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Meaningful Networking in a Virtual World: It CAN Be Done
By Mark Fagnani
I was a lender for over 40 years and have been a member of SFNet for most of that time. I have attended many conferences over the years. I especially enjoy the SFNet Annual Convention. A different city every year, an opportunity to catch up with all the people I know in the industry, but haven’t seen in a while, and an opportunity to meet lots of new people that I didn’t know or only knew by telephone or e-mail. When I was a lender, our syndications group would arrange a lot of meetings with existing and potential new partners and very often was able to pitch new deals. This was a time to solidify relationships, expand your professional and personal network and maybe get some business done. For years, I never came home from the convention without at least one new potential deal to review. And, of course, there were always exceptional keynote speakers and terrific panels to attend as well.
Today, I represent a service provider to the lending industry and it is vital to me to meet people, make new contacts and make sure that folks are aware of our company and our capabilities. Of course, now, thanks to COVID-19, social gatherings such as the convention are off the table and may remain so for some time. Yet, I still want to accomplish all of the things I mentioned above. How can this be achieved in a virtual environment?
SFNet and many other organizations are hosting virtual events. On the face of it, the process is simple. Register for the event, get your login credentials and attend all of the keynote addresses and the panels you want. But what about the networking, the in-between events time? The visiting with known associates and colleagues and meeting new ones? It’s not like you can just walk around the hotel or the lounge or into the dining room and bump into people. Yet, the capabilities for these activities do exist within the platform provided at these events but, unfortunately, most attendees in my experience to date, are not taking advantage of these features. This is unfortunate and minimizes the value of the conference. Pre-COVID no one would register for and attend the event, but not interact with people in between sessions or during meals and yet, if you are not using the platform fully, this is exactly what will happen. That’s not beneficial to anyone (and definitely not me, and after all, I’m the author of this piece). Here are my suggestions for maximizing both your enjoyment of virtual conferences and their utility.
Register and then download the platform both to your laptop and to your phone or tablet device. SFNet will be using a platform called SFNet Connect. It is already available to every person that has registered for the conference. I do understand that some platforms may be blocked by bank security protocols. SFNet is prepared to work with member organizations to make sure its platform (SFNet Connect) will work, but the sooner this is done the better. I strongly urge you to familiarize yourself with all the features early on. Notably, on SFNet Connect a scheduling calendar is included so you can send an invitation to meet to any other attendee. If they accept, at the agreed-upon date and time, you both connect via a provided link. Meetings can last as long as you like. Note that the platform will send a note via email alerting you to the invitation and you can export the meeting to your Outlook calendar. Similarly, others can send invitations to meet to you and you will see them in your message box and you will also receive an email notification.
Another convenient feature is the platform enables you to download your connections’ information as a vcard. SFNet Connect also assists with building your personal schedule. Simply check off the keynote speakers and panel discussions you wish to attend. This blocks those time slots from your calendar. As you make or accept meetings, they are also maintained on the system so that the occasional glance at your schedule will tell you what you planned next and “where” you need to be. It also enables you to know what time slots are still available. Further, anyone wishing to set up a meeting with you will also know what time slots are still available so they will not send you an invite for a day or time when you are already committed. However, this only works if you are using the SFNet Connect platform. Maintaining appointments on your personal calendar leads to confusion and either no meetings or double bookings. If someone has sent you a message, you will see it waiting for you in the platform-provided message box. In this way, you can meet one on one with people all day long.
In addition, there are common chat rooms provided during the course of the event. Entering is like walking into a bar, lounge or dining room. You can connect with every other person in that room at that moment, not dissimilar to the experience you would have if you were attending in person. This year, the chat rooms will be set up by possible interests, such as Women in Secured Finance (WISF), YoPro, Diversity, Advocacy, etc. While I suggest visiting all of the rooms during down time (that is, in between panel sessions), you may tailor your visits based on personal interests. During panel sessions, you are able to view who is in “the room” and chat with them just by clicking on their name. Meeting virtually actually has an advantage over in-person: you can view the person’s company and title before striking up a conversation. This is not dissimilar to looking at someone’s badge if we were present in person and can provide a bit of an ice breaker.
The SFNet Annual Convention offers an array of entertainment options, which will serve as yet another way to network. Join your fellow attendees during the poker tournament or group trivia…all from the comfort of your home or office.
The SFNet Annual Convention is a networking event. I encourage all planning to attend to make the best use of SFNet Connect to ensure that you maximize the experience. I hope to “see” you all there.