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March 29, 2022

Help your members connect at virtual conferences

We’re coming up on two years of virtual or hybrid conferences. That’s two years where planning has included wondering whether a pandemic spike will require cancelling or moving online at the last minute. That’s a lot to juggle on top of the already complicated process of putting together your annual meeting. 

Conferences are one of the top reasons members join societies, and a successful conference is one of the reasons members renew year after year. They come to conferences to engage with the latest research, but also to network. Networking is especially important for your early career members. Can virtual networking compete with the in-person variation, or is it doomed to always be just a little bit awkward and uncomfortable? 

Here are some tips to inspire your members to make the most of virtual networking, so they continue to squeeze as much value out of the conference as possible. And, of course, so they keep renewing their membership. 

Variety is the spice of life: 

Your conference attracts a range of different people with different needs. Some thrive with video networking and informal opportunities to talk and connect with others in their community. But others might find that the digital wall leads to awkwardness: accidental interruptions, challenges in finding the moment to speak up. Those people might prefer chats, or Q&A sessions after presentations so they can integrate networking and learning.


Create a directory of attendees: 

At a virtual conference, there are fewer opportunities for serendipity: those moments when you overhear a conversation and join in because you have a similar research interest, or the casual chat at the coffee stand. So in virtual environments, you need to help members connect. A virtual directory that includes research interests, areas of focus, and even things everyone is interested in talking about (mentorship, changes to the industry, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more) will help create a reason for people to message one another. 


Incentivize networking:

We’d be willing to guess that many of your members have a competitive streak, or at the very least are interested in free stuff. If you’re worried that no one wants to network virtually, try sweetening the deal with gift cards for coffee or books, or even awarding the people who make the most connections a discount on next year’s meeting. A little push or encouragement toward virtual networking can help members get over a fear of the unknown and find connections they may otherwise have missed.


Give networking some structure: 

Many members might feel cautious about virtual networking out of fear of uncomfortable silences. Adding structure to networking can make it more productive and also ensure no one sits silently. Try themes for networking sessions, or assign a moderator who can lead the group through a few discussion topics. You could also explore virtual networking for a mentorship program, or target early career members with networking focusing on meeting the editors of your journal and asking publishing questions. Virtual networking can also last: plan sessions in the weeks and months following a conference to keep your community connected. 


Many of us have spent the last two years connecting with people mostly through screens. The prospect of engaging that way at a conference may be exhausting for people who crave in-person connection, and it may be uncomfortable for others who just find digital small talk too awkward. But at the same time, we know how important networking is for your members’ happiness and the success of your conference. 

We hope these tips get you started when thinking about how to improve engagement in a digital environment. Check out our eBook, Driving audience engagement for your conference and content,  to learn more about how to keep your conferences vital and inspiring for everyone involved.‍