Networking has been a challenge during the past year. Find out how one association amped up member connections virtually—and had fun doing it.
Association professionals have a unique opportunity to explore new ways of bringing members together and encouraging idea sharing in the virtual space as we begin a new year. Even though Zoom fatigue is prevalent, meeting other peers remains a core benefit of joining an association. Finding ways to connect, especially amid ongoing social distancing, is essential.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) found a simple way to thank its members at the end of a challenging year while also piloting a speed-networking idea for future virtual events.
Despite school closures and unpredictable academic schedules, school nutrition professionals have worked diligently throughout the pandemic to ensure students are well nourished and ready to learn. After a demanding nine months during which SNA members served students healthy school meals while also navigating the effects of COVID-19 on schools and communities, the staff decided it was time to celebrate.
At the end of December 2020, SNA hosted its first-ever Virtual Holiday Mixer on Zoom to celebrate over 400 volunteer leaders and pilot a speed-networking technique. The objective was to bring together a large group of attendees and then randomly assign them to meet other participants in small groups sequentially. The event was sponsored by a long-time SNA partner who wanted to honor members and included a live performance by acclaimed jazz musician Tony DeSare.
Even though Zoom fatigue is prevalent, meeting other peers remains a core benefit of joining an association. Finding ways to connect, especially amid ongoing social distancing, is essential.
The speed-networking pilot was a success. In addition to meeting new people and seeing familiar faces, SNA members enjoyed the live music and the unique opportunity to relax together.
Want to try something similar? Here are six tips for hosting a virtual speed-networking event.
Set clear goals. Deciding on an objective is an essential step. Will your event be an informal way for people to meet and reconnect? Or is there an educational component? What should people walk away with after the event? Building on a successful pilot, SNA’s next virtual conference will include a speed-networking component. The objectives will be to encourage participants to meet new people in five sequential networking blocks and delve further into topics discussed during the main conference.
Choose a virtual platform. There are plenty of excellent virtual platforms. SNA selected Zoom because members are comfortable with it, and participants can be split into up to 50 breakout rooms. They can be randomly assigned to a room or even pre-assigned for more tailored networking.
Think through the timing and number of participants per group. Consider how much time to allocate for each block of speed networking and the optimal number of people to assign to each breakout room. SNA explored six to eight people per room at eight minutes per networking block, which worked well.
Assign clear roles. Have a moderator welcome everyone from the main room and facilitate the event. A different person should be responsible for the technical side and break people into groups. With Zoom, this organizer can also broadcast a message to all rooms at any time.
Plan it out. As with all events, develop a schedule. Determine when people will break into rooms and assign a topic for discussion for each speed-networking block. A simple outline will help both the moderator and the organizer keep everything on track.
Experiment and be flexible. Planning virtual events includes trying out new approaches. Some work well, and some need improvement. Understand that the process will not be perfect the first time; refine it as you gain feedback based on your members’ unique needs. Another idea worth exploring is to host 45-minute monthly virtual speed-networking meet-ups for members, perhaps defined by member segment or topic.
The experience of face-to-face networking can’t be re-created online. However, while social distancing continues, virtual speed networking makes for a successful alternative any time of year.