According to Shawna Vercher, guest writer with Green Entrepreneur:
“Networking has been a key part of business growth and client relationships in nearly every industry. Now, with conferences indefinitely postponed, monthly mixers evaporating, and travel extremely limited, businesses are struggling to adapt their outreach strategies.
“It’s tempting to rush towards the tech as a quick replacement for personal interaction. While there are a number of powerful tools available, technology can feel cold and distant even in the best of circumstances.
“Here are five keys to ensuring that you are actually connecting instead of just contacting your business audience during the pandemic:
1. Now is the time to target your invites
“One-size-fits-all content is rarely a good idea, but right now it can really set back your brand. Our Inboxes are flooded with COVID messages from every store we have ever visited in the last decade. If your invitation or update does not specifically pertain to me, I’m not only going to delete it, I’m likely to take that extra step and remove myself from your list while I’m purging discount offers from my cruise line.
“Take the time to identify who you are reaching out to at this moment. Treat existing clients differently than prospects. For additional impact, take the extra step to pull your high-value/VIP customer list into communication that will be personalized even further.
“Prospects may be encouraged by the promise of deferred payments, but current clients want to hear how you are adapting your business to still meet their needs. Whether it’s a quick email newsletter or an online seminar, your content has to pass the “why should I care?” test to gain any traction.
2. Offer multiple sessions for multiple lifestyles
“There are countless variations of the “You Won’t Want to Miss This!” headline floating around out there. Even with a compelling invitation, I won’t be joining your really interesting “for one day only” online workshop Thursday at 4 p.m. … not unless you want to hear my daughter’s online drum lesson in the background.
“One of the tricks of pandemic living is that we are all in confined, shared spaces. Regimented ‘catch it before it’s gone’ scheduling leaves too many people unable to participate. Some have multiple children homeschooling during the day and can only make evenings work. For many who have been living in front of a screen for office conference calls all day, there may be a ‘log off by five’ self-care rule. And with sleep patterns being disrupted during this time of stress, breakfast events at 7:30 a.m. suddenly feel MUCH earlier than they used to.
“Make sure that you have a true variety of times available so that people can take you up on your offers. Vary the time of day, days of the week, and even lengths when possible. It’s far more important to reach people at a time that they can receive your message than it is to have every session be identical.
3. Find a way that people can participate.
“You’re not as entertaining as ‘Tiger King.’ Even with your best content, prepared lovingly, and delivered flawlessly, being engaging for an hour as a solo act or panel discussion during the apocalypse is a tough ask. If I’m going to stare at someone else talking for that long, I may as well sit on my couch and start streaming a show.
“Solicit questions on social media platforms that you’ll answer. Shorten the segments during a seminar or podcast to include a variety of guests or topics. Call on members of the audience who logged in – either via video or using a chat feature. For seasoned content providers, the unpredictable can be a nightmare. It’s time to relax those rules a bit and realize that now the unexpected is what will make me remember that I attended your event.
“Also, remember the reason that people attended networking events in the first place. Part of it was to hear the speaker(s), but a big motivation was to connect with each other for networking as well. Consider ways you could connect attendees to each other during the event or shortly after.
4. Remind me why I need you
“Just last week, I got an email from a mall chain that sells costume jewelry promising me ‘lower than ever’ prices for faux crystal necklaces and cartoon character earrings if I buy them online. A more effective approach may have been to ask me to surprise my child who is socially distanced from all of her friends with a fun gift to make her smile. It’s your job to tell your customers how they could benefit from your products or services in a way that connects.
“Whether you are broadcasting your message or connecting with a prospect/client on a one-on-one call, adapt your networking approach, and zero in quickly on what would meet their needs this second. How will you make someone’s job or life easier, more pleasant, more relaxed, or simply feel more normal? Your value proposition has to change with the times. Being optimistic about the future is great, but businesses and families are only spending money on what they feel like they need in the short term.
5. Make time for pleasantries
“One of the reasons networking is a powerful tool is because of the irreplaceable human connection. When you meet a representative of a company, you get a feel for who they are and how they do business. If two proposals for an item are nearly similar, I’m going to select the vendor that seems easier to work with or the brand that I feel shares my values.
“Part of the ‘cris-ortunity’ of this pandemic is that we are all going through a shared experience. Find a way to connect with your audience by sharing stories about how they are making it work. This could be a set time during an online event to swap life hacks, a planned segment during a presentation to share a positive story or experience you’ve read about or something light-hearted like sharing pet photos. The best relationships begin with feeling heard and seen. Your audience is more likely to trust you if you feel like a human being instead of a corporate logo.”