forward, we’ll need to get much more sophisticated and intentional in designing our conferences to deliver high-value networking.
Organic + Logistics Not Enough
There’s no shortage of networking ideas for conference design in our profession. It absolutely makes sense to consider these in your experience design. So go ahead and plan for those lounges, hallway nooks, parties, parlor games and first timer orientations. Consider connection accelerators like social media, mobile-apps, gamification and attendee appointments too. These can support your strategy, but won’t on their own, help you build the tribe experience needed for growth.
Networking Value as a Cornerstone of Your Conference Purpose
The commitment to delivering high networking value needs to be identified as a high priority by your leadership. It should be one of the top purposes of your conference or annual meeting. The intent needs to go beyond words. All staff and volunteer leadership should take personal ownership for making as many attendees as possible part of the tribe. This means they need to be present. Not in board or committee meetings. Not in a staff office…but in the sessions, at the entrance to the general session or social functions welcoming your attendees/guests.
There are two main types of networkers – 1) delivery-driven and 2) innovator-driven.
The majority of our attendees fall into the delivery-driven category. Delivery-driven attendees want to:
- Connect with like-minded individuals.
- Connect with people who have the same or higher power, influence and access to resources.
- Promote their company, promote themselves and continue to climb up the career ladder.
Innovation-driven attendees network different(ly). They want to:
- Connect with different-minded people.
- Encounter new and surprising information and perspectives.
- Test out a few ideas “in process” and gain valuable insight to perfect them before launch.
Savvy conference organizers will help educate their community on these two networking types and the value of each. They’ll curate and share networking success stories and the individual’s attributes. Usually, your networking superstars go out of their way to be a connector. They focus first on being a resource to others; trusting this approach will bring the best long-term value.
Beyond the Hallway
Do you conduct head counts on the number of people in each session room? At professional conferences, we find (on average) that half of the people eligible to participate, do. The rest are in the conference hallways, working in their rooms or enjoying the destination/facilities.
If your conference has high loyalty and a tribe-like feel, this isn’t a terrible sign. It is, however, an opportunity. There are two main strategies to move this needle.
1) Add white-space
Make sure you program 30 minute breaks between sessions. This bakes in time for reflection and hallway conversations.
2) Embrace learning design
A key component of learning design is to ask your speakers – “what are the participants going to do during your session?” If the answer is sit, listen and Q&A, you’re going to continue to lose attendees to the hallways. They want to learn from one another, not just the person(s) in front of the room.
What strategies are you adopting to bring more hallway conversations into session rooms? How important is networking to your value proposition?
Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2015.