Digital Marketing Event Marketing

Virtual Networking is Mostly a Bust

Part I of A HITMC Series on the Lessons Learned from Virtual Events

From a marketing perspective, 2020 has been the year of virtual events. Without a standard playbook, event organizers tried different formats and approaches. I thought it would be interesting to talk to several conference organizers to hear first-hand what worked and what didn’t.

Originally, I planned to write a single article, but the information that was shared with me was so rich and valuable, I decided to write a series of articles instead.

I interviewed 8 conference organizers, including:

  • Emma Smith, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Kyruus
  • Carol McNerney, Chief Marketing Officer at Ibi
  • Megan Finnell, Director of Meetings & Conferences at MGMA
  • George Huang MD, Director of Customer Experience & Success at Remo

In this first article, we will be exploring the challenge of attendee networking during a virtual event.

Virtual Networking Formats

One of the best things about attending a conference is the chance to see old friends and meet interesting new people. There are often formal networking events (like evening socials with appetizers and drinks) and informal gathering (like the lines to get coffee and lunch).

When conferences moved online, organizers tried to replicate attendee networking in different ways:

  • App Connections – letting attendees view each other’s profiles through a conference app and request a meeting with those they find interesting
  • Shared Experience – asking attendees to open a box shipped to them ahead of time and having a shared experience with what’s inside: food, drinks, arts & crafts, nostalgic items, etc.
  • Small Group Meetings – dividing people into small groups of 5-10, sometimes with a facilitator, and have the group share information or discuss a specific topic
  • Speed Dating – randomly pairing attendees for 5- or 10-minute chats then switching to new pairings right after

I personally experienced each of these and speed dating is my least favorite. On the rare occasions I met someone interesting, the time we had together was far too short. Worse, most of the systems used for this type of networking do not track the history of who you met with, so there is no way to go back and look up the people you want to follow up with. I learned too late the first few times that you should immediately write down the name and organization of the person you are matched with.

In contrast, I enjoyed the networking sessions that were held in a “virtual world”. A few of the conferences used a platform, like Remo, where attendees could move around virtual tables and join conversations with others. Prior to joining a table, you could see who was already there…just like in real-life. I met a number of amazing and interesting people through this networking format.

Facilitated Group Discussions Work Well

George Huang MD, Director of Customer Experience & Success at Remo agrees that small group meetings and discussions work best for virtual events.

“Instead of having a completely separate networking session, bake attendee interaction into keynotes and presentations,” suggested Huang. “When you get people talking about the material being presented, they not only engage more, they retain more too.”

Remo, Zoom and other conference/meeting platforms have the ability to break attendees into smaller groups for discussions. Huang strongly recommends having designated facilitators for each of the groups rather than leaving it up to attendees to self-organize. The goal is to maximize discussion and have a pre-assigned facilitator avoids a lot of awkwardness of electing a group leader, leaving more time for discussion.

Across the thousands of events that have been run on the Remo platform, Huang says those that incorporate this form of networking tend to score higher on feedback surveys.

For those that have attended our Virtual HITMC20 Events, you’ll know that our un-conference sessions are extremely popular. These sessions are essentially facilitated discussions on topics chosen by the people in the session. Not only are unconferences educational, but they are also fantastic ways to get to know fellow attendees.

“Our Spark Sessions were extremely well received at our virtual annual event – MPEC20,” stated Megan Finnell, Director of Meetings & Conferences at MGMA. “These peer-to-peer sessions allow attendees to share and discuss the tough challenges they are facing in their practices.” By sharing attendees quickly discover that they are not alone as there are always others in the Spark Session who are going through the same thing or have gone through it in the past.

Seeing a pattern here?

After-event Networking is Extremely Challenging

“Attendees really want to get away from their screens after a long day of being online,” said Emma Smith, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Kyruus. “They want to get back to their families, or depending on the time of day, back to work they put off for your virtual event.”

Unlike an in-person conference, virtual events do not have a captive audience. Attendees are at home or in their offices and it is difficult for them to carve out time in their evenings or during their day specifically for “networking”.

One organizer shared with me that they saw a 95% drop-off during the networking session that they planned at the end of their virtual event: “I guess people just wanted to get back to their work or go play with their dog. If I’m being honest, I probably would have done the same after 3hrs of sessions.”

This was one of the reasons that Carol McNerney, Chief Marketing Officer at Ibi and her team decided not to hold any special networking sessions during breaks. They opted instead to give attendees open time. To encourage engagement, McNerney gamified using their event app (powered by Socio).

“Attendees earned points in the app for going to virtual booths, answering trivia which you could only do if you attended the sessions,” shared McNerney. “Points could be redeemed for swag, special gifts and other prizes.”

For the 2020 HITMC and events, we experimented with a Virtual Reality platform from Spatial Web for after-event networking. Through the platform attendees could walk around a flat map to speak with each other. No goggles were needed and the technology was such that the further you moved your avatar from someone the less you heard their conversation.

It was novel to having a networking event in a virtual environment like that. We got a lot of comments from people who were pleasantly surprised at the experience. The people who joined in had a great time. However, the number of participants at our virtual reality “after parties” was below expectation.

We will definitely be taking that as a lesson learned for future virtual events that we host.

In Part II we will explore whether it is better to have live or pre-recorded sessions at a virtual event.

About the author


Colin Hung

Colin Hung is an award-winning Marketing Executive with more than 15yrs of healthcare and HealthIT experience. He co-founded one of the most popular healthcare chats on Twitter, #hcldr and he has been recognized as one of the “Top 50 Healthcare IT Influencers”. Colin’s work has been published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, American Society for Healthcare Risk Managers, and Infection Control Today. He writes regularly for Healthcare Scene and here at Colin is a member of #pinksock #TheWalkingGallery and is proudly HITMC. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

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