Most corporate events fall into one of two categories. The first is the internal party. Retirement parties, milestone rewards, and holiday gatherings all fall into this category. The second is the conference. Representatives from thousands of companies might attend to see speakers, seminars, presentations, or other content.
A third category, one that’s more focused on the attendees and not on the speakers, is the networking event. Networking events are the backbone of a lot of modern businesses, especially small businesses, and they’re absolutely critical for a lot of small businesses looking to make a name for themselves.
What Is a Networking Event?
A professional networking event is a gathering of like-minded individuals with the express purpose of meeting each other and building connections. Think of it like a Facebook group or a LinkedIn network, in person.
Networking events rely on two things. They rely on you being able to entice, invite, and attract as many professionals in your chosen theme as possible, and they rely on the event itself being set up to facilitate networking.
In a way, it’s almost like speed dating, but for entrepreneurs and business owners. People with businesses looking to make connections attend these events, to build partnerships and collaborations, outsource or be outsourced to, and generally bolster their own businesses through linking up with others.
In order to host a networking event successfully, you need to do a lot of legwork before, during, and after the event. Let’s talk about how to do it.
Before The Event
Any event, no matter what kind of event it is, needs a strong foundation. Networking events make this even more important. When you’re hosting a networking event, everything that happens there becomes tied to your reputation. People will view your brand better if they had a good time at your networking event, even if you personally didn’t have anything to do with it. So how do you lay this foundation?
Choose a great venue. Venue choice is critically important for a networking event.
There are primarily four concerns you need to keep in mind when you’re looking at venues.
- Location. The easy option is to hold your event in a hotel conference room or a local expo center, but that’s not always going to be the most appropriate venue for your kind of networking. You want a location that attendees can easily drive or fly to, and has accommodations for an event of your size without being too large or too small.
- Size. A venue that is too large for your event makes it feel small, unattended, and gives it an air of failure even if it’s successful by any metric. Conversely, a venue that is too small makes for a crowded space where it’s difficult to chat, which is the backbone of networking.
- Layout. Keep in mind that a networking event isn’t about speakers or presenters, it’s about attendees. You want a layout that facilitates circulating and talking, not everyone staring at a stage.
- Ambiance. What is the theme of your event? What kinds of businesses are you inviting? The ambiance of the space (upscale, rustic, high tech, etc) helps facilitate conversation.
Your choice of venue is one of the most important choices you can make.
Figure out how to get attendees mingling. There are a lot of different ways you can organize an event to make sure everyone is mingling, not just a core group of insiders who already know each other. For example, you could make a checklist of attendees and have everyone try to find a list of others throughout the crowd. You could center your event around a meal, and have seatmates introduce themselves, and change between courses. We’ve even seen some events eschew chairs entirely just to make sure people keep moving and mingling.
Our top tip here is simply to give people things to do around the venue, in disparate locations. If you have entertainment stationed in different corners of the venue, people will want to move from place to place and can meet each other along the way.
Add a “wow” factor to your catering. You don’t want to just bring in fast food on fancy trays to cater to your event; you want food and drink that wow your guests. Maybe for a high tech event, you go all-in on techy preparations or molecular gastronomy. Maybe for a rustic event, you get locally sourced food and beverages. Regardless of what you actually choose, you want to go above and beyond with your catering. If nothing else, fancy food gives your attendees something to talk about to break the ice. A comment on the food and drink is a simple way to get a conversation started.
Set up an event app. Event apps are all the rage these days. Setting one up doesn’t need to be that complicated. In fact, there are existing apps you can use and customize for your own event.
Your event app should encourage attendee engagement, deliver useful documents like a list of attendees, a map, and local resources for those who traveled to get here. Vendor information and yes, even networking options can make the app even more important.
For you, an app helps you harvest information you can use to follow up with attendees later. For attendees, the app becomes a useful tool during the event, as well as a source of information for after the event.
Incentivize sticking around. One of the biggest problems a networking event faces is people leaving too soon. Therefore, you’ll want to come up with some way to encourage attendees to hang out for the duration of the event. This could be a keynote speaker scheduled for the final slot of the day. It could be a door prize or raffle where the drawing is made at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it’s enticing enough to keep people around and active at the event until the end.
The corollary to this is that your event shouldn’t be too long. Many networking events start after an already busy workday and last into the evening, and you don’t want to require everyone to keep going until 3 a.m. or anything nonsensical. People will leave regardless, so balancing the right length of the event with the number of attendees is important.
During The Event
When your event is actually running, you have an important role as the organizer and facilitator. You’re the one in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly, you’re the point of contact to solve problems as they come up, and you’re the one who has to keep everyone circulating.
Plan to be a facilitator yourself. Being an organizer of a networking event means you’re in an important role. Make it your expectation to personally meet each and every attendee. Use a checklist if you have to. While you do so, chat with each attendee, and pay attention to what they do and why they’re attending. Try to build up connections in your mind, and when you get the chance, introduce people to one another. Being a facilitator makes your event that much more effective, and it reflects positively on both your event and your brand. Remember; even if you decided to organize the event for your own benefit, once the actual event rolls around, it’s no longer just about you.
Recruit connectors to mingle. Depending on how large your event ends up being, you might not be able to do all of the above on your own. You may be called away to problem solve, or there may simply be too many attendees to meet them all. As your RSVP list grows, recruit a few trusted people to help mingle and draw connections. These people should be paying attention to anyone who seems like they haven’t been mingling or chatting all that much. Every gathering has people who aren’t confident, who spend their time on the fringes, and these are the people you want to get circulating.
Provide entertainment and distraction as necessary. Your event should be focused on your attendees, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be devoid of structure or distraction. Having entertainment or games scattered around the event helps get people circulating from place to place, and gives them something to talk about to break the ice. This could be anything from a magician or a comedian to keynote speakers, to vendors with practical demonstrations of their products throughout the event. You have a near-endless array of options, so the hard part is actually just avoiding doing too much.
After The Event
The event may be over, but there’s a lot you can keep doing, both for your own benefit and the benefit of the other attendees.
Build an event-based group for post-event networking. Sometimes you can do this through an event app, but you may need to aggregate business cards and contact information instead. Depending on the kind of event you ran, you might want to set up a Facebook Group, a LinkedIn Group, or even just a private web forum you set up on your own domain. Any one of these can become a great and active way to keep attendees engaging with one another, as well as a way to build the network for future events.
Follow up on the event with surveys and contacts. If you get nothing else out of your event, you should have a mailing list with everyone who attended it. You need the information to keep in touch with them when they RSVPed, and you can use it to keep in touch with them afterward.
One of the most important things you can do is send a follow-up the day after the event, to ask attendees how it went. Ask them for their feedback; what did they like, what didn’t work out, what their best moment was, and so on. You can take this feedback and apply it to the next event you choose to run.
Another thing you can do is maintain this mailing list as a way to keep everyone engaged, not just with your own brand, but with featured people who attended your events. This helps keep everyone engaged; after all, they could be featured next.
Determine if you’re going to make this a recurring event. A one-time networking event is almost a wasted opportunity. If your event is a success, you can choose to replicate that success, using the success of the first event as leverage to get the second one off the ground much more easily. You can cite attendance numbers, you can cite successful connections, and you can take feedback to improve it.
If the event failed, well, you can always try again. This is where the feedback becomes especially important. There may have been issues that you as the organizer didn’t see, but others had to confront from the moment they entered. Even just the atmosphere of an event can be oppressive if you’re not aware of it. Use it as a learning opportunity and try again.
The only real question you need to answer is how often it should come back. Some networking events can become monthly events with a smaller group in attendance, focused on local connections and local business. Others can become large and growing national events held once a year, expanding until they rival the likes of SXSW or CES. The only limitation is how much effort you put into expanding it.