Monday, July 6, 2009

Ultimate Networking Event

In a recent #eventprofs chat on Twitter, the discussion briefly turned to the "ultimate networking event". What would it look like? How would it work? Why would it be better than other networking events?

In the interest of full disclosure, it was exactly this line of thinking that led us to create the services that we offer. So I've tried NOT to frame this as a sales pitch, but rather as a thought process that leads to great interactions between people.

First of all, why do we network? We want to connect with new people. These might be people we want to learn from, to work for, to work with, to sell to, to partner with, or a whole host of other variations on those themes. We want to meet people who have similar interests to ours. We want to meet people that might be fun and/or productive to work/talk/play with in the future.

So how do we connect with new people?

Personal Introductions
Perhaps the most valuable way to meet new people is a personal introduction from a trusted third person. I know Andre. Andre knows Barb. Andre knows that Barb and I share common interests, so he introduces us. This is a great, new, "qualified" connection to our network. But what if we're in a room full of strangers...?

Shared Interest
We often want to meet people who share our interests. How, in a room full of strangers, can you find out who's interested in what? This challenge led us to create the "Galleries" concept in the first place. What if you could distribute content and ideas strategically around a physical space? That would allow people to congregate near the topics that were interesting to them, and that would allow them to bump into other people interested in the same topics!

Imagine the Louvre or the Met in New York. You will find a fair number of visitors to the museums who try to wander around the whole place to see every thing. You will also find people who specialize in particular artists or styles or themes. Spend some time in the Impressionist area, and you are bound to find other enthusiasts of Impressionism. And having the topic of your interest (the paintings) all around you, it becomes much easier to find people who share your interests AND to start a conversation with them -- "Don't you love the way Monet uses light and water together?"

IdeaBoards are designed to create the same networking opportunity at meetings and conferences. IdeaBoards are illustrations of the content from keynotes, panel discussions, group discussions and breakout sessions. Our illustrators create these IdeaBoards in real-time, and post them in the Gallery at the end of each session. We can organize the IdeaBoards by speaker, by theme, or by any other topic.

IdeaBoards draw people into conversations. They are a fun, colorful, insightful way to present content. The invite people who attended that session to see what they heard in a new way, and they give people who didn't attend a quick overview of the story and major themes of the session. And as these two kinds of people stand next to each other in the Gallery, they can easily start up a conversation about this topic that they both are so clearly interested in!

IdeaBoards are just one of the tools that you can use to facilitate networking. Twitter feeds, SMS surveys, and content-driven trivia questions (among many others) can help strangers in a crowd to identify others with whom to make a connection.

Working Together - The IdeaLounge
Of course the ultimate test of any networking relationship is how well you end up working with that person. So why wait? Why offer canapes during a networking event, when you can offer tools to get real work done?

We've all spent many hours at these kinds of event, a drink in one hand, an empty toothpick in the other, wishing we could take a great conversation to the next level. We search for somewhere to put our drink down. We fumble for a napkin or the back of a business card to scribble out an idea...

What if you were surrounded by an environment full of collaboration tools AND comfortable seating? Imagine being able to sketch out your ideas on a marker board. Imagine a spontaneous brainstorming session of "the best ideas from this conference". Imagine taking a problem identified by a speaker earlier in the day and convening a quick focus group to come up with solutions, or next steps, or a proposal for funding to solve the problem. In this setting, surrounded by all of these tools, you get to meet people and work together with them! You get to experience how creative they are, how open they are to ideas, how flexible and funny they are when they're engaged in real design and not just cocktail chatter.

Again, marker boards and couches are just a few of the tools that can be brought to bear on the challenge of getting people to work together and not just chit chat. Flip camera can be used to record "great ideas" that people come up with. Digital cameras can be used to capture and share the marker board models and lists. Music can be used to strategically energize or relax the group. Polls (via SMS or informal walk-arounds) can test the mood of a group or introduce discussion topics. And of course wifi access can bring real data, computation tools and a world of other resources to bear on these (initially) casual conversations.

Not that there's anything wrong with canapes, of course. But we can get SO much more out of our investments in networking events!

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too! Are there other ideas and tools that I'm missing?

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