Build it and they will come – How to host a networking event your employees will love

A well run and well attended networking event is a joy both to behold and be a part of. Faces are smiling and engaged; hands are gesticulating; voices rise and recede like the ebb and flow of the tide. The room has an electrical energy all of it’s own and that buzz in the air is the sound of connections made and relationships forming.

Does your organisation host networking events like this?

Networking is important, we all know that. A successful networking event will yield potential clients, mentors, sponsors and partners that could accelerate a career and a business much faster than hard graft alone. And it isn’t just good news for employees, it’s good news for you the employer too. If you’re the hosting organisation, you are creating a positive and helpful environment in which employees can connect and build strategic relationships that could progress their career. This shows you are on their side. It shows you care. And employees love it when you show you care.

But not all networking events are created equal. While some are dynamic and well attended, many are boring, erratic and unappealing. Whether you are already host to a regular networking event. or you are considering starting a networking event in your organisation for the first time, heed this advice for making sure your event is one your employees will love.

1. Have an objective

Your event must have an objective. Why are you putting on a networking event and what do you want to achieve? Without an objective you’re just ticking boxes and you’ve made no real commitment to getting proper results. How will you know whether your networking event is a success if you don’t have results to measure? There aren’t any rules about what your objective should be. What matters is that you have a a way to measure the success of your event. Here are some examples of objectives you could measure to evaluate your success:

  • Employee satisfaction
  • Average number of attendees each month
  • Attendee growth over a 6 month period
  • Number of mentoring relationships your event fosters
  • Number of new connections made
  • Number of senior management that attend

2. Collect feedback and be ready to make changes

Once you know your objective this part is easy. You simply measure your performance over time to determine whether you’re on track or not. If you don’t see the results you’re looking for – for example, attendance is consistently low – then don’t throw in the towel on your event just yet.  Rather than assume that an internal network isn’t right for your organisation, rethink your strategy, make some changes. Aim to get written feedback from your attendees about what they like and/or don’t like about the event. But don’t stop there. Poll a section of the employees who don’t attend and find out from them why that is. The problem might be easier to fix than you think. For example, it could be the timing of the event or even the location.

Speaking of which…

3. Location location location

Get the location right. Nothing sends the message “we don’t care” more strongly than a cold dark dusty room in the basement. If you want your networking event to be well attended then hold it somewhere people would choose to spend time. At the very least you need a light airy room of an appropriate size (too small and it will be difficult to circulate, too big and people may feel awkward and self conscious because they are floating around). Also, try to find a location that is easily accessible for the majority of people. This will obviously depend on your office layout and may not always be practicable, but it is another element to bear in mind if you are looking to create a first class networking event. And don’t forget…

4. Decoration and branding

A branded banner with the name of your network makes a great impact when walking into a room for a networking event. It makes the meeting feel official and gives everyone in the room a commonality that will soften the barriers between their different ranks and roles. A networking event is a great marketing opportunity for your organisation too. Use banners and branded material around the room to promote the values of your organisation as well as the objectives of the event itself.

5. Meet regularly

I’m often surprised when I go into a client organisation at how infrequent their networking events are. While I appreciate that everyone is busy and the calendar is always full, I cannot emphasise enough how much difference it makes when you give people the opportunity to meet regularly. Meeting monthly means that relationships can develop more quickly and are fruitful after a shorter period of time. It also means that where an employee has to miss an event, the next one is never far away. Contrast this with an event held only every 6 months. That means meeting someone just twice a year, and that is assuming they are able to make both events. This means it could take years before a junior employee has built up enough of a relationship with a more senior employee to be able to ask them to act as a mentor.  Meeting regularly needn’t be any more burdensome than meeting occasionally. In fact, it would probably be less so. It’s much easier to book the same room on the same day of each month and so have it appear as a fixed feature in the office calendar than to have to pick a random date twice a year and have to pull the event together each time.

6. Have a theme

Some of the best networking events I have been to have a central theme that makes the event just that much more interesting. You can be as conservative or as creative as you like, so long as the theme will resonate with your target audience. This may seem gimmicky, but don’t be too quick to judge. Of the many networking events I have attended those focused around a central theme have the highest attendance. Plus, the theme is a great non work related starting point for conversation, as well as being a great branding opportunity too. Here are some ideas:

  • Seasonal theme: relating to spring, summer, autumn or winter
  • Calendar theme: relating to a calendar event, the most obvious ones being Christmas and Easter, but other examples include St Patrick’s Day, International Women’s Day, World Book Day, Hallowe’en, Movember, Dry January etc.
  • Geographical theme: relating to the locations of your different offices or where your clients are situated
  • Colour: relating to your corporate brand or a random range of colours

7. Feed and water them

This is self explanatory. Don’t force your employees to choose between your network event and food. You won’t win. Also, laying on a decent spread of sandwiches might just be enough to entice those who are undecided about going but are feeling hungry! It is fairly common to offer alcohol at an evening networking event but this is by no means necessary. As with many things it will depend on the culture of your organisation.

8. Send a Networking newsletter

Follow up after a networking event is crucial and this can be facilitated by HR or the event organiser sending a short branded newsletter style email after the event. The email should thank attendees for coming, remind them to follow up with contacts made and report on anything interesting or noteworthy (the event theme or special attendances for example). It should also confirm the details of the next event. This is great PR for the event and can also be used as an opportunity to help employees improve their networking skills by including relevant blogs or articles on the dos and don’ts and how tos of networking.

9. Add variety

Keep it interesting by bringing some variety to the event. The same event in the same room with the same old sandwiches will seem tired after a while. Consider a “speed networking” event, or varying the timing of your event. For example, a breakfast event one month, a lunchtime one the following month and an evening one the month after that. You can also invite the occasional speaker to inspire or educate on a relevant topic. Other ways you can add variety include using a different theme for each meeting (see 6 above) and having a different discussion point. If you can link the discussion point to the theme of the meeting so much the better. Here are some examples:

  • Theme: International Women’s Day – Discussion point: Think of one woman that inspires you
  • Theme: World Book Day – Discussion point: The best and worst book you’ve ever read
  • Theme: Bonfire Night – Discussion point: What you’d like to put on the bonfire this year
  • Theme: Movember – Discussion point: Facial hair, love it or hate it?

10. Keep it diverse

There is a big debate about whether networking events should be mixed or single sex. While I see great value in women only networks (and men’s too I’m sure!) I believe that it’s really important that an internal network is mixed gender. The reasons are obvious. When you hold a networking event your aim is to break down existing barriers to facilitate the creation of relationships that can benefit both parties in a myriad of ways. Those barriers include hierarchy, area of expertise and of course gender. Keep this in mind when you…

11. Give it a name

What will you call your event? Choose a name that aligns with your organisational values and also reflects the diversity of  the group. There has been a huge shift in a number of my client organisations towards trying to make their networking events more diverse. Events that were previously held exclusively for women are now being pitched as mixed gender events and men are being encouraged to come along. The only problem is that the word “women” still appears in the event name! As long as this is the case your event will not attract the diverse pool of employees you are hoping for. If your organisation is guilty of this, it’s time for some rebranding!

 12. Get partners, executives and senior management to attend

For many of you this is the trickiest bit of all. You know that senior management’s attendance is critical to the success of your event but how do you attract those who, at least superficially, appear to have nothing specific to gain by attending. Here are some suggestions you could try:

  • Appeal to their generosity: Can they spare an hour of their time for the greater good? Wouldn’t they like to give back?
  • Leverage your own relationship: If you have a good relationship with a senior manager or partner, you can persuade them to commit to a fixed number of events a year
  • Use a rota system: Introduce a rota whereby senior members are obliged to attend at least one meeting a year
  • What’s in it for them: A networking event is an opportunity to act as mentor to a more junior employee which brings benefit not only to the mentee but also to the mentor. In this Forbes article The Often Overlooked but Invaluable Benefits of Mentoring, an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your leadership style were cited as bringing significant benefit to the mentor.

A well attended networking event is a wonderful thing. Get it right, and your employees will flock to your events with enthusiasm and purpose and ready to reap the rewards that networking can bring.

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