Let’s be real for one second and face the truth: Networking is dead, and there’s no need to try and resuscitate something that actually never worked in the first place.
Sounds crazy, right? After all, statistics show that networking is the number one reason why people attend events.
Indeed, there is an innate tendency we have, as humans, to engage with others. However, when it comes to the artificially designed environments for interaction, if not done correctly, our events will never generate truly positive and long-lasting results.
Instead of planning networking dynamics for the attendees, we should be focusing on creating an authentic space that will encourage people to connect.
Here’s what I mean: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “networking?” Let me guess: ice-breaking games, business cards, and rivers of wine or fancy canapés.
Taking these “interaction” elements into account, we would usually focus on providing a friendly environment for the attendees to relax, talk, and (almost inevitably) exchange business cards.
It’s as if we’re creating and launching marketing campaigns, following some general rules, but without understanding how to actually “touch” hearts. By-the-book, yet dry and meaningless marketing activities may garner some results, but will never get your brand to become a front runner.
The same thing happens with world-famous networking sessions or breaks.
Chellenges with networking events
Let’s start by figuring out why networking (as a dynamic and not as a concept) stopped working (or maybe never worked at all).
Networking sessions usually revolve around short-term thinking and are transactional-oriented.
People attend (networking) events with an agenda.
Their goal is to hand out as many business cards as possible and find quick solutions to their problems. Maybe they’ll meet a provider who can help them solve an issue or a potential future employer.
Because of the format and event parameters, the attendees won’t bother to actually connect. Instead, they’ll come with a to-do list, focus on the task at hand (meet as many prospects as possible), and move on.
Event Networking format, two steps forward
Networking events or dynamics usually will encourage attendees to build professional relationships for business gain.
Yet, each time more attendees get to understand the true potential meeting people at events can have.
Considering this awakening, here’s a quick list of reasons why networking is dead (at least, the old networking format is) and why it should stay this way:
Reason #1. Networking versus connecting
People don’t want relationships based on transactions anymore. They want to nurture meaningful connections with prospects. There’s true value embedded in long-lasting relationships one builds during events.
Reason #2. Pitches versus dialogue
To make a good impression during networking events or sessions, professionals would have to practice their pitch and present their best self.
Similar to a marketing action, people would base their entire interaction experience on selling themselves or their brand.
It’s time to move beyond these antiquated practices and help attendees actually talk to each other and form engaging dialogues.
Reason #3. Transactions versus genuine care
Traditional networking is dead because of a higher awareness people have about being approachable and truly valuable to those who they meet during events.
Instead of saying, “Take my business card” or “Find me on LinkedIn” right after meeting someone, attendees must have the possibility of engaging with each other on a deeper level, revealing connection points, and establishing potential collaboration opportunities.
Reason #4. One-event stand versus building bridges
How many times do people really follow up after networking events or sessions? Not too often. Most people throw the business cards they accumulated at event in a drawer (or the trash) and forget about the other attendees they met at the event.
Since there was no chance to establish a real connection with the prospect during the event, why should they bother after the event? Networking is dead mainly because of its rigid format and encouraging a rather frivolous attitude toward interaction.
Reason #5. Conditioned interaction versus inspired sharing
When attending events, even those who don’t want to engage with others have to keep their networking skills sharp. Whether it’s during coffee breaks or special designed activities (usually involving those inevitable ice-breaking games), even the introverts have to plaster smiles on their faces and talk to strangers.
Traditional networking is dead especially because of this forced interaction environments. We, as planners, should advocate the idea of connectional intelligence. It's our responsibility to actually produce meaningful spaces that will foster people’s genuine ability to connect with like-minded individuals. This is the only alternative to forced small talk with irrelevant prospects.
Networking is dead, but how can you replace it? It’s all about the planning framework and the attendee psychology. Instead of planning networking dynamics, we should focus on connectional intelligence and exploring its possibilities.
Connectional intelligence or attendee interaction that truly matters
In their book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, Erica Dhawan and Saj-nicole A. Joni argue, “Connectional intelligence propels us all beyond networking and entertainment toward a loftier purpose—improving people’s lives, building sustainable societies and creating the futures we want. Soon it will also be a required skill: today’s and tomorrow’s generations will know no world without smart connection, and we can’t ask them to park or squander what they do best.”
As the authors note, “Connectional intelligence comes alive when you connect to individuals who share your vision who say, “We’re ready. We’re all in.”
In other words, networking is dead and can be successfully replaced with connectional intelligence at events.
Taking this into account, it’s important to consider that there are different types of connectors. People have different styles when it comes to connecting.
According to Erica Dhawan, those who enter the "thinker" category will usually connect and generate the groundbreaking ideas. Their greatest strength is curiosity. The thinkers help see the big picture and imagine all possibilities. "They are most comfortable among inventive people with an original take on life. They are always asking, ‘What if?’”
Quick tip for planners. When designing an interaction dynamic, think about setting up a series of group activities based on problem-solving. For example, instead of a networking break, you could plan a world cafe.
This format lets you gather different people at different tables (it works based on the rotation principle) and challenge everyone to find solutions to specific problems.
In the process, your attendees will have the chance to engage in meaningful conversations with each other. Subsequently, they'll explore better the connection opportunities with their tablemates.
As Erica Dhawan highlights, the enablers are those people who create structures and build teams. “They are the behind-the-scenes connectors who build communities or rally grassroots support around a common cause.”
Quick tip for planners. Enablers are leaders and project managers. They love building connections based on common goals and shared responsibilities. Considering these features, you could design an interaction dynamic based on team activities.
The connection executor
Finally, this last type of connector involves those who mobilize all people and resources. As Dhawan indicates, “Connection executors connect intelligently with people beyond their particular fields and are able to spot patterns that facilitate new opportunities. Their greatest strength is mobilization.”
Quick tip for planners. Being masters of connecting the dots, these attendees are truly resourceful and eager to cultivate meaningful relationships. To jumpstart their interaction experience, you could set up topic-based tables, where people could gather and discuss the things that interest them the most.
If there’s one thing you remember from this article, it should be that traditional networking is dead, and your mission is to find innovative ways in which people can connect at your events. Interactions shouldn’t happen just during coffee breaks or cocktails. There are multiple dynamics you could use to ensure that your attendees build valuable relationships that will have positive and long-lasting impact on their careers or personal lives.