The global pandemic has driven a surge in virtual events. Most organizations either quickly embraced online events or were forced to do so eventually. Many have come to appreciate the benefits. Online events are more accessible, pushing up attendance. They reduce the need to travel and help cut carbon emissions. They can also significantly reduce event costs for organizers and participants.
But virtual events also come with drawbacks. One of the most significant is the loss of networking opportunities. A recent survey conducted by the journal Nature confirms the sentiment. The survey found 69 percent of respondents viewed the lack of in-person networking as the major drawback.1
Is there a way to improve the networking opportunities of line events? This year, at the MIT Platform Strategy Summit, we tested an approach that fosters direct conversations between conference participants, regardless of where they are located. With the help of Twine, a cloud-based software startup, attendee's LinkedIn profiles were used to find relevant matches. Once a match was made, participants were ported to 3-minute one-on-one virtual meetings. For example, a platform professional working for a retail marketplace in the US might be matched with a marketplace marketing professional in Latin America.
During the course of the Summit, attendees had an opportunity to join three networking sessions, either before the Summit, halfway through the Summit session, or just after the Summit ended. Within the time permitted, they could also choose how many times they were matched.
The data are now in and allow us to evaluate the results. First, while not all conference participants joined in a networking session, many did. The three networking sessions generated 312 unique matches or 156 conversations. These connections resulted in 734 minutes of discussion. So, by using Twine, the Summit facilitated over 12 hours of engagement between participants that would otherwise not have happened. Moreover, the attendees who participated engaged in not just one session but in an average of four conversations.
With geolocation data we can map these conversations. The first three maps below show the pre, mid and post networking sessions. The map heading this article combines all three into one visualization. The lines represent the conversations. The nodes are the cities from which the participants joined the discussion.
As the composition of the participants changed from session to session, the conversation lines also change. For example, you can see that Singapore is an active node in the pre-Summit session (morning on the East Coast of the US) but not in the mid or post-Summit sessions. Given time zone differences, the latter sessions where very late at night in Singapore.
The networking facilitated a wide diversity of connections. Participants were not just connected between locations like Boston and London and Boston and Paris—which did happen. There were also conversations between a participant in Bengaluru, India, with a participant in Cape Town, South Africa. There was a match between participant in Mississauga in Ontario Canada with a participant in Yokohama, Japan. As these maps illustrate, there were connections made around the world.
The net promoter scores (NPS) for each of the sessions were very strong. NPS is a common metric rate customer experience based on the likelihood they would recommend a company, product, or service to a friend or colleague. The scores were as follows:
Pre-Summit Networking - 67
Mid-Summit Networking - 33
Post-Summit Networking - 43
I participated in four sessions and found them all to be very rewarding. In two cases I was matched with platform professionals I had not spoken to in a long time so it was great to catch up. The two other sessions were with new professionals I had not met before. This was also very rewarding.
A key lesson from the MIT Platform Strategy Summit is that there are ways to create rapid, engaging and global networking opportunities for conference participants. The three pre, mid and post matching technology created opportunities for conversations that would not otherwise taken place. The strong NPS scores indicate a high level of satisfaction with the experience.
Few see us returning rapidly or exclusively to a world of in-person events. It is much more likely that we moving to a hybrid approach.2 We will return to attending selected events in person but many others we will attend virtually. Our calendars in the future will fill up with both. Technology that facilitates rapid networking before, during, and after a conference is certainly something worth considering, since it supports the creation of same-side network effects. I would not be surprised if linked conversations become a standard feature of virtual events.
Ariana Remmel., “Scientists want virtual meetings to stay after the COVID pandemic,” Nature, March 2, 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00513-1