Forward Thinking

Planned Serendipity

Your conference is often your stakeholders’ best opportunity to connect in person with thought leaders and colleagues. Yet networking at most events continues to be random, luck-of-the-draw encounters. Why?

By definition, serendipity is a happy accident or surprising discovery that comes when we least expect it. Planned serendipity, on the other hand, is an effort to increase the likelihood and frequency of these discoveries – and it’s happening all around us. Retail stores collect volumes of your product-purchase data. Suddenly, you’re getting discount offers that mirror the products and services you purchase most. Have you noticed any changes in your Google-search results? Data from social-media profiles now factor into search results.

When planned serendipity is executed well, customers notice and appreciate far better experiences. When planned serendipity efforts are more obvious or cross privacy lines, customers feel manipulated – even deceived – and relationships deteriorate.

For years, your customers (attendees) have been sharing valuable data with you that can help create the kind of planned-serendipity moments they will prize at your conferences. Have you been paying attention? If you’ve been capturing and analyzing attendee data, you know what drives people to register for your conference, which sessions they enjoy most, what products and services interest them, and what critical issues are top of mind. This is precisely the information you need to help them identify others they should meet at your conference. Here are three ways to make those connections more likely:

  1. House conference guests on the same floors. When like-minded attendees are in closer proximity, the chances for them to meet and engage in meaningful conversations increase. Because they’re enrolled in the same learning track, they’ll recognize each other when waiting for the elevator. In social psychology circles, there’s a phenomenon known as the “mere-exposure effect” – people develop preferences for things (or people) simply because they are more familiar with them. The more a person is seen by someone, the more likeable that person becomes.
  2. Create small-group seating clusters to spark impromptu conversations. In meeting rooms, create pod-seating clusters where four to six people can easily gather and chat. Create similar cluster-seating arrangements at restaurants, in lobbies, and surrounding all networking receptions. You’ll be amazed at how connections and conversations accelerate.
  3. Train staff and volunteers to be “connectors.” As participants arrive at learning sessions and networking receptions, staff and volunteers need to be on their toes, circulating and engaging in conversations. Show them how to ask participants the kinds of questions (e.g., What session did you enjoy most today?) that can guide them in making valuable introductions to others. This is particularly important for new and introverted members who may not know many people. Create an “army of connectors,” and networking conversations multiply.

Less Random, More Purposeful

Today’s conference audience can make connections with a click, thanks to social media. Conference organizers need to provide more valuable networking experiences. Planned-serendipity strategies, when executed well, are effective in making this happen. Driving better connections is even more crucial for Next Gen attendees – many of whom are questioning the networking value proposition and taking a pass on that cocktail reception.

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.