Thursday, June 10, 2021

7 Tips for Networking at a Virtual Conference


A picture of my at-home workstation during
a virtual conference in a pandemic.

Virtual conferences have been a standard part of organizational life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accessibility for folks who can't travel was such a positive outcome for advocacy groups that I predict we’ll see them continue to offer virtual components to conferences even when we can gather again. So many new activists were able to participate! On the other hand, it’s been difficult to recreate networking opportunities through our computer screens.

My first virtual conference felt rather unsatisfying. Sure, I learned new information by watching speakers, but I longed for the relationship-building part of an in-person conference. I didn’t feel like I met many new people and resolved to do better with each successive conference.

Since then, I’ve learned a few ways to make the most of networking during a virtual conference. Every conference is different depending on which platforms they choose and how they choose to use them. But they usually contain some common features - like zoom meetups, pre-conference chat discussions, and Q&A opportunities - that can raise your visibility and help you get to know people. 

RESULTS uses the Whova platform to host the conference event, info,
and community discussions. This is a screen capture of the agenda window.

My main piece of advice is: get in there and participate! But how? Here are my seven tips for making the most of a virtual conference:

1. Be Positive

Humans gravitate to people who are positive and encouraging. I believe this is especially true in when virtually interacting with a group of strangers. You might possess a razor-sharp, wry wit in face-to-face encounters yet that never seems to come through well in typed comments. I’ve seen things go awry when someone takes it upon themselves to criticize someone else’s answer to a getting-to-know-you ice breaker question. I mean…what the heck? If their preference isn’t racist or hurtful, don’t “yuck their yum” (as the head of my kids’ school would say).

I have another reason for staying kids attend RESULTS conferences with me online. As a mom, I wouldn't want to write anything out on those apps that I'd be embarrassed for my kids to read! So, assume the best intentions of people, lay off the all-caps key, and remember that it’s even easier to walk away from an irritating situation on a computer than it is in real life.

2. Ask Insightful Questions

A picture of me raising my hand.

I’ve been in conferences where participants were shy to ask the first question. It made for many awkward pauses in Q&A sections. Now, I try to come up with at least one question before the session even starts. A thoughtful question can help get the ball rolling (great for everyone) and make a good impression on others (great for your networking).

To inspire ideas for questions, read session descriptions beforehand and maybe even google the speakers. Keep your question concise and on topic. Pay attention during the session to make sure you won’t ask about something that was already covered. Most of the time, virtual conferences just have folks write questions in a chat box, but if you get to turn your microphone or camera, be sure to say your name and your city before your question.

3. Be Helpful

A friendly, helpful attitude is a way to attract positive attention from attendees and organizers alike. For instance, I attended a writing conference where everyone first joined a main room while all session content was in several breakout rooms with different names. People could step out and interact in the main room anytime, but there were often clueless participants in there trying to find their way around, too. I was one of the clueless people at first! To help others costs nothing and creates a lot of goodwill.

4. Expand Your Social Media Network

Logos of Facebook, Twitter,
and LinkedIn
We can’t hand anyone a physical business card, but virtual conferences have the advantage of displaying names of participants. Some use large zoom rooms where you can see names underneath pictures. Some conferences use apps that list all the participants with profiles, so you can see if you share similar professional or social interests. Take advantage of the ability to see names by connecting with them on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. That way you can continue your conversations well after the conference is over.

5. Stay On Topic

When overzealous participants fill the conference apps with off topic links or comments, it can be super annoying. It can also push relevant posts so far down that others can’t find information they want. If the conference app lets you share articles, make sure you share links to pieces related to the focus of the conference. Some people try to connect with others by sharing different interests, but sharing too many unrelated posts and articles can have the opposite effect by irritating fellow participants.

6. Try Out New Technology

My teens love to tease me about how I don’t like to download new apps to my phone or computer. I’m turning into an old curmudgeonly lady who doesn’t like to learn how to use new-fangled things. But if you don’t commit to learning to use each conference platform to the fullest, you’re excluding yourself from networking opportunities!

CARE held a virtual 75th Anniversary event with that used “proximity voice chat” to create a cocktail party experience. (Anyone who plays Among Us is familiar with that tech) We uploaded pictures of ourselves, so we could move our avatars around the screen. If you moved closer to another group of avatars, you could converse with them. If you moved farther away, you couldn’t hear them anymore, much like an actual party. There was also a screen in the virtual room that had some content playing. I could have just parked myself by the movie screen and simply watched the recorded content since I was clumsy at using the unfamiliar platform. Instead, I made myself use it and connected with old and new friends in a way that was really engaging!

7. Make Space for Others

Yes, networking requires you to be visible and active, but take care not to dominate the conversation. For instance, if you share so many articles and links in the conference app that it pushes other people's suggestions right off of the visible list, you've essentially cut them out of the conversation even if you mean well. (I've made that mistake before) 

You can participate in a way that helps others be comfortable in sharing their thoughts. I believe the best kinds of interactions are ones where you create room for others to shine, too! Pre-conference chats are not quiz shows where you need to be first with the best answer.

By the way, this is especially important advice for white folks. Virtual conferences have not removed the habits of white privilege. I try to promote myself in a way that demonstrates an ability to be kind, humble, and sensitive to others.

What are YOUR tips for networking at virtual conferences?

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