Making Conference Connections

By Elsbeth Russell • May 5, 2014

Elsbeth Russell
Elsbeth Russell, Naylor

Networking and education.

If you were to ask your members why they attend your association events—and possibly why they are members of your association in the first place—those benefits would likely be the top two.

While most associations have the educational component down-pat, the networking aspect is a little less tangible.

How intentional are you about facilitating the connections your members want? Apparently the answer for most associations is not very. According to a survey of ASAE Great Ideas Conference attendees, more than 50 percent of respondents say they have no formal on-boarding program for first-time attendees.

And according to Naylor’s annual Association Communications Benchmarking Report, an association’s newest members are only one-third as likely as longstanding members (5+ years) to say they are “Highly Engaged” with an association’s communication efforts.





  • Making first-timers and solo attendees feel comfortable is key to getting repeat attendance that signals a high conference value and makes your event profitable.
  • Steer your members and attendees toward the middle of the room, toward each other and toward that goal of building a network.
  • Playing “matchmaker” before your event can help attendees find like-minded new connections in search of similar solutions and answers.

In presenting that statistic during her session, “Do You Have Them at Hello?” at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference, Sarah Michel, the vice president of professional connexity for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, explained that bringing together those first-timers and attendees who have come on their own can be key in getting the repeat attendance that signals a high conference value and makes your event profitable.

So how do you get attendees—especially any shy wallflowers—to engage and participate, rather than sit back and passively observe? And better yet, how do you give them an experience that will lead them back again next year?

You may feel a bit like a DJ at a middle school dance in the process, but it really all comes down to planning opportunities to steer your members and attendees toward the middle of the room, toward each other and toward that goal of building a network.

Networking at association conferences
How intentional are you about facilitating the connections your members want?

“There are many opportunities for conference organizers to better leverage attendee data and insight to increase the likelihood and frequency of serendipity moments at conferences,” according to the book Conference Connexity from Michel and her colleagues at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

The first step, Michel said, starts before your attendees ever step foot in your conference venue. Start by asking your attendees questions designed to group people together with those searching for the same type of solutions or connections and those with similar likes and dislikes.

This can come down to a simple survey asking three to five questions that aren’t necessarily even conference related. What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream? Which celebrity would you most like to have dinner with?

Keep the answers multiple choice and pair the vanilla lovers and those who’d love to dine with Oprah. This gets the conversation started and builds a sense of community with peers who might have, moments ago, been strangers.

Another idea is designating each new attendee with a “Board Buddy” to whom they can ask questions. This type of buddy is a board member or veteran member who can point a newbie toward a session that might help them in their search for a new member renewal strategy or to a seasoned professional who might be able to offer them tips on their recent association rebranding. Put that buddy’s contact information on the back of the new attendee’s nametag so they can reach out when they need help.

Speaking of the nametag, this simple, omnipresent facet of conference attendance can be an easy and budget-friendly way of encouraging networking to go even further. Before the conference, poll your members to see what competency area they are seeking more knowledge in. Are they looking for information on marketing? They get a red dot on their nametag. Looking for ways to better utilize their AMS to engage members? They get a blue dot on their nametag. Now let’s connect those dots.

Conference Soul Mates

While many of these networking facilitation ideas focus on making deliberate introductions, Michel explained that other intentional choices on behalf of the association can also lead attendees to one another naturally.

Simple tweaks to the seating in your conference rooms can go a long way toward encouraging interaction. In her presentation, Michel said a theater-in-the-round type set-up is suggested, with informal gathering areas such as couches or even high top tables without chairs, within the room.

Another subtle way to encourage networking, Michel said, is by posting a copy of the attendee list on the conference website. This will not only allow attendees to identify those who’d they like to connect with when they are at conference, it may also serve as an enticement for those who weren’t sure about attending.

In Conference Connexity, suggestions from the Velvet Chainsaw team go even further, suggesting that breakout sessions based on specific topics be grouped in rooms close together, fostering opportunities for attendees who are looking for similar takeaways to connect with one another.

The book even suggests taking that same concept and applying it to housing. “House like-minded conference guests on the same floors or building and mere exposure increases. If they’ve been attending some of the same sessions throughout the day, now they’re more likely to spot and acknowledge each other as they wait for the elevator or cross paths in the lobby.”

Long-Distance Relationships

So now your attendees have met, connected over a shared concern or idea, exchanged cards and boarded their respective flights back home. What now? How do you keep them coming back to (and monetarily supporting) future events?

Bonding attendees so that the conversation continues after the event, and hopefully, into next year’s conference, is a potential outcome from all this matchmaking work Michel said can bond members into almost tribe-like groups.

In fact, for one group Michel referenced in her session, the small groups formed during conference became so important to attendees that the members found each other online, forming online communities through social media platforms like Facebook and Google+.

The group Michel mentioned is now planning a reunion at next year’s conference. Their association is once again earning non-dues revenue from their attendance. Are your attendees doing the same?

Elsbeth W. Russell, senior editor at Naylor, LLC, works with association executive clients to produce content-targeted print and online publications. The takeaways in this article were gathered at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference in a session called “Do You Have Them at Hello?” presented by Sarah Michel, the VP of Professional Connexity for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Contact Elsbeth at [email protected].