How to help your event newbs: Tips for helping first-time attendees build relationships before an event

helping first-time attendees build relationships before an event

Most of us can relate to being the new person in some form or another. A first-time attendee, a new member, being the only staffer from your company attending an event, etc. awkwardly sipping your drink while you look around the room, trying to make eye contact with someone or to possibly creep your way into a conversation that you’ve been eavesdropping on. Not the greatest feeling. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could help people avoid that feeling for good, and actually help them look forward to attending your event?

There is a lot of talk about getting the next generation to attend more professional events and join associations. I’ve written before about ways of attracting millennials to events (which touches heavily on the important of facilitating networking) – but these only work if you actually get their foot in the door.

At Redstone, we’ve put a lot of thought into this because we sometimes hear that associations can be cliquey. Long-time members see each other once or twice a year at a conference and love catching up and sticking together – and why shouldn’t they be able to? But, if you want your first-time attendees to return, helping them build relationships beforehand is important. Here are a few things to consider when planning your next event.

Don’t use a sticker or ribbon to identify first-time attendees. Does anyone like having a spotlight on them saying, I’m new and I don’t know what I’m doing?

Do identify people that have volunteered to act as a connector for newcomers. This will make them more approachable. Another option (an oldie but a goodie) is a connector/connectee program. First-time attendees really do appreciate having a veteran offer to meet with them for half an hour at the start of the conference and introduce them to a few people.

Don’t have a traditional new members reception. These can be awkward and you may end up with poor attendance.

Do host something for newcomers before the opening reception, like a pub night or activity that people actually want to attend. Better yet, hold regular new member events separate from your annual conference – they can be less intimidating for newcomers, and allow them to get to know a few people before being overwhelmed by hundreds of attendees.

Don’t make the mistake of underusing your conference app. Apps can be purchased at an annual rate, so why not use it year round to foster and build community?

Do encourage attendees to create their profiles a few weeks in advance so that registrants can see who is attending. This will help them determine who they want to meet, or even use the messenger function to reach out in advance or onsite and schedule a meeting in person.

A few other ways you can have attendees connect online are:

  • Use your online community – Get the conversation started by having a few event ambassadors start conversations on LinkedIn or Twitter, such as through a weekly Twitter chat leading up to the event.
  • Share your program – Have your app enabled to have attendees share the sessions they’re attending. First-time attendees might be interested in seeing which streams other professionals with similar interests might be attending.
  • Start an online ice breaker – Introduce gamification to your app to encourage more frequent use. I’m an avid app user, but I will admit that the last conference I attended I had to have my boss tell me twice to download the app, despite having seen and read an email explaining how it worked. The reality is, people are lazy! Give them a reason to login in advance other than seeing the program.
  • Last but not least – get feedback from your attendees! Add a question to your post-event survey about the ease in which they were able to connect with others in advance of the event and how this impacted their overall experience. You need to know how your efforts are measuring up so that if something isn’t working, you can try something new.
About the author:

As Director, Association Management & Consulting Services at Redstone Agency Inc., Maddy has worked with over 20 not-for-profit organizations located in Canada and the United States as well as an international association. She is focused on ensuring her clients always receive advice based on best practices and brings a wealth of knowledge in membership engagement, CMS and website platforms, systems and processes management as well as change management. A bilingual member of the team, Maddy also has expertise in providing board and volunteer support and structuring the annual financial reporting systems of many organizations. Maddy has published articles on Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation, green workplaces and taking control of workplace stress. Maddy was named a 2015 Top 40 Under 40 by the Association Forum of Chicagoland and USAE Weekly. This prestigious award recognizes 40 up-and-coming association and not-for-profit professionals who demonstrate high potential for success in leadership roles and exhibit a strong commitment to the association management profession. Maddy is also the 2014 recipient of the Donna Mary Shaw Award from the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). It is awarded to individuals in the not-for-profit sector with a passion for management and mentoring. Maddy sits on CSAE’s Young Professionals Taskforce and is currently working towards completing her CAE designation.

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