It was a scene Daphne Meyers, CMM, repeated a number of times during her career as a program manager with Microsoft. She regularly coordinated events for groups of roughly 600 to 700 attendees, which were great successes on the programming and content levels and garnered not one complaint from the attendees. Save one: Meyers repeatedly heard from attendees that networking opportunities were limited. They told her, "We need more ways to talk to one another." Attendee demand led Meyers to seek out a networking solution that would offer the options attendees sought; her search stopped with Rio, one of the products from a new crop of technological solutions for meetings.
Following on the heels of successful Web-based dating services, companies have been developing and fine-tuning similar matchmaking solutions for serious business purposes. Since meeting attendees are often online to register for a meeting and learn more about conference programming, what better place to grab a moment or two of their time to facilitate successful networking at the event? The outgrowth of this realization is a variety of solutions that are designed to handle networking for your event as well as encourage increased attendance at subsequent meetings.
After much experience planning meetings and events, Columbia Resource Group (CRG) began creating Web solutions to tackle problems clients were encountering—including ineffective networking. The firm's Rio solution "developed as a result of client interest in this type of service," says Carrie Hanley, vice president of sales for the Seattle, WA-based company.
As wonderful as a meeting program may be, often it is the personal connections that make an event both memorable and valuable for attendees—and encourage them to come back again. "People really want to network," says Hanley. But, while serendipitous networking may be possible with fewer than 300 attendees, CRG's experience showed that "when you have anywhere from 500 to 10,000 attendees, that's really hard to do."
Rio typically goes live to the Web six to eight weeks prior to an event, but only after the registration site goes live so attendees are simultaneously introduced to Rio once a critical mass has registered. At that time, those who have chosen to participate via the opt-in registration begin visiting Rio and establishing a profile to set up meetings with other attendees. The profile generally includes no more than six questions, most of which are check boxes or drop-down menus, and all of which are tailored to each event. Attendees are then free to search for like-minded fellow attendees with whom they are interested in meeting.
Once registrants find other attendees they would like to meet, they send an e-mail request; no contact information is divulged, as Rio handles all correspondence unless attendees choose to share more. An attendee who receives a request can confirm, decline, or suggest an alternate time.
Rio has a unique on-site element: a separate Rio meeting room. When attendees set up a meeting they receive a table in the Rio room, to decrease time wasted searching for an unknown face in the crowd. "One of the benefits I found with Rio was when people contacted me for a meeting space I could say, 'Just go do it in Rio.' People don't have to tromp off and find a room on their own," explains Meyers, who ultimately used the Rio solution for a number of meetings.
Rio also enables a conference planner to block out sections of time when attendees may not schedule meetings—during a keynote speech for example, when planners would prefer to drive traffic to scheduled presentations.
Rio packages include customer support and four marketing e-mails, and cost roughly $10,000 for a 400-person event. "It was a big decision because it's a big investment," Meyers concedes, but "boy, for the return on it, it really becomes worthwhile. In some ways it was driving attendance for us."
Matchmaker, Matchmaker . . .
Tom Jaffee began Boston-based Match Events, Inc. in 2001; although the company initially focused on the wildly successful eight-minute dating idea, "From the get-go we set out to build additional formats." The company developed a service called NetworkingMatch, which, although based on the general idea of eight-minute dating, was "built from the ground up to leverage how business relationships work."
More and more, Jaffee noticed meetings serving as networking events, especially as the Internet increasingly fulfilled the actual content needs of many attendees. "The part of the meeting that requires you to be there is the networking," he says. So NetworkingMatch is based on a straightforward process: Create a profile; indicate who you are interested in meeting; attend the event; follow up and strengthen connections.
"Networking was one of the most important elements to our attendees," says Tami Sherman, president of Wilson Sherman Consulting Meetings and Events in Santa Barbara, CA. "We saw [NetworkingMatch] as a good opportunity to provide a unique networking channel to attendees."
As attendees sign up, they create a profile with as much business and personal information as they are comfortable providing. A list of fellow attendees is provided, from which users can decide whom they are interested in meeting, though the final list of "best contacts" is determined by the proprietary NetworkingMatch algorithm. During the event, a special NetworkingMatch session is set up by Match Events and the meeting organizer; sessions generally last one to three hours.
Then the speed networking commences. Attendees spend some period of time (eight minutes is recommended) with each person on their list of matches and then determine the value of staying in touch. The downside, according to Sherman, is that there are always a few high-profile attendees with whom everyone would like to meet, yet "these people may only have seven slots on their dance cards." After the event, attendees go back online to indicate with whom they are interested in following up.
Pricing depends on the type of meeting, but generally ranges from $5,000 to $25,000, including an on-site facilitator.
Leveraging Your Assets
Mike Walsh began San Francisco, CA's Leverage Software to "connect businesspeople to businesspeople." Leverage's EventConnect solution has a model similar to Match.com in that people spend one to two minutes describing themselves and whom they would like to meet.
Throughout the process, attendees remain anonymous and EventConnect serves as the middleman, negotiating meeting dates and times, until both parties agree to divulge contact information.
When others register who are a match, attendees can be notified via PDA, e-mail, or other methods; the solution also provides a map of the attendee and his or her matches to visually represent how close a fit others may be. Exhibitors are treated separately or as attendees, based on what preference.
Leverage will look at marketing materials and build a first draft for the planner to modify—often within a matter of hours. Guy Alvarez, founder of the Business Development Institute (BDI) in New York City, has now used EventConnect for roughly 12 events and is attracted to its customization and pricing flexibility.
Most of Leverage's clients hold events ranging from 200 to 5,000 attendees, says Walsh. Pricing is based per event, usually running about $10,000, or for the full event solution, which varies.
ExpoExchange's SmartEvent is based on technology from BDMetrics—"they are the 'smart' half and we are the 'event' half," quips ExpoExchange's national sales manager Steve Werntz. "The idea is that two people are related in ways they don't know" and that attendees come to a show or meeting because they have a problem. Chances are high that someone at the meeting has the same problem, has recently solved the problem, or has the solution to the problem; the trick is to find those people. "Even at a modestly sized show, it's like going to the Smithsonian," says Werntz. "There's just more there than you can absorb."
Attendees register through ExpoExchange's software; SmartEvent then pulls information to create a basic attendee portal from which they search for exhibitors and other attendees as well as provide details about themselves. The company found that many attendees register using personal e-mail accounts to filter spam from business e-mail addresses, so it was important to offer another place to update information. Attendees can also remain anonymous.
ExpoExchange works directly with organizers on marketing, but encourages viral marketing by enabling attendees to e-mail information to colleagues.
SmartEvent's twist on networking is to offer each attendee a "You-Based Event Report," including exhibitors they should see, sessions they should attend, people they need to meet, and popular search terms. Each list is sent to the attendee as a separate e-mail. "We send bite-sized chunks to get people to commit," explains Werntz, instead of deluging them with information all at once.
SmartEvent is also designed to have an on-site presence; users can scan their badges to enter their calendars and information at a SmartEvent lounge set up at the event. The lounge includes Web-enabled PCs and a few tables and chairs for face-to-face meetings. The on-site location has proved popular with attendees who were skeptical about the service beforehand.
SmartEvent has been used at shows ranging both small and large. Pricing is based per attendee between $4-$10.
Ready or Not, Here I Come
At the crux of each solution is the ability for attendees to locate and meet with like-minded fellow attendees, based on information registrants have provided about themselves. A successful event will then encourage attendees to return to the next event, as well as stimulate word-of-mouth marketing that can lead to greater numbers at future meetings.
It is important to remember that no matter how useful a solution is, not everyone will be quick to jump on the bandwagon. Planners should bear in mind that there is often "curiosity, but risk-aversion from an attendee perspective," especially with regards to how privacy is handled, according to Alvarez.
"I think there's still a lot of public education that needs to take place," says Alvarez, who cites "not knowing how to sell it to attendees at first" as the biggest challenge. According to Meyers, "It does take a little bit for people to say, 'Oh, that's what it is; that's why it's beneficial!' "
"Do you come here often?" Making a match on site
There's a multitude of products available that enable attendees to link up while on site. Since there is always a chance that attendees will not take to badges and devices with bells and whistles, it appears imperative for planners to be aware of the feature set of a particular product before encouraging its use and to also know the tolerance levels and personalities of the group in question.
SmartBadge's MyQ networking solution includes a numbered badge and small PDA. When an attendee enters another attendee's badge number into a PDA, contact information is displayed. The PDAs can now also be used to provide conference or local area information.
nTAG, a PDA-type device that takes the place of a badge, pushes information about nearby attendees to the wearer. When registrants come within two to five feet of one another, the screen displays three pieces of information about the other person in an attempt to spark conversation.
The CharmBadge looks like a standard-issue badge, but it collects contact information from other CharmBadge wearers, which users can then access at their convenience after the meeting. In an effort to encourage on-site communication, the badge also has four small lights, some number of which illuminate based on your expected level of interest in a nearby wearer.
Spotme is another PDA-type device that includes pictures and information about fellow attendees. Users can scroll through nearby attendees, use messaging capabilities, or electronically exchange business cards, among other features.