So, your event has been canceled.

Not to worry, though, because you’ve pivoted and created an online platform for your attendees to gain value from your company, providing webinars and online resources.

But what about that other vital facet of in-person events: networking?

Networking provides attendees with chances to find new opportunities, make sales, or even just connect with their colleagues. It’s one of the most important parts of an in-person event – and can largely be lost when moving that event online. So how do you ensure your attendees can still network without the entire process turning into a haphazard mess?

Here are seven tips for creating successful online networking sessions (that won’t turn out like your family’s crazy Zoom happy hours).

I. Define Your Purpose

There are several challenges that come with an online networking session. Think to any conference call you’ve had recently: people talking over each other, most social queues lost, and the inability to break into smaller groups to chat. In-person networking will always provide a better platform for real connection. But in a time where in-person events are not possible, online networking can provide a decent way for people to feel connected.

Before you begin planning the event, make sure you define your purpose. Are you looking to connect with potential prospects? Connect industry professionals together? Help coworkers connect in a time of uncertainty?

Defining goals for the event goes hand-in-hand with the purpose. Whether its finding five new leads or getting people to sign up for your newsletter, make sure your goals are clearly stated and understood by your team.

Clearly laying out the purpose and goals of this event will help you navigate the next questions on how to design and execute the event.

II. Create a Framework

Once you’ve outlined your purpose and goals, start to plan the framework of the event. Decide whether this will be more of a question and answer session or an open forum, or maybe something in between.

One challenge with online events is the ability for them to dissipate into general chaos, with people talking over each other, dogs barking in the background, and no clear direction for the event.

A good way to prevent this is to host a Q&A with someone on your team and allow people to chime in with answers throughout. You can choose a specific topic that is relevant for your audience or have them submit questions.

Consider what makes the most sense for your audience and what your team feels most comfortable hosting. Here is a general outline for how this event could proceed:

  • Once everyone is on the line, make sure they have their video on and ask each person to introduce him or herself.

  • Have your host begin to ask an interviewee a list of relevant questions, then open the discussion to questions from the group.

  • Field questions by asking people to virtually raise their hands, instead of trying to talk over each other.

  • At the end of the session, depending on your defined goals and audience, provide a clear call to action.

III. Your Invite List

Before you send out invitations to everyone on your prospect list, consider whether it makes sense to have all of those people in one session. If you have multiple different types of prospects or clients, it may not make sense to host them all together. Consider whether you should segment your audience and provide separate sessions for each.

Also consider the size of your networking session. Should this be a VIP session with just a handful of participants or should it be a larger session? Unlike webinars, which can host thousands of people, it is probably best to keep your networking sessions to around 10 or fewer people.

Remember, these people are likely strangers, so keeping the group small and considering the nuances of those you’re inviting will be key to making the session a success.

IV. Pick Your Platform

Just like a webinar platform, not all video conferencing platforms are made equal. Consider what is most important for your company and what will make the most sense for your session. This is an especially sensitive issue for many organizations at the moment in an rapidly changing environment.

Some considerations:

  • Cost – Some platforms are free, while others require a monthly subscription.
  • While free may sound better, it may not make sense for your session. Research whether the platform has the ability to create a registration page, or has a support line to call if you have issues during the event, among other considerations.
  • Security and accessibility – Are your attendees protected when accessing this platform? Can all attendees access easily?

  • Control – Can you mute all attendees upon arrival to the virtual session? Can attendees “raise” their hands virtually? What other controls does the host have throughout the session?

  • Number of attendees – Is there a limit on how many people can attend?

Most platforms provide a variety of options, so do a bit of research beforehand and select what makes the most sense for your session.

V. Set Out a Solid Plan

Now that you have your platform, a solid plan and your invite list all set up, you need to make sure people actually attend. Laying out a marketing plan goes beyond just sending out emails. Consider how to frame the messaging of this event:

  • What value will attendees get from this event?

  • What key takeaways will they have from the session?

  • Who else is attending?

  • Why should they attend? (Define their FOMO!)

Also consider what else you can add to the event to make it exciting and valuable. Maybe that includes sending a mug to each attendee for your “virtual coffee chat” or a glass of pinot for your “virtual happy hour”. Maybe it includes setting up a LinkedIn group for each attendee to continue the conversation online.

Once you’ve defined the value, make sure you make that clear in each and every piece of marketing you send out – from your ads to your emails to your landing pages to your registration confirmation emails. Make your event irresistible to attend.

VI. Hosting Your Event

The two most important things are to set expectations and keep the conversation going. There’s nothing worse in a video call than having everyone talk all at once – except maybe having a prolonged awkward silence. Here are some key tips to make sure everyone feels heard:

  • Make everyone comfortable from the beginning – icebreakers work in the digital world too!

  • Write out a list of questions beforehand to ask throughout the event to ensure there are no awkward lulls.

  • Have your host control who speaks and when. Mute everyone else. Have people virtually raise their hands or ask questions in the chat.

  • Set out expectations from the onset of the event. Make sure to reiterate how people should be asking questions and when.

As always, make sure that you and your team are professional throughout the event. Although a networking session is less formal than a webinar or online event, make sure you are presenting yourselves well, including wearing professional clothing and straightening up your home office just a bit.

VII. CTA & Follow Up

After you’ve successfully executed your online networking event, make sure you have a plan moving forward. Set a clear call to action at the conclusion of your event, whether that’s asking people to sign up for your newsletter or having everyone connect on LinkedIn.

If this is an event for prospects, make sure your sales team can follow up with the prospects after the event with relevant emails. For instance, you can provide them with content that relates to the topics discussed in your networking session.

Even if the event was not for prospects, make sure to send a follow up email to all attendees thanking them for their participation, asking for feedback, and encouraging them to sign up for the next event.

Virtual Networking Doesn’t Have to Be Awkward

As we all adjust to a new normal in working from home and executing events online, people understand online stand- ins for events are never going to be perfect. However, if you can provide people a place to meet each other and discuss issues in a thoughtful and productive way, you have a chance to fill a void left behind by the cancellation of events.

Although group video chat sessions can become unruly,
they can also be productive platforms for people to connect. Having a plan, setting clear expectations and encouraging discussion will ensure your event goes smoothly. Who knows, one of your attendees may be your next best client.