The coronavirus pandemic changed business networking practically overnight. Nearly all events and face-to-face meetings were cancelled, postponed, or moved online. Now, several months into the pandemic, handshakes and hallway chats still seem unlikely to make a return soon. But just because you can’t attend events in person, it doesn’t mean you have to lose out on building your professional network.
Virtual events can be an effective alternative and have some advantages over physical events: they’re cheaper to attend, easy to join from any location, more environmentally friendly, and allow you to take part from the comfort and safety of your home.
So without further ado, here are some tips to help you brush up on your virtual business networking skills and get the most out of online events.
Do your research
Preparation is no less important for a virtual event than for an in-person event. Familiarise yourself with the event schedule, do some background reading on the topic or theme that the event covers, and research any speakers. Jot down questions you could ask and any insights you could share. By doing your homework, you’ll be better equipped to engage with presenters and other attendees and maximise your networking opportunities. Often with virtual events you can view the complete list of attendees, but if not, it’s worth asking the event organisers for a copy. Take the time to go through this, using social media to look people up if necessary, and identify potential networking targets. If a list isn’t available beforehand, you can still think about the types of people you want to target.
Establish your networking goals
What are you hoping to gain by attending this event? Outlining some specific goals early on will help keep you focused. This could be something along the lines of ‘introduce myself to three prospective customers’ or ‘schedule a follow-up call with a potential business partner’. Virtual events don’t tend to offer the same potential for chance encounters that physical events do, so having a clearly-defined plan is even more important to enable you to get the most value from them. Keep your goals in mind during the event and evaluate your success afterwards.
Provide a complete profile
You might be asked on certain event apps or by the event organisers to fill out a professional profile. This is an opportunity to boost your visibility in the list of attendees and get others to want to engage with you. Clearly and concisely state what you do and include details that are relevant to the audience of that particular event. A high-quality professional headshot and contact information, including any links to social media or your website, will also help to ensure that people can easily find and reach out to you.
Prepare an introduction
Write a short introduction about yourself that you can use verbally during the event or copy and paste into the chat function. The same principles that apply to your profile apply to your introduction: keep it concise and relevant to the audience of the event. By preparing this in advance, you’ll save yourself the pressure of having to think of something on the spot, and will be able to fully pay attention to everyone else’s introductions too.
Make use of social media
Leveraging social media before and after the event can help you to make and strengthen connections with other attendees. Post on your social channels that you’ll be attending and say what you’re looking forward to. This might lead you to discover that others in your existing network are going too, or it might encourage them to sign up. Many events have a hashtag; incorporate this in all your posts relating to the event and use it to see who else is talking about it. Some events have official event pages or groups too, so be sure to join these. Social media is a valuable tool to find out more about speakers, presenters and other attendees, and to start interacting and building relationships before the event even begins.
Engage in the discussion
When you’re at the event, you should indicate to people that you’re there to network by actively getting involved. Introduce yourself, ask a question or answer a question that someone else poses, post a comment or share an insight - but take care not to overdo it. As well as contributing to the main conversation, you can also use the private messaging tool to initiate one-on-one chats with networking targets and schedule follow-up meetings. Some events might include breakout sessions, whereby you move from the main large gathering into a smaller group of people, and this can be a great opportunity to engage with people in a more intimate discussion.
Just like you would after an in-person event, make sure you follow up with your new connections in a timely manner (ideally within 24 hours) by reaching out to them via social media or email. Make your message unique by making reference to something you talked about with the particular individual, or mention a topic that was discussed at the event. You can also share what you enjoyed or learnt at the event on social media and continue the discussion with people who are using the event hashtag or posting on the event page.
While it’s hard to exactly replicate the excitement and interpersonal interaction that you find at a physical event, virtual events can still provide valuable networking opportunities and have advantages of their own. Many virtual event organisers are also finding ways to make them more interactive, for example with breakout rooms and matchmaking. Even when physical events are allowed to resume as normal, it’s likely that online events will remain a part of our business networking activities for the foreseeable future. By being well prepared and having a clear plan, you can get the most out of them and achieve the networking outcomes you want.