If you talk to any event professional or business leader right now, they are likely struggling with the same problem; for all of the wins of virtual events and remote work (access, flexibility, reach, analytics), there is an aspect of professional gatherings that has so far failed to move gracefully online.
It’s the serendipity. “The Hallway Conversations.” “The Watercooler.” “The Lobby Bar”. The networking.
Call it what you like, but those unplanned moments in the elevator, the hallway, the lobby, the cafeteria that once led to new connections and perspectives, have been a lot harder to come by in the age of virtual events and remote work.
For virtual events, this dearth of human connection means less impact for your event. Less community. Less brand loyalty. Likely less retention and engagement. Less ROI for your attendees and sponsors.
For remote teams, the impact may be even more pronounced. Without connective tissue holding your employees together, it becomes easier for team members to disengage, to not go the extra mile, and potentially, to attrit.
In a recent LinkedIn poll with hundreds of responses, event technologist Fab Capodicasa found that nearly 80% of respondents Strongly or Somewhat Agreed with the statement “Networking at Virtual Events SUCKS.”
It’s not hard to see why so many people feel this way. Have you been to a networking event on a 50 person Zoom? Have you tried networking on LinkedIn? As an organizer or business leader, have you tried setting up thoughtful Zoom breakout rooms for a virtual event?
These experiences are lousy, mainly because they weren’t designed for the problem at hand; connecting people for meaningful conversations.
But here is the thing; I am EXTREMELY optimistic about the future of virtual networking & virtual watercooler type experiences and here are six reasons that things can only get better:
- The removal of location as an obstacle. This is the big one. In the world of networking / matchmaking, the quality of your outcomes is likely directly correlated to the size of your pool. In face to face networking, the quality of your new connections is limited by who happens to be in the room with you. On the Internet, you can hyperspace anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes you have to play the numbers game, and virtual networking improves the odds of a meaningful new connection exponentially.
- The power of machine learning. Talking about ML and AI can very quickly cause people’s eyes to glaze over, but recommendation engines are an effective way to surface up things of interest, think of new products on Amazon, new band suggestions to check out, so why not people? Any virtual networking system worth its salt is going to ask you how you liked the match, so the next match can be just a little better than the previous one. If you follow this thread, future versions of virtual networking tools should be able to connect you with more meaningful, and interesting people.
- No more paper business cards. Have you ever met someone interesting at an event, gotten their card, and then lost (or failed to transcribe) it? I have. A Lot. When you are online, everything leaves a digital trail. For networking this is a big deal; contact info can be exchanged with a tap, automated nudges can help you follow up, and you should never lose a contact.
- Synchronous and asynchronous, working together. In the physical world, serendipity and networking is limited by “who happens to be near me right now?”. A virtual world allows more flexibility and opportunity. You can still have the serendipitous real time connections, but you can also have software assisted matches and scheduling of a more targeted intro. If you think about the best connections you have made during the past five years, they have likely been a combo of synchronous and asynchronous - virtual networking can deliver this mix.
- You don’t have to talk about the weather (the structure problem). As an introvert, one of the things that I struggle with during in person networking is the lack of structure. I almost invariably end up talking about the weather in Las Vegas / Orlando / New Orleans. I struggle to make my approach. I struggle to exit conversations that are not rewarding. etc. Software can help with all of this friction, providing nudges and guidance when needed, and also helping you move on to the next conversation without the awkwardness.
- Oculus, and its ilk. Perhaps the biggest barrier to IRL caliber networking online is that looking at someone on a screen is not the same as standing next to them. It’s hard to look someone in the eye. You can’t feel the vibe. Your senses are mostly not activated. But even here, things are starting to develop. If you’ve played with an Oculus recently, you will likely agree that VR is getting EXTREMELY immersive, to the point that I actually wiped out in real life, while playing a virtual snowboarding game. We are still years away from a platform transition that would enable broad scale, immersive virtual networking, but the most powerful technology companies in the world are investing massively into the metaverse, which will have profound implications for how people interact virtually.
As a tech entrepreneur you live for these sorts of dichotomies; an incumbent experience that is really lousy today, but that has the potential to be truly amazing, if you can just build the right software.