Lessons from an Online Networking Experiment

Virtual Lunch

Let’s be honest: Networking isn’t always productive, no matter whether it’s in-person or online.

In this rebroadcast of Virtual Lunch, Amanda Kaiser shares lessons from a three-month experiment to discover ideas that make networking more fun and engaging. Go behind the scenes to learn:

  • How the Virtual Networking Incubator was born
  • What kinds of technology and exercises work for groups of various sizes
  • Why it helps to have structured networking activities
  • How to encourage participation even before the event starts

Here are the links mentioned during the interview:

(Note: Some links on this page are affiliate links, which means if you click on them and choose to purchase I may receive a small commission or other compensation. You will not pay more for buying a product through these links. I’m disclosing this in accordance with FTC regulations regarding endorsements.)

About Amanda Kaiser

Amanda Kaiser
Amanda Kaiser

Amanda experiments and researches engagement – specifically member, attendee, and virtual engagement. She believes that associations and member organizations have reached the inflection point for engagement because now more than ever there are tools and methods to help members meaningfully connect, collaborate, and co-create virtually, in-person, and all year around.

Amanda is the co-creator of the Virtual Networking Incubator in partnership with Matchbox Virtual Media. She partnered with Dynamic Benchmarking to create the New Member Engagement Study. 

As a professional speaker, Amanda creates interactive keynotes for audiences of association professionals, volunteers, and partners over the US and Canada, and has presented at numerous conferences.


[00:00:00.000] - Marlys Arnold

You're listening to the Trade Show Insights Podcast Season 16 Episode 13 I'm your host and exhibit marketing strategist Marlys Arnold, bringing you tools to improve your exhibit results on today's episode brought to you by the Exhibit Marketers Cafe. We've got a rebroadcast of our virtual lunch with some tips and lessons from a virtual networking experiment.

[00:01:02.260] - Marlys Arnold

Amanda Kaiser is an engagement specialist and qualitative researcher for associations and member organizations. Thirty three research studies have given her a unique insight into the hearts and minds of attendees and members. Earlier this year, Amanda teamed up with Matchbox Virtual Media to produce the Virtual Networking Incubators. The Incubator was one part lab, one part testing ground, and one part problem solving event. Over 150 meeting and association leaders, including myself, collaborated with the goal of determining if virtual networking events could be meaningful, helpful, and fun. Today, we're going to dive in and share some of those tested strategies directly from the two month long, six session Virtual Networking Incubator that you can implement for your events today. Amanda, thank you so much for being here.

[00:01:57.030] - Amanda Kaiser

Thank you, Marlys. It's really great to be here. And you are one of the first people I'm talking to about the results from the Incubator. We pulled together all of the data and we wrote a final report, if you will. And so I'm Super excited to bring all of that data and new findings to you today.

[00:02:17.400] - Marlys Arnold

Well, and Alan is actually going to share that link. And for those who are listening to this on the podcast, you'll find the link for this in the show notes. But we've got the link so that people can go and download that report because you guys went so in depth on breaking down all of the different things. But let's back up a little bit first, tell us how the Virtual Networking Incubator came to be and how you pulled all this together because I know this was a massive amount of work behind the scenes.

[00:02:47.580] - Amanda Kaiser

So this was definitely a labor of love and something that we have been thinking about for a long time. If you go way back to the beginning of COVID tons of events, sort of event host, they scramble to get everything that was in person online. And as a sort of speaker and a host, I got a chance to be a part of a lot of events. And one of the things that I noticed was that virtual events kind of delivered just one of the two conference and event promises.

[00:03:21.470] - Amanda Kaiser

So a lot of value, especially in association conferences are around education and networking. And when we went to virtual, most of the value was just around education, and we lost the networking part of it. And I was really worried about that. And I kept mulling it over and thinking about it and thinking about it. And I started talking to Arianna Rehak, who's the CEO at Matchbox Virtual Media, and she agreed that there is a problem there. And together we just kind of kept coming back to it.

[00:03:51.020] - Amanda Kaiser

And one day I thought, would it be interesting to do, like, a tech incubator around this? And the more we got talking about it, the more we decided we wanted to do it together, and we wanted to make it more than just a tech incubator. We wanted it to be a problem solving event. Yeah. It ended up being six sessions with 150 people. It was an interesting thing to do for me because I tend to write, spend months and write keynotes and get everything perfect in the incubator.

[00:04:23.670] - Amanda Kaiser

Had me as a host in this position of coming up with new content and new curriculum every two weeks and sort of looking at what we did the last time and trying to figure out how to make the next time better. So it was really interesting from a host perspective.

[00:04:37.660] - Marlys Arnold

I know it definitely was on the fly feed the beast kind of thing that's kind of like virtual lunch.

[00:04:46.220] - Amanda Kaiser


[00:04:48.430] - Marlys Arnold

So you constructed these six different sessions, and we did different things each time. So sometimes it was a small group. Sometimes it was one on one networking. So tell us a little bit about some of the things that you learned. And I know that the lessons that were learned not only applied to virtual networking, a lot of these things could be applied for face to face networking as well. So let's kind of break it down a little bit and talk about what were some of the key points that came out of this incubator?

[00:05:18.840] - Amanda Kaiser

Yeah. So I'm glad you mentioned in person, because we found out that while everybody sort of remembering in person, very, very fondly in person networking events are kind of broken too. So there are some interesting stuff that popped out of the incubator. And that was when everybody was applying. We actually had folks go through an application process. And one of the questions we asked was, how do you feel about in person networking event? And we listed all kinds of emotions. And one of those sets of emotions was anxiety and concern.

[00:05:53.100] - Amanda Kaiser

So when speaking about in person networking events, 58% of our respondents noted anxiety and concern. We also asked that same set of question after every single one of our six gatherings, what events are, what feelings for you are coming up after this gathering. And when we average all of those for every single one of the gathering we were at 16%, in person events, 58% noted anxiety and concern at in person events. And for our virtual networking events 16% noted anxiety and concern. So that's really interesting. Right. I think what I hear a lot out there is there's this commonly held myth that virtual networking can't be meaningful, it can't be fun, it can't be comfortable.

[00:06:46.170] - Amanda Kaiser

And so one of the big learnings for me was, you know, what virtual can be meaningful, fun and interesting and all of those things that we don't expect to, and we can figure out why that is and then pull that into the in person scenario as well.

[00:07:04.150] - Marlys Arnold

Well. And I think a big part of that is that the virtual on one level is more comfortable because you don't have this feeling of walking into a big room of people and not knowing who to walk up to. I know I've had that conversation with other people just recently. I was talking to somebody about that, like everybody so fondly remembers the in person networking. But it's like I remember that feeling of walking in and everybody's at their own little clusters. And what do you do?

[00:07:32.740] - Amanda Kaiser

That's right.

[00:07:33.390] - Marlys Arnold

So the virtual network, you guys had different kinds of exercises for us to do and tech for us to explore. And I forget what the term is, but the wander around to bump into people. Who do you call that officially? Yeah.

[00:07:48.900] - Amanda Kaiser

Yeah. So that was sort of like autonomous movement. We're exploring autonomous movement, which is probably the most reception like of all of our platforms. Right. So you could do that. We did gather around with sort of our one on one. We had very deep conversations on a platform called circles. So one of the things that people worry about with virtual networking is how do you do it at scale? How do you do it with 50 people or 200 people or 500 people? So we played with a platform called Circle.

[00:08:22.440] - Amanda Kaiser

Sorry, circles can do that. They can scale large. But there's also another platform called Pickle. And that's a way to sort of feel the whole community and see what the whole community is thinking and connecting with the whole community. So we were definitely a tech incubator in that we were playing with some of the latest and greatest brand new platforms that just kind of came onto the scene. But the other thing that we did is we exposed people, and I shouldn't say expose people. I was literally experimenting.

[00:08:53.160] - Amanda Kaiser

We were experimenting with Matchbox to try all kinds of activities and methods and just trying to see what stuck and what didn't stick. And so I would say, if you thought about how we were dividing our mind space, that was one half technology, and the other half was all around the activities and methodologies and stuff like that. And we also kind of sort of stepped through where we started the incubator, exposing people to what exists today. And then at the end of the incubator, we really started to do a lot of more, like, hackathon style.

[00:09:31.350] - Amanda Kaiser

We started really problem solving. And the group, the whole group of 150 people were coming up with all of these ideas on their own, which was pretty fantastic to see.

[00:09:45.190] - Marlys Arnold

Well. And I really love that aspect of it. Experimenting with the tech. I was introduced used to a lot of new tech that I wasn't familiar with. Some of it. I was because I'm like you. I play around with all this stuff all the time. Learning the tech was one thing, but the AHA moments were really the hackathon part. And so the other thing. I loved what you guys did. You had the recap that you sent out every time afterwards. You collected all of our comments and all of our suggestions or thoughts and put them together and then shared with everybody afterwards.

[00:10:20.690] - Marlys Arnold

And it made it so much easier to I guess I would say take it all in and process it all because when it's happening, it was like everything was flying so fast. And I know I tried to take notes each week, but it was just impossible to keep up with all the ideas because everything was flying so fast. So you actually took a lot of those ideas and put together a cookbook since it was the Matchbox kitchen. I love that you did a cookbook of ideas.

[00:10:49.040] - Marlys Arnold

So tell us a little bit more about all that and how you pulled together all these different ideas and practical applications.

[00:10:57.780] - Amanda Kaiser

I'm so glad that you mentioned after every gathering, we sent out a report of the chat, but we call it the chat, and more because there was more stuff that we were able to send out. And that was actually an invention after the first gathering. So we got into the first gathering and one of the things that we saw in the chat, those people are saying, oh, my gosh, there's so much great stuff here, and I can't take notes fast enough. And I'm torn between listening to Amanda and chatting with everybody and taking notes, and it's making me crazy.

[00:11:27.090] - Amanda Kaiser

And I want to do it all. And so we thought a lot about how to handle this, because on one hand, one of our biggest objectives was making a really safe space. We wanted to be a very open, safe space where everybody could support each other. But more than that, if you had an idea, but it wasn't quite fully formed and fully polished. We wanted you to feel like you could shout that idea out to everybody without any backlash, which meant we didn't really want people downloading the chat for themselves.

[00:11:58.800] - Amanda Kaiser

We would be happy to provide it. But anonymize it later on. And so as we're thinking about, okay, we want to create a safe space. We want people not to feel the pressure of taking notes. We want people to participate, which means being really involved and present in the moment. How do we solve that problem? And so right after the first gathering, we committed to doing those after the gathering reports, and we did it every single time. And I'm glad you liked it, because we got some really good feedback for that.

[00:12:34.920] - Marlys Arnold

Yeah. And I thought that was just that kind of brought everything together, and especially if you happen to miss one, I missed one of the ones in the middle. And so being able to have that recap really helped to bring everything together. And it just a wealth of material. I know I still need to go back and review the notes again and kind of pull out some of the highlights. But for you, what were some of the biggest highlights, maybe the top two or three things that you think came out of the incubator of great ideas for implementing at future events.

[00:13:07.540] - Amanda Kaiser

Yeah. So I think a couple of ideas sort of rapid fire here because there's so much and I really encourage you to read the round up reports. I think one of the things that we can't underestimate is how awkward networking can be for a lot of people. In fact, we did some activities around, and mostly our group was extroverts. Most of them were meeting planners. They're mostly extroverts. They mostly love networking. And even among our group, networking is sort of fraught. And in the word, even the word networking makes people feel inadequate and anxious and scared and lonely and all of those things.

[00:13:48.670] - Amanda Kaiser

So I think we can underestimate how emotions are wrapped up with the whole idea of networking reception. So that's one thing to consider, another thing to consider is one of the reasons why our version of online networking worked in most cases, and we did have some stumbling. But when it it worked because there was a lot of structure and a lot of activities. People walked in and there were ways for them to connect with each other, and we helped them kind of skip the small talk and get right into the meat of the conversation and collaborate and think together and work together and support each other without having that.

[00:14:31.430] - Amanda Kaiser

And you just talked about this Marlys early on that pain of walking into a room and seeing everybody all clumped up and trying to figure out, can I siddle on into that conversation and would it be too weird, or do I just stand back here and watch everybody, which feels really awkward? Right. So I think another thing that for us was pack more structure into every networking event because it helps people collaborate and connect a lot faster than if they had to do it on their own.

[00:15:05.650] - Amanda Kaiser

So the referral networking very, very hard. Unless you've got a cohesive group that already knows each other and they want to do the referral networking. But for everybody else, add structure, add a curriculum, add activities, get them working together so that's a couple of the things. Can I also talk about priming for participation? Because that's a pretty cool one.

[00:15:27.060] - Marlys Arnold

That was actually my next question is perfect.

[00:15:30.300] - Amanda Kaiser

We're reading each other's minds work. We're melding in the Metaverse. Okay. So priming for participation. One of the things that I've been playing with both in the incubator and also in my own speaking, is figuring out how to get people when they're at home. Right.

[00:15:51.500] - Amanda Kaiser

You can multitask. You can do a million different things and how to get them to connect in and participate and really engage with what they're doing. And so one of the things that we played a lot with were these unofficial starts. And I got this idea from the CEO at Playmeo. So do these unofficial starts where you're inviting people in a couple of minutes before your official start time and have an event and you have an activity. So you're rewarding the early birds. And then the people who typically sign on late find out that you did this early bird activity and they want to do it the next time.

[00:16:33.110] - Amanda Kaiser

And so it's sort of rewarding people for coming on early and also showing other people why it's important to log on at the right time. So unofficial starts is one way to sort of prime people for participation. We did a lot of that in the incubator. It was super fun.

[00:16:49.300] - Marlys Arnold

Well, it was I didn't get in on all of those, but I did. And the ones that I did, they were really fun. And I love the idea. Like you said, it gives you something rather than just you hop on a minute or two early and you're just listening to music while it says, wait for your host to arrive at, it was much more engaging and interactive. And I thought that was just really great. But there were so many creative things that you guys did. I know it was so much work, but it was so well received and I made so many new connections.

[00:17:20.230] - Marlys Arnold

And I think that was probably true across the board from your post event surveys that people made a lot of good. And I realized in this case, like you said, we were all meeting planners and event professionals. And so we had that baseline connection anyway, but just to be able to meet people from just very diverse backgrounds, it was just a great way to have that experience. And I know you've got another incubator coming up. You want to give us a little bit of a teaser about that?

[00:17:49.100] - Amanda Kaiser

Yeah. We thought that the virtual Networking incubator was so successful. We wanted to continue on with that model of continuing to host problem solving events. And Ariana and I put our heads together and we pulled the past incubator participants to see what topics were at most interest to them. And the topic that rose to the top was our Sponsor Value. We are heads down 100% working on Sponsor Value Incubator. So we're super excited about that. And we're thinking about four sessions of really sort of experimenting with a bunch of stuff, exploring how they work and then leaping off from there into the whole design and innovation to see if we can come up with some new ideas.

[00:18:42.890] - Amanda Kaiser

So we're very excited about that. And when you go get the report in the same website up in the upper nav. You can find the Sponsor Value Incubator tab and it'll bring you to a place where you can sign up to learn more information when we're ready to launch.

[00:18:57.980] - Marlys Arnold

And for me being exhibitor and sponsor focused, I am all over this one. I can't wait. So are you looking to do that yet this year, or will that not be until 22?

[00:19:09.560] - Amanda Kaiser

That is a good question. We've actually not set a date because we're at the beginning of just kind of massive getting everything in a row. So part of what we want to do is take the best of the Virtual Networking Incubator and also figure out what we could do even better and change it. So this time there's some changes compared to the Virtual Networking Incubator. We're going to have sponsors. We're going to sort of explore what it is to really be partners with our sponsors. We're talking with media partners right now.

[00:19:44.980] - Amanda Kaiser

So there's new and exciting elements that I can't wait to explore and then share it with the whole community.

[00:19:51.840] - Marlys Arnold

That is so awesome. Well, we will eagerly look forward to that. Alan is going to put up in the comments the link for your website, your blog Smooth the Path. So I want to make sure that people can go find you that way. But they can also go to the Networking Incubator page and get all the great juicy details on the recap of the incubator. But here is Amanda's link for Smooth the Path blog. So go check that out. Any final thoughts from you, Amanda? What we should all keep in mind when it comes to networking.

[00:20:25.900] - Amanda Kaiser

Oh, boy. You know, it's even you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a really great experience. You can do a lot of really interesting things on Zoom. And so I think it's more about if you've got the money. The platforms are great, but it's just a lot about thinking about the thought of how do we take a group of strangers and make them friends? How do we take people who are walking into this being with a lot of trepidation and making them feel comfortable?

[00:20:58.690] - Amanda Kaiser

How do we take people who may want a multi task and get them to fully participate and engage? So read the report. Come to me with any questions you have, any questions you're thinking about for your next event, but just sort of more kind of think about that linear process of how do you get people to sort of feel the feelings that you're hoping they feel and you'll get there?

[00:21:26.120] - Marlys Arnold

Well. And I love Eric's comment. Once you've nailed down a virtual platform, the fun is in finding innovative ways to stretch beyond its boundaries. Like Amanda's fun interactive activities. Eric. Yes, that's exactly it. Take the platform and run with it. Don't be handicapped by what platform you're in. Find a way to make it work, right. Amanda, thank you so much for being our guest on Virtual Lunch. I think this is very exciting what you've done, and it's very exciting what you've got coming up. So we wish you all the success and can't wait to see what happens next.

[00:21:58.320] - Amanda Kaiser

Thank you. Thank you so much.

[00:22:05.320] - Marlys Arnold

You can find all the links mentioned during our interview in this episode shownotes at TradeShowInsights.com. And if you'd like to join us for an upcoming virtual lunch, you'll find info on that at ExhibitMarketersCafe.com/lunch.

[00:22:26.240] - Marlys Arnold

If you enjoyed today's episode and would like more, you can subscribe to the podcast and automatically receive future episodes on your chosen device. Simply search for Trade Show Insights in Apple, Spotify, Stitcher or virtually anywhere else that podcasts are found. Then click the subscribe button. Trade Show Insights is protected by the Creative Commons Copyright License. You may feel free to share this recording with colleagues or embedded on your own blog as long as it's shared in its entirety and is not used for commercial purposes. To learn more, please see the link in the Sidebar as the Show notes at TradeShowInsights.com. Well, that's it for this episode of Trade Show Insights. Be sure to check out our show notes and archives at TradeShowInsights.com. You can also connect with me using the social media links or the contact page on the site. I'm Marlys Arnold. Thanks for listening and be sure to join us next time for more tools to improve your exhibit results.


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