Engagement is one of the most challenging aspects of hosting a networking event. You have serial networkers who work the room in an aggressive way. You also have people who attend knowing they must build a network for their business but the idea of making small talk with strangers is an activity about as appealing for them as fighting ninjas with swords armed with toothpicks. (Introverts unite!) And you have everyone in between those two extremes. No matter what your intentions as a chamber professional, you simply can’t wave a magic wand and turn everyone into a brilliant networker at a single event.
But you don’t have to.
Instead, you can concentrate on what you really want to see happen at a chamber networking event–engagement. But how do you get everyone talking about worthwhile aspects of their business without getting bogged down with trivial talk about the weather?
You give them something to talk about.
What You’ll Need to Duplicate This Engaging Networking Event
I recently attended a networking event at the Bluffs Business Association. There were about 35 attendees seated at round tables of 8 each. Seating was open and not assigned. There was a hot breakfast buffet. Most people took their seats as soon as they had their food. As you would expect, people talked to and sat with people they knew. At first glance, I was not expecting this to be a very interactive networking event.
I was wrong.
About half the people in attendance for this event said it was their first with the group. Why such a huge number of newbies? I can’t say for sure but part of that may have been the topic of the presentations. The Empower Your Business event was held on 8/8 at 8 a.m. and boasted three speakers. The first was billed as a “Wheel of Success,” which we’ll talk about in a bit. An interactive workshop on “supercharging your business” followed. The speakers for the workshop specialized in non-traditional business assistance, concepts like the Law of Attraction and Numerology (using numbers to harness energy to optimize outcomes for business).
These topics may seem like unique ones for business but this session capitalized on a growing interest in non-traditional business practices. People are looking for unique paths to success. With the internet, even more conservative, traditional communities are opening up to non-traditional success methods. There’s a growing curiosity behind what used to be labeled “new-age” concepts.
However, for the purposes of this example, we will cover only the first session, The Wheel of Success.
You’ll need the following things for this event:
- a wheel or visual mechanism to select topics from (more about this later).
- many prizes (small ticket items like free food from a member or travel cups with a $5 gift card inside, raffle baskets, or other higher-value giveaways. These higher-value giveaways aren’t necessary for the program but provided a fun break. The first presenter brought swag bags for attendees and the other two each put together a raffle basket. One presenter gave away free tickets to an upcoming business seminar she was hosting. The reminder of the six baskets came from member donations.)
- a cordless microphone or two (it just makes it so much nicer when you can hear what everyone is saying).
The Structure of the Networking Event
Volunteers greeted attendees at a check-in table. This was a free event but required an RSVP. At the table, they offered a paid ticket raffle for a donated diamond cocktail ring. Tickets were $5 a piece or $25 for an “arm’s length” of tickets. And yes, they measured you! Proceeds from this went to an arts scholarship program. (They raised over $300 for the scholarship by the end of the event.)
If you came with business cards, you could enter the raffle. (This was not the ideal event for me to try out my new QR-driven e-card.)
As mentioned earlier, there wasn’t a lot of networking occurring outside of the breakfast line. It was the type of meal that was hard to eat while balancing a plate. However, that would soon change with the “Wheel of Success” program.
The Wheel of Success
This activity is easy and gets people talking and sharing experiences. It resembles the game show Wheel of Fortune but instead of money slots, the Wheel of Success’ slots had topics like leadership, reward/appreciation, customers, wellness, etc.
The presenter told the audience the success of this session rested on them, not him. He wasn’t speaking. We were. He explained that he would ask for volunteers to come up and spin the wheel. Then depending on what it landed on, the presenter would ask the spinner a question on that topic. The spinner could then share their experience/answer.
Next, he would open it to the floor for answers. Every participant received a “speaker prize.” Everyone who answered was asked to give their name and a brief sentence or two about what they do/who they’re with. The questions were open ended and there were no wrong answers.
Sample Questions for Engagement
- What do you consider a good leader?
- How do you show appreciation to your team or reward them for a job well done?
- Why is your business better than your competitor?
- How do you avoid burnout?
- What’s the biggest challenge to your business?
- What book are you reading?
I’m not sure if it was the idea of receiving a free pizza or the excitement behind sharing but we spent about 1.5 hours in this format and there was never a moment when we were without a spinner and no awkward moments where people were hesitant to answer. They simply raised their hand and someone walked a mic over to them.
The presenter did something else that I have never seen. He said we weren’t getting a break during the session so he invited the audience to place their business cards out on the table in front of them. He said that if you heard something as people were speaking that resonated with you, you should go up and grab their business card or give them one of yours. This yielded a lot of meaningful exchange.
Again, perhaps it was the free pizza or ice cream tickets but over the course of the hour and a half, almost everyone in the room willingly participated. He never called on anyone without them raising their hands and wanting to speak.
By the time this session was over, I felt like I had heard from everyone in the room and knew what they did or what kind of business they worked for. That rarely happens at a networking event for an introvert like me. I tend to meet a few people, nowhere near a majority.
There were several things that surprised me about this program that you may want to consider at your next chamber networking event:
- Paper business cards, important or not? I was the only one who only had e-cards and missed out on the fun surrounding the raffle. The fishbowl concept may need to evolve if more people are going paperless.
- Non-traditional business event topics may pull in a (different) crowd.
- This free event (free for members and non-members) still raised over $300 with only one ask in the beginning. When people receive programming for free, they will likely feel obligated to support you in other ways.
- They didn’t use name tags. Some members had their own but most of us didn’t have any.
- I estimate about 20% of the attendees were solopreneurs or single-person businesses based on those who identified themselves as such. There may have been more. Perhaps it was the topic, but it’s something to think about when creating programming.
- Give attendees an opportunity to showcase their skills and knowledge. By answering these questions, attendees could get a good idea of the type of professional each person was. It was terrific for the solopreneurs who don’t have a business reputation backing them up. They could essentially audition with their answers.
- Invite people to get business cards from people at any point during the event. You don’t want them to miss an opportunity. At this event, people were told to grab one if they heard something of value to them. If they had waited until the end of the event, they may not have connected.
- This format works really well for introverts because while we may shudder at the thought of small talk with strangers, we love speaking about things we’re passionate about. This networking event even gave introverts a format to shine, if they chose to do so.