Jeremy Fain is the CEO and Co-Founder of Cognitiv, the first neural network technology available for marketers.
For the second year in a row, advertisers had to miss out on experiencing the glitz and glamour of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in person and instead settle for a digital affair. Plenty of other industry events have also chosen — given the continued uncertainty around travel restrictions and the threat of Covid-19 — to go completely virtual or offer a hybrid. As organizations around the world have been forced to prioritize flexibility, will remote networking be one more permanent professional legacy of the pandemic? If so, what can businesses do to ensure they stand out from the crowd?
The latter is a question that I and my team have thought about a lot over the past year. After attending dozens of virtual events, hosting countless webinars and conducting near-constant outreach, here are some of the lessons I have learned.
A survey of 209,000 people in 190 countries conducted by Boston Consulting Group and The Network found that the vast majority of people — 89% — prefer to work in a job that will allow them to occasionally work from home. This, coupled with a McKinsey survey that found that approximately 70% to 80% of B2B decision-makers prefer remote interactions or digital self-service, suggests that in the future, many events with a heavy focus on networking will consist of some mixture of digital and in-person opportunities. In other words, remote networking is here to stay — sort of.
There are, of course, many people who have found that they prefer attending events virtually rather than in person. For one thing, it can be significantly cheaper: In addition to not having to pay for a hotel stay, many events have lowered their prices in acknowledgment of the changing circumstances. Virtual events are also more accessible in general, which can lead to larger, more international audiences than ever before. For example, one-third of South by Southwest Conference attendees this year were based outside the United States, compared to 25% in a regular year. From a networking standpoint, this could mean more people to interact with, and therefore more opportunities to build connections.
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With that said, if it were easy to network without physical access to events like Cannes Lions, there would be no reason for them to exist. To me, part of what makes Cannes Lions so special is the opportunity to spend time face-to-face with luminaries in the creative industry in an atmosphere that is so unlike what most of us experience on a day-to-day basis. Watching a virtual seminar from the same desk where you work simply does not foster the same level of inspiration, nor is networking via Zoom quite as memorable as mingling on a yacht in the French Riviera.
Speaking from personal experience, it is also much more difficult to keep people’s attention during virtual events, simply because you have to compete with so much digital noise. More participants means more competition for access to key decision-makers. Additionally, virtual interactions can often be stymied by technical glitches or distracting background noise.
So, to stand out, you need a conversation starter — one that will enable you to attract the right people’s attention while showcasing the strengths and values of your company. For example, for Cannes Lions, which my company sponsors and attends, we decided to build an app that would show our audiences exactly what deep learning can do, but in a fun and approachable way (and with a few Silicon Valley references thrown in). “Rosé/Not Rosé!” was released last year at around the time that Cannes Lions would normally occur and pays homage to the festival’s favorite drink while demonstrating the accuracy and precision of neural networks.
While I recognize that not every company may have the resources available to create and market an app in addition to their existing responsibilities, it is important to come up with something that will cut through the Zoom fatigue while providing a bit of levity for our still uncertain times. Not only will this make it easier to strike up a conversation with your fellow event attendees, but it also provides an easy opening to talk about the work that your company does or the value that your products offer without coming across like a blatant sales pitch. Additionally, the physical act of downloading an app (or article, website, product, etc.) means that people have a reminder of your company on their phones.
If you are having trouble finding ways to stand out, here are some things to remember:
• Consider your audience. Having a one-size-fits-all approach simply will not cut it — make sure you tailor your messages to the specific people you want to reach.
• Showcase your company’s strengths. My company’s use of deep learning is what sets us apart from our competitors, which is why we chose to build our app.
• Be genuine. The best conversation starters are the ones that feel authentic instead of salesy. They can be heartfelt or humorous, witty or cheeky — but they have to be human.
Like everything else, networking has undergone significant changes over the past year. Previously, I’d say most people preferred face-to-face interactions to digital ones, but as people have become more comfortable — and more accustomed to — interacting solely online, attitudes have changed. In this new era of remote networking, be prepared to think outside the box and find unique ways to showcase your company’s abilities that play into how people are using the internet to discover new partnerships and opportunities. Even as ad executives grow more optimistic about the future of in-person events, it is incumbent upon all of us, as marketers, ad tech providers, brands and more, to come up with new strategies to meet the requirements of this digitally savvy age.
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Author: Jeremy Fain, Forbes Councils Member