Happy (Social) 4th of July!

The folks in Warren, Vermont are a friendly lot. I don't know if you’ve ever been to the Green Mountain state, but my family loves it there – mostly for the winter skiing. A few years ago we ventured up for the 4th of July, since in summer Vermont becomes the land of nature hikes, swimming holes and farmers markets.

We’d heard about the Warren Village 4th of July parade, and decided to check it out. The parade was quite the scene, with a real cross section of patriotism, humor and a wide range of political statements. But my favorite part was the Buddy Badge. You see, in order to get the crowd moving and to build community (which supports local businesses and brings back the winter crowd for some summer fun and spending), you can make a donation and receive a Buddy Badge. Badge in hand, you then stroll through the crowds looking for your matching number. Once found, you grab your new “buddy” by the hand and dash off to the gazebo in the center of town to claim a set of matching prizes.

Silly, you might think, but amazingly effective. Almost everyone had at least one Buddy Badge. And those Buddy Badges really broke the ice. They got people talking and even helping each other search for their matches, which in turn spurred reports of recent sightings and lots of high fives when matches were found and prizes won. Which got me thinking…

I’ve been to so many conferences and networking events where participants check-in, attend the sessions, and talk with the same people year after year. Wouldn't it be great to help them make new connections and explore new opportunities in a low-pressure sort of way? Try not to snicker, but the most effective way we’ve found to do that is through our own sort of Buddy Badge – namely, by hosting Structured 1:1 Networking sessions as a plug-in to industry events and conferences. Over the past few years, we’ve brought over a thousand business leaders together for brief, pre-arranged meetings to shake hands, make new connections and start business dialogues, with great success.

The key to effective Structured 1:1 Networking (S1:1N) is the upfront effort that goes into ensuring the pre-arranged matches have business value for both participants. That means you have to do much more than just line people up and start the timer. Here’s how to make it worthwhile for the participants:

1. Find out what matters.

What are you trying to accomplish by having participants meet one-on-one? What kind of meetings will they consider valuable? A well-designed pre-event survey helps avoid low-value meetings as well as match-ups between people who already know (or are competitors with) each other.

2. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.

A great deal of time and thought goes into making quality meeting matches. We’ve looked at building algorithms, but frankly, they can't handle the event-specific parameters and “one-offs” that you need to be aware of. Another challenge is last-minute changes. When you look to put 50 people in a room, there are bound to be cancellations and no-shows. Success hinges on remaining flexible right up to and during the session, so as not to leave individuals without someone to talk to.

3. Stay objective.

It’s inevitable. Pre-event, someone (a salesperson, maybe) will ask you to make specific matches between participants. That's all well and good, provided your data shows there’s a reason for the match based on the participants’ own interests (that you gleaned from their pre-event surveys). If there’s no connection, stay true to your mission and suggest the requester make an introduction off-line.

4. Set expectations.

Not every match is made in heaven, but some certainly are. A participant should anticipate having four to five 10-15 minute meetings as part of an S1:1N session. We like to suggest to the networkers that if they walk away with one to two new valuable contacts, then the session is a success – and our exit polls show they readily agree. I can't tell you many times I’ve had someone come up to me after a session, excited about a new contact that has the potential to make that person’s quarter or year.

I’ve heard (and told) all the speed dating jokes, but kidding aside, the upside for participants and organizers alike is significant. Participants tell me that the opportunity to talk with potential partners or customers one-on-one and explore impromptu business conversations can have an immediate and measurable impact on their business. Case in point, a recent S1:1N exit poll showed that 96% of participants felt their time in the session was well spent, and 91% had uncovered at least one new business opportunity. And for event organizers (like the planners of Warren’s 4th of July parade), it’s an effective way to get attendees to interact and build some community around the event, which translates into a high-perceived value, and return attendees.

If you know of an event that could use a little mixing up, share this piece, and encourage the organizers to contact us!

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