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Networking can be the most subjective and variable portion of your conference’s value proposition. For some attendees, one or two meaningful interactions can more than justify the price of admission. High-value networking experiences initiate or accelerate deal-making. They expedite problem-solving and innovation. They grow referral channels and trust. They advance careers. Moving forward, your conference’s networking value proposition will make or break your ability to sustain or grow attendance. It will be the linchpin for conferences that are priced at a premium.
But there’s a hitch. If your conference demographics are like most, about half of your attendees are introverts. They instinctively gravitate to people they know well (strong ties), which limits their opportunity to gain new insights, perspectives, and ideas from weak ties (people they don’t know well or at all) who live and work in worlds outside of theirs. The easier you can make it for them to step out of their immediate sphere of influence — and comfort zone — the more they will perceive your conference as valuable.
Here are three ways to help your attendees make weak ties strong at your conference.
As a conference organizer, you need to develop a deep understanding of what keeps your practitioner attendees up at night. What are the biggest challenges they are facing? Where are they spending their time and money? Surveys and data collected during registration can help, but the best way is to have discovery conversations, one on one, where you can develop deeper insight. Get to the bottom of these priorities and ensure that your conference education program and community engagement collaboratively address them all. Don’t worry about consultant, student, or supplier segment challenges. Trust me on this.
Work with speakers to design learning experiences that strengthen weak ties and collaboration. Kick off each session with an easy networking exercise that breaks the ice and encourages attendees to meet someone new. Introverts prefer networking experiences where they can individually reflect before sharing. Networking value is best achieved in pairs or triads. Use creative room sets (small tables, comfortable seating in intimate groupings) and high- and low-tech ways to encourage peer interaction and inspiration for teams.
Take a page from the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI). They’re smart people, right? At one of NLI’s recent conferences, each meal function included a structured networking activity. NLI’s leadership intentionally removed formal programs and encouraged attendees to sit with people they didn’t know. They primed the pump by offering potential discussion topics or questions to discuss between bites and courses.