Many networking events are the same. Table of cheese and crackers, some beer and wine, high-top tables, name tags, awkward conversations. As an attendee, it's incredibly unappealing. You arrive, a little bit late if you're like me, and walk into a wall of strangers. I love strangers. Meeting new people is one of my favorite things and sometimes I go into networking events with a sense of possibility. But, with no clear way to connect with them, I often become frustrated.
People often come to networking events in pairs or groups, usually to avoid the whole standing by yourself thing. These people stay together, impenetrable to outsiders. Those of us, there by ourselves, seek out people we might know, or bravely approach strangers only to have an unsatisfyingly surface-level conversation—with some exceptions, which are rare—and then move on to the next evaporative exchange.
Is this really what networking is intended to be or has it evolved into this strange routine?
I can confidently say that only about 30 percent of the "networking" events I've been to have been valuable. You could suggest that I'm doing it wrong. And, you might be right. But, I would argue that the thousands of articles that have been published on the topic of "how to navigate a networking event", might suggest that the concept is broken.
Last year, I attempted to reimagine the networking event. I wanted to make it less intimidating and more rewarding. In my opinion, many organizers are lazy. It doesn't take much work to create a more interesting, guided experience for guests. Stealing lessons from the dating world—because dating isn't that different than trying to make new friends—I put together an event inspired by Speed Dating.
With the objective of helping people to truly meet and connect with one another before Hubspot's Inbound conference, I worked with a client of mine to put on a Speed Chat event. Conferences are so much better if you make some friends. And, at a conference the size of Inbound, with around 15K people, it's easy to feel lost.
The concept was simple. Guests were given a number and assigned to a specific table for a series of rounds. Each round, a pair of people arrived at a table, a question was posed, and the pair had six minutes to learn about one another and discuss a marketing topic. It was awesome!
There was a ton of energy, everyone was exchanging business cards, making new contacts, and sharing marketing perspectives. But, the best part was that it wasn't forced or awkward. It eliminated much of the pressure that usually exists at "networking" events. What was even better, was after the organized event, the group went on a tour of the brewery. Everyone was so chatty with their new friends that the guide had to ask us to quiet down.
I met a dozen new people and four of them I've kept in touch with. It goes to show that a little bit of structure and guidance can make a huge difference. I challenge event organizers, let's all make our networking events better.