Networking in events: Smalltalk in the queue, or DM´s on Linkedin?

The pool-scene in the movie Traffic shows why we still need to meet in person
The pool-scene from the movie “Traffic”

Last summer I wrote about the return of in-person events, and how everybody just wanted to meet in person after the restrictions of the pandemic were gone. Now we have managed to catch up and things are normalised, but, according to industry reports, the physical events still have a large market-share. The virtual events, who made a breakthrough during the covid-19 pandemic, haven’t managed to retain their position.

But perhaps the virtual events can get a resurrection? And this time, it won’t be because it’s the only legal option: In his latest book, the Canadian author Elias Puurunen argues that virtual events can give a better return of investment (ROI) than the physical alternative. In short, it’s a more focused, environmental-friendly and flexible way of connecting people all over the world.

However, the advocates of in-person events have one argument that they think trumps everything else: the power of physical networking. Meeting in a virtual chatroom does not give the same human interaction as meeting someone for real. And, for some people, extending the network is the main reason to attend the event. If it’s just for learning something, they might as well just sit at home and read the book.

In this article, we will look at the benefits of networking in both physical and virtual events, and ask ourselves how things will evolve in the future. First, lets look some examples of what makes networking in physical events so powerful: You get a setting and surroundings where smalltalk and mingling is the natural thing to do.

In-person events are gatherings that take place in a specific geographical location. They encompass a wide range of activities, from small-scale meetings to large-scale conferences, trade shows, festivals, and seminars. The key aspect of these events is that participants gather in one location, physically sharing the same space.

In-person events require various logistical considerations, including securing a venue, arranging food and beverage services, scheduling speakers or performers, managing guest registration, setting up audiovisual equipment, and implementing safety and security measures.

The primary characteristic of in-person events is face-to-face interaction. Attendees have the opportunity to communicate directly, facilitating a depth of conversation and engagement that can be beneficial for networking and relationship-building. These events also provide a tangible environment that encompasses all sensory experiences – visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory.

Unlike physical events, virtual events are conducted online, eliminating the need for a specific geographical location. Formats for virtual events can vary, with examples such as webinars, virtual conferences, online workshops, and virtual trade shows.

Virtual events can facilitate participant interaction and knowledge sharing, much like their physical counterparts. This is achieved through features such as breakout rooms, chats, and interactive sessions, as well as live or pre-recorded presentations.

Despite the absence of a physical location, planning a virtual event still entails several logistical factors. These include ensuring a stable and user-friendly technological platform, keeping attendees engaged in a virtual format, and handling online security and privacy.

A key advantage of virtual events is their potential to reach a broader audience, as they are not limited by geographical constraints. They also often require fewer physical resources, thereby making them a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to physical events.

Mingling in physical events: The value of the coffee-queue

I have a friend who has organised in one of the most influential business-events in Norway, where prominent speakers talk in front of an audience of CEO´s, politicians, and lobbyists. After each event, the participants give feedback on what they like. One year, the overall feedback was great, except one thing:

The queue for lunch was not long enough.

Yes, you heard that right: They had made the event run too efficiently, so there was no room for accidental mingling, no excuses to stand next to strangers and start talking about the weather. 
For the next event, they made sure that queue was longer, and, more importantly, the organizers facilitated ways for people to mingle naturally. 
It´s safe to assume that this particular event won’t be 100% online anytime soon. 

Another example of how important it is to keep the physical interactions, comes from the Norwegian Erik Solheim who worked as a diplomat for United Nations Environmental Programme. He was heavily criticised for flying too much, and thereby spending government-money and hurting the environment. His response was: “If I wish to influence politicians or business-leaders, then I have to travel» The worlds decision-makers can best be reached by meeting them in the office. There are some messages that gets lost in translation on Zoom. 

But are in-person meetings overrated?

Elias Puurunen, author of the book about virtual events, knows about the arguments for keeping events in-person. But in his eyes, the value of physical presence can be overrated: Just because you are sitting in the same room as someone, doesn’t mean that you will end up talking to them and do networking. Most of the time you don’t know who people are anyway, and who you should talk to. What you miss is a reason and opportunity to connect to new people.

In virtual events, you can connect with other participants either on the event-platform, or through social media like Linkedin or Twitter. Then it´s much easier to find the people you are interested in, and you can approach people in a more direct way. No need for the typical small-talk about the weather when you DM them on Linkedin. Meeting people digitally can be more effective than approaching them in real life.

I think Elias has a valid point, but one thing that I would like to add, is that this is also a generational thing: Kids who grow up today don’t know how to approach someone in the coffee-queue. We are so used to Instagram and Snapchat that if you go and talk to a stranger, they will think you are a freak. And think about how the dating-apps have changed the way we find partners: You only want to talk someone physically after you have evaluated them digitally on Tinder. This will surely have some consequences for how to facilitate and encourage networking in events. 

The future of networking in events: My take

I agree with Elias that conference-room networking can be overrated, and that putting some people in the same room, doesn’t guarantee that they will become great friends. At the same time, I am not sure if making the events virtual will help in making the attendees connect better. Elia´s book, in my opinion, doesn’t provide any bulletproof method to ensure that strangers connect in the digital realm. And, to be fair, I think nobody can make that: Human interaction is a complex thing, and it’s not a simple formula to make it work.

For now, in-person events is the most track-proven way to make the attendees interact with each other. People who are used to this way of networking, will want to keep doing it the same way as before. 

Until they go off with pension. And the new generation takes over. With people who grew up making friends on Roblox and don’t know how to approach someone in the coffee-queue. By that time, most event-networking will happen digitally. 

I have connected to the author Elias Puurunen on Twitter, and I was
fortunate enough to read the book, and give some feedback, before it was released. Here is my editorial review which is quoted in the book:

“This is a valuable resource for anyone involved in events. As an A/V technician who works on events in Norway, I find it to be an essential guide to organizing successful online events. It covers everything from planning, marketing, execution, and post-event activities. While certain aspects, such as sponsorship, may be beyond my usual responsibilities, it is still beneficial to understand how they contribute to creating a memorable and successful online event.

As event professionals, locating reliable information on how to perform our job can be a challenge, and the information is often scattered across the internet. Thankfully, this book serves as a reference guide that we can use to begin working on online events.”