Most conference organizers focus their efforts on flying in the best speakers and providing the most educational content for their events. Unfortunately, this means that networking becomes more of an afterthought, and organizers employ unstructured networking sessions like cocktail mixers or coffee breaks that favor the outgoing.
While it’s important to have unstructured or passive opportunities for networking, organizers also need to play a more active role in inspiring attendees to mingle.
“Conferences can be more about the power of networking than the fulfillment of a specific business objective,” says Doug Robertson, President & CEO of Venn Innovation and Chairman of Technology Councils of North America. “The real opportunities come through the people you meet, even serendipitously.”
After all, attendees can only retain so much information from a talk. But offer them great networking opportunities, and they’ll walk away with connections that could last long after the conference ends.
Now, if budget is a concern, don’t worry about it—we’ve got your back! Here are five awesome ideas to facilitate networking at your next conference, ranked from least ($) to most ($$$$$) expensive.
1. Creative name tags and badges
Budget rating: $
Don’t underestimate the power of a name tag! Conference attendees are actively seeking new connections, so if they find an attendee with a description that matches what they’re looking for, it’s like hitting the jackpot.
Anyway, name tags are basic requirements for most conferences and events, why not optimize them for networking?
Your basic name tag should have your attendee’s name, company, and position. Some creative ways to add more engaging features is to create visual cues. For example, you could color code the name tags based on event role (attendee or speaker), industry (supply chain, logistics, or manufacturing), or by session track.
Based on what you know about the attendee, like the session track they want to attend, you can also include extra information at the back of the name tag such as possible talking points, information about the speakers, or even a special meeting place attendees can go to network before the session begins.
In fact, some people place such importance on the design of a conference name tag or badge that they call them the “unsung conference heroes.” Check out this badge that Google gave out at one of their ORD Camps:
It’s big, readable, with interesting tidbits about the attendee. And notably, the focus is on the attendee with no event logo in sight!
Another interesting thing that conferences are doing now is integrating QR codes into name tags. These QR codes are synced with their event app, so when an attendee scans another attendee’s QR code, they can get the corresponding contact information. No business card exchanges necessary.
While this is a cost-effective and efficient way of maximizing existing collaterals, it still leaves the responsibility of networking in the attendees’ hands.
2. Dedicated networking sessions
Budget rating: $$
A more active way of promoting meaningful connections throughout your conference is including a dedicated networking session or two into your agenda. A popular iteration of this is speed networking.
Speed networking gamifies the whole experience of meeting new people. By giving attendees the chance to talk to everyone for just a couple of minutes, you take away the pressure and anxiety that comes with traditional networking.
Plus, it saves them the awkwardness of having to leave a fruitless conversation and gives them an idea of who they should be talking to at length.
To organize a speed networking session, you need to block off an area of your venue and format the tables in such a way that it’s easy to move around.
You could use tall bar tables and line them up next to each other so it’s easy to go from one table to the next. And in each table, place a fishbowl full of topics, such as their “favorite sport” or “most looked up to entrepreneur,” in case attendees are stumped about what to talk about.
Hosting these sessions might incur some additional costs because you need a couple of facilitators to manage the time and attendees.
These facilitators will split the audience into two groups (or, if you made use of the creative badges, split into their respective “category”) and give them instructions on how to proceed. The more specific you segment and match the audience (like matching co-founders with technical professionals), the more value-adding this activity will be.
These gamified activities can be adjusted depending on the size of the conference and the goals of the attendees. For larger conferences, it’s better to have multiple speed networking sessions in different rooms. You can also segment these rooms based on a topic or objective. Feel free to be as creative with this as you please.
The only downside to speed networking is that it’s not the most efficient way to meet the right person, since it focuses on volume. And the value that it gives your attendees can’t be measured—you won’t know for sure if the activity actually resulted in new connections. But it sure is a lot of fun!
3. Business matchmaking app
Budget rating: $$$
Making use of a business matchmaking app might require a bit more investment, but it can potentially be the most cost-effective option of the lot.
Not only does it help attendees network more efficiently and on their own terms, but it also automates the whole process and unravels relevant insights so you can focus on other aspects of your conference and create a better networking experience for the next one.
We at Toasty, for example, allow users to connect with each other even before the start of the conference. Attendees can create a profile via our matchmaking platform and our A.I. technology will suggest top “matches” based on which connections would be the most compatible. Attendees can then get in touch with these suggested connections and set a meeting before, during, or after the actual conference.
Don’t mix up a business matchmaking app with a networking app though, a matchmaking app is all centered around setting up meetings, which is a lot more important than purely chatting on a networking app.
This leaves nothing to chance, and puts the power of networking in the attendees’ hands.
The idea behind our business matchmaking platform is that we match people based on what they want to learn. And unlike traditional, unstructured forms of networking, we give attendees a way to skip through all the social awkwardness and get straight to business. This improves their chances of making lasting connections.
And because all of these matches are made through the app, organizers have access to a whole slew of information, from who’s connecting with who to what they’re talking about during their meetings.
In the past, networking was an activity that organizers didn’t think to track. But doing so can provide a lot of benefits. With information gleaned from the app, you can gauge just how successful your conference was based on the number of connections made. Then you can do the proper planning to make an even more successful one in the future.
While it might cost more than a name tag, a matchmaking app offers a semi-structured form of networking as well as the unique benefit of tracking and measuring networking activity.
4. Post-conference after parties
Budget rating: $$$$
The networking doesn’t stop when a conference ends. Sometimes, the best way to make lasting connections is by taking the networking out of the exhibit floor and into a restaurant, a bar, or—dare we say it?—a club.
Post-conference events are an opportunity for speakers, organizers, and attendees to get away from the business side of things and get together as peers and friends. Without the pressure of running to the next breakout session or collecting as many business cards as possible, it’s easy to get to know each other on a more personal level.
Plus, nothing makes people more chummy than full bellies or a couple of shots.
Techsauce Global Summit throws some of the most epic after-parties in Southeast Asia. Some people sign up for the conference but stay for the after-party—and who can blame them?
But more than just another more relaxed venue for networking, an after-party is also a good way of treating your attendees to a good time. It’s like saying “thanks for coming, here are some drinks on us!”
“The reason we organize great after-parties each year is because we want to thank attendees for supporting our summit,” says Varisorn Phaovanij, the project lead for Techsauce. “As organizers, we feel energized and greatly encouraged to hold the event again in the following years when we see our attendees having a blast.”
It’s never a bad thing to build feelings of goodwill between you and your audience.
Plus, if your after-party was so good it inspired a whole community of friendships, then it’s likely people will want to attend your conference again next year.
The drawbacks of treating your attendees are, of course, the hefty price tag and massive effort. You’ll have to look for another venue outside of your conference venue, arrange for music and entertainment, and pay a lot more for this separate event.
Not to mention the fact that it’s another bit of social proof you can use to convince people to attend if you haven’t established your after-parties just yet.
5. A networking-conducive venue
Budget rating: $-$$$$$
While it might seem unrelated, venue and venue layout can really make or break the atmosphere of networking. For conferences that want to inspire networking, location and layout are everything.
In terms of location, it should be located in an area that’s easily accessible and surrounded by other commercial spots so attendees can hang out or schedule meetings outside of the venue. Think something like Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre that’s situated within a huge mall with lots of options for eating out or drinking post-conference
In terms of layout, it should have enough space to accommodate lots of different activities, and navigable so attendees can easily go from one activity to the next and easily identify designated “hangout spots” or networking rooms.
Hangout spots are good for clustering people in the same space and encourage spontaneous conversation.
You could lure attendees by creating a lounge spot with bar tables and free-flowing tea and coffee. Or maybe encourage them to huddle around each other by providing a charging station. Nothing like striking up a conversation over a misplaced charging cable.
And if budget permits, the venue itself could even be a major talking point. The Digital Marketing Skill Share conference, for example, is held in Bali with activities like yoga and meditation included in its agenda. A destination country like Indonesia with unorthodox agendas are sure to be the topic of many a networking session.
The downside to a stellar venue is, of course, price. Destination venues like these don’t come cheap!
Get creative, and have fun
When it comes to creating an environment conducive to forging connections, you need to find different avenues for structured, unstructured, and semi-structured networking. It can’t just be one.
Of course, find the system that suits both your conference’s and your attendees’ objectives as well as one that fits your budget.