I am a career coach and one of the things I most often teach people, believe it not, is how to network. This is not just an issue among international students; a lot of Americans struggle too. Networking has become trickier post-COVID-19. People are working from home, and there are no more happy hours, meetups, industry seminars taking place in person where you can easily mingle with others. However, you still have to network for your career. What does the new virtual networking landscape look like? What is the new protocol, and where do you go to find people to network with?
I decided to practice what I preach and try it out for myself. I picked a “Virtual Speed Networking (VSN)” event organized by an EdTech (Education Technology) conference. Under normal circumstances, the events take place over 4 days and are chock full of opportunities to meet new and interesting people. This year, the organizers decided to take the entire conference online, and of course, the networking portion as well.
For those of you who don’t know what speed networking is, well, it obviously takes its cue from speed dating, an event where individuals are allowed a short amount of time to meet a number of prospective dates. Every five to ten minutes you hear the bell ring, and you move on to the next person. When interest is mutual, this could lead to a real date after.
Speed networking is the business version of speed dating. It provides you with exposure to many people in a short amount of time. It is a way to let others know who you are and what you are looking for, whether it be new customers, sales leads, or a new job. Speed networking in real life can already be awkward enough. I was worried it might be even worse in the virtual world.
The EdTech VSN I was attending was to start at 6 PM on Monday. I managed to finish my previous meeting a few minutes early so I started logging in to the platform – Meetaway. The first problem I encountered was that it was a platform that I had never used before. I had to create a profile, be sent a secured text with a code to my phone, and then return to my laptop to log in (sorry, no mobile app!). Due to these convoluted steps, I was about 7 minutes late getting in.
Once I was in the system, I was immediately “matched” with someone with an interesting background. I was excited but also nervous. We got connected, but no one was there. I thought it was a technical issue, so I waited for a bit only to realize that the person must have gone to get a drink and got caught up in a line… Ok, so I was not off to the best start. I “ended” the conversation, and the system told me I was “matched” with someone else and the meeting was to start in 30 seconds.
While waiting for my 2nd person, I saw a list of participant names on the left-hand side of the screen. I guessed that this was the lineup of people that I would meet. This was exciting, but not entirely realistic. In real-life speed networking, you don’t always know who you are meeting.
My second “match” was a gentleman who lives and works in the same city as me. That gave us something to talk about for the small talk. Five minutes was up and I met my 3rd person, a gentleman based in London, my 4th, a young lady who is currently a teacher but worked for Goldman Sachs at one point as I have. Then I met my 5th, a nice lady who works for a non-profit group, and so on. The technical connection was terrible. Our screens froze pretty often, so in the 5 minutes we were connected, we struggled quite a bit to make sense of what the other person was saying. However, people quickly adapted to the situation and made the most out of it. It’s also amazing with the diversity of this group, people from different backgrounds and countries – something that you might not have in the real life event.
The one benefit of VSN was that when I was tired, I chose to take a small break by selecting the pause option, so the system did not match me immediately with the next person. In real life SN, I would have to keep going or I would mess up the flow.
My 1-hour VSN yielded 9 different conversations. I promptly sent out LinkedIn connections to all of them and my goal was to have follow-up conversations with 5 out of 9. Out of the 9 requests I sent, 7 of them accepted. I followed up with all 7, and a week later I had zoom calls with 2 of them (while waiting to hear back from the others). I pitched a collaboration idea to one, and the other was more of a general chat.
Considering the time and effort I spent on this, I thought the results were good. I didn’t have to travel, didn’t pay a fee, or face the awkwardness of in-person meetings. Virtual networking really isn’t that different. The technology can work with or against you but the fundamental principles of networking always apply: prepare, find common interests, offer value, and most importantly, follow up.
REFERENCE: Speed Networking: A Quick Way to Expand Your Professional Contacts, Career Vision