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Networking in the Mobile Age: How to Foster B2B Connections in a Digital World

You’re inches away from each other. Do you dare look up?

You do. They’re looking back.

You make eye contact. You both hold the same burning question in your eyes.

“Do you want to network with me?”

But neither of you makes a move to speak. The eye contact has been going on too long. You need to break it. You avert your eyes as you reach into your pocket. Instantaneously your face is aglow from your handheld spotlight, as you tap away to your email. There is certainly an important six-month old sales blast in there that you simply must attend to right now.

This is today’s B2B networking.

Approaching strangers is not easy for most people. It’s naturally terrifying, as is the fear of rejection or awkwardness. In the past, social isolation or sensory deprivation would eventually drive even the shyest attendee to say hello. But now everyone has an in-pocket friend that will never reject them: their smartphone.

However, networking is a main draw for conference attendees, so with an unsuccessful networking experience, you may lose return or future new attendees.

Below are seven tools for creating environments and conversations that give your attendees their networking happily ever after.

1. Space Out

Environment plays an important role in making connections. There’s a reason people go on dates at enchanting rooftop bars or hygge-infused coffee shops instead of sterile, fluorescent-lit laboratories. Warm environments with flattering lighting make attendees feel at ease, boosting their confidence and courage to strike up a conversation.

In Action: Intuit replicated the places people naturally meet at the QuickBooks Connect conference. They transformed a generic convention center into inviting spaces such as an outdoor park, music lounge, coffee shop and pub.

2. Get a Move On

People commonly talk about the power stance and its ability to bolster confidence, even for hours after. Though the stance is particularly effective, general motion can provide similar benefits.

Find ways to incorporate movement into your attendees’ day, whether through activations, aerobic or yoga sessions, or a prompt during general session. It breaks up monotony of the day, enhances mood, nudges attendees out of their comfort zone, and gets them all on the same page.

In Action: Hampton provided a ball pit at the General Manager conference for attendees to jump in. It propelled the conference’s message of happiness while promoting an (Instagrammable) environment of camaraderie. Though an elevated application — even something as simple as prompting attendees to stand and walk a few steps during general session works — this example leveraged the benefits of physical activity to foster a sense of community.

3. Activate Bonding

Activations are powerful places to facilitate networking, because although they’re not always directly tied to making business connections, they do a beautiful job of laying groundwork for conversations amongst attendees later on. Activations can also serve as an icebreaker. If attendees collaborate on a task — assuming the teamwork goes well — they will instantly feel an affinity and familiarity towards one another.  

Two sure-fire ways to engage attendees? Competition and self. Competition almost always sparks a curiosity in humans, as they want to know how they compare to others. Activations tied to self-discovery or expression immediately engage. (Which is why people will spend hours taking online personality tests.)

In Action: Google gained great traction with their Arts & Culture app that matches faces to famous art pieces. It was an opportunity for people to discover something about themselves, compare their results with others, while connecting over the sometimes hilarious matches.

4. Blaze the Trail

Professions and personality types can dictate introverted versus extroverted behavior at events. Professionals who work predominantly in silos (e.g. developers or accountants) may be less outgoing than attendees who spend most of their day talking to strangers (e.g. healthcare providers and sales professionals).

Neither is better than the other, but require different considerations. A more introverted crowd may require a networking facilitator to alleviate some of the pressure of talking to strangers, while attendees still get the same connections and benefits. Conversely, a more extroverted audience may feel bridled by a facilitator and might respond better more free reign.

In Action: Ways to Use a Facilitator

  • Activations – More reserved attendees may not take initiative to engage with an activation, but will still enjoy it after a little prompting from a friendly staff member. If your attendee base is a tad withdrawn, consider utilizing staff to put attendees at ease and encourage interaction.
  • Cheer squad – Sometimes attendees are more comfortable talking to staff over other attendees. Leverage brand ambassadors around the event space to engage attendees.
  • Guided discussions – The intimacy of breakout sessions facilitates great networking. Many introverts loathe small talk, so the opportunity to have guided conversations around shared topics of interest is particularly appealing to this crowd.

5. If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

The smartphone is not the enemy. It is a tool. Though it often distracts and detracts from networking, with some savvy tweaks, it can also become one of the best connection facilitators. We may be terrified of approaching each other IRL, but thanks to social media, most of us are comfortable speaking candidly to anyone online. (Some maybe a little too comfortable.)

Leverage the event app to build social networks amongst your attendees. Then if attendees do decide to meet up in one of your aforementioned networking hubs, they already have a familiarity.

In Action: Intuit created an add-on for their QuickBooks Connect conference app that functioned similarly to Tinder. Attendees filled out profiles and could then swipe right or left on other attendees based on mutual interests or industries.

6. Get a Laugh

Though maybe not top of mind, the general session is key to setting the networking stage. It’s an especially vital time for humor. Laughter increases engagement. And it also makes your attendees like each other more.

Research shows when two people laugh together— strangers or friends — it boosts their sense of connection and similarities. It also lends that feeling of an “inside joke” amongst attendees.

In Action: Ways to Incorporate Humor

  • Truth – Truth is comedy’s cousin. Merely observing and stating the truth is enough to make an audience erupt in laughter.
  • Specificity – Comedy is also based in recognition. And recognition comes from using specifics.
  • Surprise – Lastly, incongruity between expectation and reality leads to humor, particularly when the surprise is benign (so maybe don’t release a flock of wild birds into the audience).

7. Create that Last Day of Camp Feeling

It’s all well and good to foster these connections onsite, but you need to also set the budding business friendships up for post-event success. Play recap videos during the last session. Call back an inside joke or occurrence from the event. Give calls to action that encourage further networking. This could include an incentivized competition of who sends a post-event note to the most newly-formed connections. Or it could be a landing page where attendees share content or takeaways from the event.

No matter the brevity of the event, it’s still a shared experience that only your attendees had. And now it’s over. Just as end of a movie determines our perception of the whole thing, the last moments of an event are the filter through which attendees will gauge the entire experience. Providing closure at the end of the event can deepen the emotions, and thus connections, attendees have around the event.

Disconnecting to connect is one of 2018’s biggest experiential trends. Want to discover more? Download the 2018 Experiential Marketing Trend Report.