Thursday, November 29, 2007

8 Reasons Why Many Networking Events Suck
and how organizers can improve them...

I enter a roomful of people I've never seen before. I write "MIKE" in large block letters on a nametag sticker and attach it to my shirt. I feel marked, but nobody shoots. Nobody even looks. I wander through the throng, trying to find the bar. I can feel the noise. I reach the bar, order a drink and turn to see everyone in small, closed circles. How do I break in? I decide I can't, so I focus on the people outside the groups. Their standing alone, with dead expressions.

And how can I engage a zombie?

I'm pretty good at meeting people for the first time. I don't have a problem striking up and sustaining a conversation. People genuinely like me. So why are so many of the networking events I've recently attended so bad?

1. Nobody's acting as a connector, and people have to sink or swim. You can't tell the organizers from the attendees, and the organizers are most likely perched behind a registration table or inside one of those small, closed groups. It's the organizer's responsibility to make sure that people are connecting, and the shy are included, by searching out the loners, getting them introduced around, even providing icebreakers. Get helpers to move around, meet everyone, be visible. Have them wear funny hats. Jeff Pulver's methods at his recent networking breakfast are ideal for getting strangers engaged with one another. He should be cloned and distributed live.

2. Just when it starts to get decent, the organizers stop everything and start making announcements. Sure, you need to market the event and let people know about what's upcoming. But do you have to do that in the middle of my conversation? You may have cut short a million dollar deal (not likely, but who knows?) Send emails out the next day, create a handout you can pass around unobtrusively while people are talking, highlight your events on your web site. Just don't turn the crowd into a literal audience.

3. The venue is too dark, hot, crowded, noisy (or lacks carpeting). Loud music may require that people stand closer to each other to converse, but it also makes those small circles even smaller. Think about the American Need for Personal Space (read about "Body contact and personal expression") and do a site visit beforehand. You might not be able to remedy all the problems, but at least you can be ready to work around them.

4. Your event is advertised as networking when it's really a presentation (and some of those presentations may be about networking.) Close to #2, although attendees may feel more baited-and-switched. Make sure you haven't set up chairs in the dreaded theater-style. Ban PowerPoints, can the lecturers, and don't focus the group's attention. Provide multiple food/drink stations, and spread handouts on tables around the room - anything to prove we're not back in school.

5. Too much distance between the "old guard" and the "newbies." I went to a playwriting conference at Arena Stage a few years ago - I think I even got an invitation. There were equal numbers of established writers, artistic directors, and struggling playwrights. At lunch, the status quo all sat together, while we huddled at the kids table. Know who will be attending your event. Get clear on the range of people likely involved. If you aren't able facilitate some connections between the old guard and the new, then perhaps you should cancel the event, or at least not hold it again without some real evaluation (and not that checklist you hand out asking us how much we loved you.)

6. The event becomes a figurative fishbowl. Your monthly meetup is a big success. People mark it on their calendars and email you about the next one. Those small, closed circles of participants are really a measure of your success. You wanted people to meet up, and they have. The trouble is, your event has turned into Happy Hour With Friends. Put more time into developing how you want the event to unfold, rather than relying on the "y'all show up" kind of hospitality. Go back to your original reason for getting together. Your original goal is probably light years from "we want to keep the already-acquainted talking only to those they already know."

7. Networking is scheduled for the end of a long day of presentations. This usually happens at conferences. I've been to - and organized - so many meetings jammed full of lectures, slides and handouts, where any networking time longer than a coffee break happens at the end of the day. By 6:00, people are ready for drinks, dinner and conversation, but with their friends. So many attendees have told me they're "burned out" at the end of the day, yet they find the networking to be the best part of their participation. I personally know it's almost impossible to provide for additional mingling time at an annual meeting, where even the lunches are programmed. Someone, someday, will realize this and make the necessary changes. I think.

8. Unclear, or too wide-ranging, event objectives. Sure, I know the main methods of successful networking involves meeting people first, second and third, and then maybe you can get into what you can do for each other. But it's tough to get enthused about a conversation on financial planning when I'm looking to connect on a possible business partnership level. Icebreakers are great to introduce a focused goal - and they don't have to be intricate and minutely planned. I'll bet Jeff Pulver didn't spend much time explaining his goals at the recent breakfast - and you can be reasonably assured the event didn't try to be all things to all people.
What would I have put down for my personal tag line? How about "Mike Ambrose: Making the Personal Universal."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Internet Is For...

A song in Avenue Q tells us "The Internet is for Porn..." That may be the case, but it's also for Lists. And Litemind (the blog for "Exploring ways to use our minds efficiently") has just published a List of Lists, also know as The Lists Group Writing Project. I contributed "Top 23 Motivation Tips, Tricks and Tactics from the Blogosphere" and there are prizes to be had if my list draws enough eyeballs and votes.

But that's now why I've started entering these contests. There are even better outcomes:

1. they guide readers to my blog;
2. they raise my Technorati authority and lower my ranking (towards #1);
3. they introduce me to new blogs that I would probably have never found on my own.

So take a look at the list. My favorites:

17 POWER Tips For StumbleUpon Beginners
...because I need to learn more about this StumbleUpon thing everyone's talking about.

10 Ways To Work Through Your Workout
...because I've tried them and they work!

21 Punching Tips On Social Media Marketing and Social Media Optimization
...because it's a list of articles I can study later.

100 Resources To Improve Your Career, Relationships And Money
...because I'm wildly successful in all three areas (NOT!)

No Cost Business Tools: 37 Free Applications That Make Your Life Easier, Free of Charge
...because the future should continue to be free, or so I believe.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Edgy Characteristics
Yet another great Seth Godin post - The caricature of your brand - got me thinking today about the brands I'm familiar with and how they admit (or hide from) their most telling characteristics. These are the things that people talk about, the thoughts that enter the room before they do, the points that our constantly-sorting and redefining mind choose to remember. Here are a few of my thoughts:

Gold's Gym
Gold's has a charicature in its logo - that intensely developed bodybuilder, holding a barbell that bends under its own weight. Gold's was a gym before there were gyms, and tells of its early days on Venice Beach, California. Everything points to the brand being for muscleheads - but they firmly attach themselves to the general gym-going public. In a recent mailing to me, the facility I'm a member of touted its new coat of paint as a customer service benchmark. While the walls look nice, they're not exciting, and certainly not mentionable. What if Gold's went all the way with the bodybuilder image? Not to alienate themselves from their membership (most of whom do not look like bodybuilders at all), but to create a place that people would talk about. Have you ever heard anyone say "I just love going to my gym?" What if Gold's designed its facilities to take advantage of a retro-California-beach image? What if you entered the gym and you suddenly felt like you were inches away from sun, surf and sand?

Think of a dentist and what comes to mind? Little Shop of Horrors? Dentists get a bad rap all the time. They're usually the worse-case scenario in many a conversation: "I wanted to travel to that meeting about as much as I wanted a root canal." Some are fighting back, acknowledging the fear of pain in potential patients by rebranding their offices with spa services and decor. What I wonder is, why doesn't the ADA take this a run with it?

Atlantis vs. RSVP

In the extreme-niche of Gay travel and vacations, Atlantis and RSVP are the two best-known companies. Both offer sea and land excursions. And recently, Atlantis bought RSVP. In their news release, Atlantis stated that they would keep the RSVP brand and continue to offer vacations through that label. But they never said exactly what that brand is. My friends and I have pondered the difference between the two. . RSVP was the first to offer gay vacations. Atlantis came in and... well, offered the same thing. But the caricature of an Atlantis cruise is tons of buff bodies, all night disco parties on the top deck, stunningly gorgeous men and slightly better ships. RSVP? TanDog (who's been on both) put it this way: The difference in eye candy between an RSVP cruise and and Atlantis cruise is the difference between an atom and the Universe.

Everybody who's ever been to a county fair knows the green clovers with the H's on each leaf. 4-H brands itself as the nation's largest out-of-school youth education organization. They know their caricature: Kids, Cows, and Cooking. Still, they've spent years playing down this image, in favor of chasing after more modern visuals and trying to convince the non-familiar that it's sophisticated and cutting-edge. But people love cows, and cooking (not so sure about kids).

Washington, DC
I've written about DC's image problem before - and suggested that the city embrace some of the aspects it's known for...

I can understand why companies and organizations would want to play down their most prominent features. Just look at how many people go for plastic surgery to "fix" what they feel isn't perfect. We all have a huge desire to blend in, not be noticed for what we're ashamed of. But we also want to stand out. Trouble is, we can't have it both ways (although we try and try and try.) Organizations that capitalize on their possibly-unpopular images could do themselves some damage, but could also be branded with a sense of humor.