The coronavirus didn’t destroy business lunches and spirited conversations. It just forced them online. Welcome to the days of virtual networking.
The good news: Virtual networking works.
Sales professionals can still wine and dine, host unique events and build business relationships when people aren’t getting together.
How to host a virtual event
First, let’s cover best practices on hosting virtual networking events.
Whether it’s a meal, an educational experience or social event, follow these best practices from networking experts and authors Dorie Clark and Alisa Cohn.
1. Get the count and character right
Virtual networking events can get trickier than in-person events if you don’t get the invite list and number of attendees right.
At in-person events, people can easily break off into smaller, side conversations, meet up with or avoid other attendees at their choosing. So who you invite – and how many – doesn’t matter as much.
For virtual events, limit the number of invitees to eight or fewer so everyone has time and virtual space to interact without talking over others. You can invite a mix of people – current customers, lost customers, hot prospects, industry or company experts. But you’ll want to keep a balance of people who don’t know each other so no one – especially a new prospect – feels like a guest at a reunion of pals who have backgrounds and experiences in common.
2. Time networking right
Schedule virtual events for 60 to 90 minutes. For a business meeting, that may seem like a long time, but you’ll need the time to create a comfortable situation where meaningful conversations can happen without being rushed.
You don’t need a tight, binding agenda either. While you want to accomplish something, you need to allow time for people to share personal anecdotes, ask questions or bond (as they likely would in-person).
Clark and Cohen have held many networking events from 6-7:30 p.m. ET, when they could include people from around the world – some having a cocktail while others are having coffee.
3. Nail down the logistics ahead of time
Get logistics panned out as easily as possible for everyone before you meet. People may be meeting virtually more than ever, but not everyone is accustomed to the different types of technology and the ins and outs of each.
Any video service – Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Skype – can work as long as you make it easy for them to access it, especially if they don’t regularly use the service.
Send calendar invitations with a link to the video app you’ll use. Let them know they may need to download the software before the event and even take a test run it in the device they plan to use (laptop, mobile phone, tablet). Share the access codes and passwords with the invitation and in another message shortly before your event starts.
4. Introduce participants in the virtual event
Whether the people you’ve invited to your event know each other or not, send a message to all of them a few days out to get then acquainted or reacquainted. Include:
- Names and one-sentence description of each person
- LinkedIn profile and/or other social media handles
- A unique or fun fact (that the person gives you permission to share), and
- A reminder of the start time and loose agenda.
Example: “I look forward to seeing all of you at our virtual happy hour, which will start at 6 p.m. and run about 60 minutes with a mix of introductions and structured conversation. Check below for details on all the participants. Bring your own beverage!”
5. Greet at the door
Just like you’d receive guests at the door of any networking event, do it for your virtual event. Open the session about five minutes before the start time so you’re ready for the early-comers and poised to say welcome and give each person some guidance on what to expect when they arrive.
About five minutes after the session starts, open up with something appropriate and lighthearted and ask if anyone needs to leave early.
Take two minutes to introduce yourself with a mix of professional and personal details, setting the tone and time for the rest of the introductions. Invite an attendee to go next to get the ball rolling.
6. Build the virtual conversation
After introductions, ask each participant a specific question to get everyone more comfortable with this kind of networking – and prevent any one person from dominating the meeting or turning it into a gripe session about current events.
Clark and Cohn suggest questions like these:
- How are you using your time differently and fruitfully now?
- How have you adapted to working and living while social distancing?
- What do you enjoy most about your job right now, and why?
- What’s something unexpected positive that’s come out of the changes in the last few months?
- Can you share a story of resiliency you’ve witnessed?
Encourage the back and forth banter you’d have at a regular cocktail party, but be ready to steer the conversation back to the main question if it gets too far off track or everyone hasn’t had a chance to share.
7. Wrap it up
People tend to get Zoom fatigued after 90 minutes, so wrap up your virtual networking by then.
Briefly give them information you want to share – news on a product launch, a value-added benefit you’re starting, a shifting business strategy or just well wishes and hope for continued business relationships. Offer to help them connect with others on the call.
Then follow up with a brief email, thanking everyone for attending and links to more on the information that was shared or a resource that was mentioned during the call.
Plan unique virtual events
Here are five you might try:
Set informal guidelines
At AVIO, sales leaders created some guidelines for salespeople on virtual wining and dining out – and they came as a natural result of hunger!
VP Mike Slack shared his experience on Inc.: He and a former colleague were on a lunchtime Zoom call when they both admitted a hankering for pizza. They ordered it for delivery at the same time, then had lunch “together” while they continued the meeting.
Two guidelines that came out of that: Order the same kind of food or cuisine, ideally from the same restaurant, even if it’s different locations. Also, dress as you would if you were dining out together – casual or formal – that’s appropriate for the establishment you’d be visiting.
Send a care package ahead of time
Some salespeople have equipped prospects and customers for a coffee break or happy hour before they meet.
One IT pro mailed bottles of wine and glasses etched with the company’s name to a client’s home in anticipation of a happy hour meeting. For another morning meeting, she mailed a package of fresh coffee and mugs to a client.
Make it a surprise
A couple of hours before a meeting, a marketing services salesperson had told clients and prospects to expect a delivery just before the meeting.
Depending on the circumstances, she sends wine and assorted cheeses from a local gourmet shop. Or she might send coffee and pastries from a different local shop.
Give out-of-home experiences at home
Even smaller companies have jumped on this idea by piggybacking on the experiences their larger partners are able to offer.
For instance, an IT consultant was able to offer online cooking classes with celebrity chefs through one of its larger partners that was already doing it. A small marketing firm jumped in with an IT giant on virtual wine and cheese tastings. In both cases, packages of food and beverages arrived at clients’ and prospects’ homes ahead of the events.
Get clients close to celebrities, authorities, legends
Some organizations have brought celebrities (even local celebs), authorities and legends to buyers through intimate Zoom chats. In some cases, it’s big-name speakers who were scheduled for their in-person events that were canceled.
Bonus: Many buyers were excited to invite their families – who are around anyway – to join in on the VIP treatment.