April 27, 2020
Associations are figuring out how to convert keynotes and sessions from a canceled in-person conference to a virtual experience. But there’s a question that comes up frequently: what about attendee networking? Attendees travel across the country not only to listen to presentations but to see their friends and meet new people. How do you replicate that experience?
It’s hard to imagine creating the conditions for the planned and serendipitous conversations that happen at an in-person conference, but as we recently experienced at The Echo Virtual Summit, it is definitely possible.
You can’t assume attendees will know what to do when they arrive for your virtual conference. Develop a plan for educating them on using the features of your event app and virtual venue for conversations and networking. A pre-event orientation meetup is the best approach as well as an orientation session upon arrival at the event for those who don’t attend the pre-event meetup.
But first, create a conversation cheat sheet so they have something to refer to before and during the event. Email it to registrants and keep it posted on your event website and in the event app.
Remind registrants to download your event app. Encourage them to complete their profile. Show them how features like private messaging and public discussion forums can come in handy for different scenarios—and give them examples that can serve as behavioral prompts.
Create a video orientation tutorial about your app and virtual venue. Keep it light and fun to watch as you demonstrate behavior, such as creating an avatar and using different screen controls.
Encourage attendees to attend a pre-event virtual meetup where they can meet fellow attendees and learn about networking options. With a mix of social and orientation activities, these meetups will introduce attendees to others, get them comfortable with the virtual environment, increase their excitement about the event, and help spread event marketing buzz.
Orientation sessions are also a virtual volunteering opportunity. Train a group of volunteer guides ahead of time and let them practice using all the features of your app and virtual venue. As a thanks, you could reward them with a promo credit for a future event. Ask volunteers to choose a specific color for their avatars’ shirts so they can be easily spotted at the event, or give them a special badge—like a virtual name badge ribbon.
The goal of these orientation meetups and sessions is to show attendees how easy it is to virtually experience the different types of conversations and meetups that normally take place at an in-person event. Plan small group or team activities that give them practice in communicating and meeting with each other as well as moving around the virtual venue.
One way to do this during the pre-event meetup is by using our Event Farm engagement app to randomly split up everyone who checks in into teams of four. Then, send attendees a text telling them to go find their team members, grab a volunteer, and kick off an orientation activity.
On the day of the event, provide orientation sessions near the welcome area, but also display communication and navigation tips on screens in the welcome area and elsewhere around campus for attendees who are “too cool” to attend an official orientation session.
You could also assign event buddies to any new member or attendee who requests help—another virtual volunteering opportunity. These pairs can meet ahead of time on campus for an individual orientation session or on the day of the event.
Think about the types of meetups that attendees arrange at an in-person conference. For example, they make plans to meet a friend, acquaintance, or client outside room B-201 or by the exhibit hall doors. During your pre-event virtual meetups, show attendees how to:
Take attendees around the virtual campus on a “volunteer hunt” by having them search for the volunteer’s name and go to their location. At each location, a volunteer shows the group how to use an event app or virtual venue feature. During this tour, volunteers can also preview special programs or attractions too.
Show attendees how to find an empty meeting room during your event—if you are making those rooms available—and how to lock the door. You may wish to provide a few meeting rooms on a first-come-first-serve basis and reserve the rest for sponsors and other planned meetups.
Some of the best conference experiences are unexpected, like those conversations and relationships that begin while waiting in a buffet line or sitting around a table waiting for a session to start. Let attendees experience some of these possibilities during your pre-event virtual meetups. They’ll see how easy it is to introduce themselves to a person sitting near them in an auditorium or outside at a table.
For example, tell one group to go meet a volunteer at a table within sight. Once they get there, explain how the blue outlines on the floor work for blocking out ambient noise and allowing private conversations within the circle. Demonstrate the venue’s private and public chat functions.
Show them how, during the event, they might overhear a conversation when standing or walking by a group of people. Let them see how, when they arrive at a location, they might see a name they recognize from this meetup and can walk up to them and start a conversation. The best thing ever about a virtual conference is you don’t have to worry about forgetting someone’s name because it’s always displayed above their avatar’s head—not flipped around on their name badge dangling below their chest.
Demonstrate how session “table” discussions will work at your virtual conference. For example, at virtual events using The Echo, different rooms offer the option of creating private conversation areas around rows of seating or tables.
Tell attendees about the other networking opportunities you’re arranging during the event, for example:
End the meetup with everyone getting back together for a discussion—you could send an announcement through the app or the virtual venue. Ask everyone to meet in an area that’s good for both group and private conversations or an area of campus they haven’t seen yet. The beach and soccer field are popular picks at virtual events hosted on The Echo.
We’ve learned that many people find virtual interactions easier than in-person ones—we’ve even seen that when using The Echo for our staff meetings. People who don’t normally speak up in person are speaking up more on the virtual campus.
Avatars provide an advantage. People are less self-conscious. You never have to worry about having a bad hair day! Just like in real life, some people might take a little longer to warm up, but once they break the ice, most people feel extremely comfortable in the virtual setting.
We’ve heard from people who’ve attended our events and demos that after spending a few hours on campus, they look forward to returning. Sometimes they even think about changing into a different outfit or adjusting their hair.
Here are some of the comments we’ve heard about the advantages of networking in our virtual venue:
In our next post, we’ll describe multiple options for creating connections between suppliers and buyers so you can deliver value to your exhibitors and sponsors too.
If we’ve piqued your curiosity about The Echo, our virtual event solution, and want to see it “in person,” click here to request a tour.