woman in a virtual conference

Virtual conferences — although by no means a new phenomenon — have a new lease on life in the wake of Covid-19.

During virtual events, you receive the same information and education that you would if attending a regular conference, all from the comfort of your couch. However, these online events still require an adjustment.

You may not only face unique challenges, such as technical hiccups and interruptions, but you’ll miss out on one of the main reasons for attending conferences in the first place — meeting and networking with industry peers face-to-face.

Most of the world has now shifted to life online, but can online networking be done successfully?

“Not easily,” says Dustyn Lanz, CEO of the Responsible Investment Association (RIA).

Every year, the RIA hosts its flagship conference to educate attendees on the latest trends in responsible investing. This year, when in-person events became unfeasible, the association converted the annual event into the inaugural RIA Virtual Conference.

Lanz says making the virtual conference an interactive experience was one of the RIA’s main priorities.

“Our members have communicated to us that they like the opportunity to get together. So when we started thinking about building a virtual alternative, it was really important for us to have that networking component,” Lanz says.

The association explored several software platforms before choosing Hopin, a virtual venue that aims to replicate the in-person event experience online. Hopin’s technology allows attendees to connect with each other via text and video chats, as well as interact with speakers through online polls and audience questions.

“To me, that [interactive element] is what separates a virtual event from a webinar,” Lanz says.

After each session at the RIA Virtual Conference, attendees were invited to click on a separate networking tab to be matched randomly with another attendee who had also clicked on the tab. Each networking session was limited to three minutes — enough time to connect and exchange information, but still provide that “automatic out,” Lanz says, noting that his team received “overwhelmingly positive” feedback on this option.

While virtual networking is easily accessible, not everyone is familiar with the proper etiquette for networking online.

Leslie Hughes, CEO of Toronto-based PUNCH!media, says there are several things to consider before you attempt to network virtually. First, it is important to have an appropriate online presence.

“The first thing I always say,” Hughes says, “is to [make] a solid first impression. If someone doesn’t have an online presence, do you feel like you trust that person?”

Hughes specializes in helping executives and advisors solidify their online presence, specifically through LinkedIn. It’s important, she says, for people to “walk before they run” into online networking by ensuring their LinkedIn profile is up to snuff: “You wouldn’t build a house without having the strong foundation underneath, so you need that solid presence before you can start building connections.”

Proper online etiquette then follows. Hughes notes that virtual networking is a new concept for most — but it doesn’t have to be daunting.

“Anything we do that’s new is going to feel weird and awkward at first,” she says.

Hughes recommends breaking the ice prior to an event to avoid any initial awkwardness. She suggests looking at the list of attendees and proactively connecting with a few professionals on LinkedIn before a virtual conference.

“You are selling that mutual rapport,” Hughes says, “saying, ‘Hey, we are both going to be [at an online event] together,’ and you’d love to connect.”

Hughes, who also has presented at several conferences, suggests that if your goal is to talk to a speaker at a virtual conference, you should send them a message that includes a key takeaway from their talk shortly after the session is over.

“As a speaker, I love it when someone who wants to connect says, ‘Oh, my favourite takeaway was this,’” Hughes says.

Hughes says the most important aspect of connecting with people online is using a personal approach. She advises against leading with a sales pitch — something she refers to as “pitch-slapping.”

“In real life, we would never go up to someone at a networking event and start blasting them with the things that we can do. So why would you ever do it online?”

In general, Hughes says, the most difficult aspects of virtual networking are the soft skills — which are the hardest to teach. Acting the same way online as you would in person is important.

“We are connecting from computer to computer or device to device, but I think people sometimes forget that there is another human being [on the other end],” says Hughes.

Some of the non-negotiable elements in virtual networking are also easy to control, Lanz says.

Two important considerations are wearing the right clothes — business-casual attire, or at least elevated casual — and sitting in a quiet, well-lit area, Lanz says. In addition, a fast, reliable internet connection helps enhance the experience.

“It is hard to have a serious conversation in a virtual setting if you can’t see or hear the person on the other end properly,” Lanz says.

Lanz also recommends thinking about the smaller details. For example, if you’re joining a video call on a laptop, make sure it’s at eye level so people aren’t looking up into your nostrils.

But even with all these concerns addressed, virtual networking isn’t for everyone.

Lisa Elle, founder and financial advisor with Ellements Financial Group in Cochrane, Alta., considers herself a tech-savvy advisor — but she is not a fan of virtual networking: “My honest opinion is that I hate it.”

Elle says she’d prefer not to network again until she can do it in person. Her biggest issue with virtual networking, she says, is that non-verbal cues can be completely lost during an online conversation.

“I feel [virtual networking] is not authentic in that sense,” Elle says. “[Effective communication] is all about body language. When you are in person, you get a sense if someone is interested in talking to you or not.”

Elle says non-verbal cues are important for presenters as well. When she is speaking to an audience, she says, she feeds off their cues. If she gets the sense that the crowd isn’t following her narrative, she changes it. “When [the presentation is held] online, I have no idea if what I am saying is way over someone’s head or if it is beneath them. You can’t teach well without the feedback,” she says. “It’s like listening to a podcast.”

Elle also values the intangible elements of an in-person connection: “When you are face to face with someone, they see all of you. They see the real you. There is a vulnerability that I think is lost when we do this virtual stuff.”

For that reason, Elle says that if she has to connect with someone virtually, she prefers to send a pre-recorded video of herself so she still provides the face-to-face effect. If she’s video-conferencing, she prefers to have one-on-one calls rather than larger group chats.

Hughes agrees that making a connection through video is better than by text or telephone, and she notes that learning about new conferencing technology as it becomes available is important.

“You need to take those baby steps because, at the end of the day, we don’t know how long this [pandemic] is going to last,” Hughes says. “The longer you shelve this [technology], the further behind you are going to get.”

So far, Lanz says he is impressed by the way people have adapted.

“The ‘virtual event’ was not a thing a few months ago. I think the biggest thing we have learned is that people are willing to experiment with technology,” Lanz says. “People have been hit by a sharp learning curve and overcame it.”