1. Lessons In Leadership
  2. Thoughts from the Zeitgeist

Networking and/or Learning

It seems obvious. Now. 

Have you ever read research with insights that seem obvious after you’ve read the report but that hadn’t really occurred to you before? Or that prompts you to think about how you approach old habits in a new way? That’s the nature of a recent study conducted by our own Freeman research group. The research is specific to the event industry, but it has broad application for most of us, because most businesses at one time or another bring people together in an event of some sort. This research speaks to our need for meaningful connection. 

Prior to the pandemic, we always considered the two top draws for live, in-person events to be education and keynote presentations. Of course, back then, we didn’t specify “in-person” events because that was the only kind we considered. That changed when the pandemic brought online options front and center. And now, our research shows that event attendees have changed their expectations: their priorities are for networking when in-person and for learning when online. 

Here’s how people responded to a request to “rank order the following elements in order of their importance when you attend events.”

In-Person Online 
Networking Education Sessions 
Exhibits Keynotes/Mainstage 
Education Sessions Networking 
Keynotes/Mainstage Special Events 
Special Events Exhibits 
Source: Freeman Event Research Fall 2022 n=4,419 

This shouldn’t be a surprise — when people are together, they want to connect. That’s the whole point, right?  And yet, before the pandemic, it was something we just took for granted. And to be honest, we squandered the time together by having professionals travel hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles to sit in front of a computer and complete the same educational program they could have taken at home.

This doesn’t mean that education is no longer important at live and in-person events. It just means we need to be smarter and more strategic about what we offer. When we asked people to tell us what they value about networking opportunities, it revealed a way to improve our experience design.  

Clearly, learning is a priority for in-person events. But people want to learn from other people. So, think of this research as a mandate to treat every aspect of an event as a networking opportunity. Make educational sessions an interactive affair where experts facilitate an audience discussion or involve groups in hands-on demonstrations. Design lectures so that they set up peer-to-peer exchanges and breakouts. Leverage the opportunity of being in-person by designing meaningful connections. And conversely, think about your “networking event” in terms of how it helps people learn by meeting new contacts, sharing experiences, and discovering new partners or products that offer relevant business solutions. 

It seems obvious, in hindsight. The research confirms that anything we can do more easily at home, online, in our sweatpants, we’d rather do that way. But if we’re with people who are in our tribe, who have experiences, insights, and life hacks that are meaningful to us, let’s make the most of it. Attendees invest precious time, expense, and personal energy in a quest for connection. It’s our job to make that happen.

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