MeetingNews Research: Online Growing, But Planners Prefer In-Person Networking

So much media attention has been given to social communities, texting and other forms of virtual networking that you'd think the world is one big chat room, but that clearly is not the current business reality for most meeting planners, according to original MeetingNews research. Thus, when we asked, "What is your preferred method of professional networking?" I expected a healthy slice of the 311 planners responding would point to the World Wide Web. To my surprise, 85 percent of respondents affirmed their preference for face-to-face networking, more than half through personal contacts, and one-third through professional associations.

The preference for in-person networking spanned gender and demographics fairly evenly, with all twenty-something respondents and 94 percent of men most eager to press the flesh.

While only 8 percent of responding planners claimed that they didn't do any professional networking, it was shocking to learn that they outnumbered the 6 percent who said they used social media and online communities for that purpose. "Social media sites collectively are over-hyped, by their very nature," said one response. "Does anyone remember AOL member pages?"

While some may agree that the buzz about social media is mostly hype, few contend it is a flash in the pan. "I am younger and come from the generation where Facebook is used strictly as a social site," said Cora Majewski, account representative and event planner at Detroit-area event management firm Gail & Rice. "Seeing clients on there now, however, has forced me to adapt my profile." With Northern Kentucky's METS Center hosting a social networking event in June, Carrie Moore, director of business development thinks that even with all the buzz, "there is great value in what social networking sites offer. However, once I connect with someone online, my next step is to obtain a face-to-face meeting, whenever feasible." Dave Lutz, managing director at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, works in the obverse: "I attend 10 or so large industry events per year. As I meet new people, I connect with them on LinkedIn and continue to build on that initial meeting. I get new business out of nearly every industry event I attend, not because I'm selling, but because I build more trust face to face."

According to twenty-something event planner Lisa Spegman, "Networking online has led to face-to-face networking. Integrating all styles has allowed me to piggyback off another contact's contacts that I may have not otherwise had the opportunity to meet in person. I am very impressed with the number of contacts that I have met virtually that have led to personal and business relationships in real life."

Research confirmed that planners in the youngest age groups (under 31, 31 to 40) spent the most time in social media groups. Compared with younger planners, planners aged 41 and higher spend appreciably less time on social media; however, they do have the third lowest "never use" response of all categories. Fifty-something planners spent the least time using social media, with 42 percent saying they never used social media and only 6 percent saying they checked in more than once a day (compared with 35 percent of twenty-somethings and 22 percent of planners aged 31-40).

In the professional categories, association planners had the lowest number of adaptors, with 8 percent accessing social media more than once a day; and 30 percent, never.

Even so, few can dispute that networking through social media is a medium to master. Networking online is a no-brainer, according to Leonicka Valcius, a Toronto-based undergrad, working in tourism. "I would disagree with the nay-sayers who think old-school networking is the only way to go. Online communities have an incredibly powerful voice and are redefining how we look at interactions and relationships. So why not capitalize on that and create strong professional networks?"

Among the respondents who regularly access social media sites, more than half find LinkedIn most useful, followed by 37 percent who use Facebook.

April Broussard, consultant and speaker with Speakin'Up, uses Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. "I find that I spend a few minutes on each every day," she said, "but I may focus on building my LinkedIn contacts this week and Twitter next week." Independent planner and Planet Plan It events blogger Marie McErlean Hunter recommends segmenting social media: "I use Facebook for personal connections and less-formal interactions, LinkedIn for professional connections and Twitter for interacting with a large sphere of influencers in the fields of hospitality, travel, entertainment and theatre—areas I am passionate about."

Originally published May 25, 2009