Just a heads up, this post is a 6000 word monster to walk you through each and every step of planning a powerful networking event, but don’t worry… Before you get overwhelmed, we are putting together an accompanying workbook that will help you take all of this and put it into action.
In early 2014, I started looking to meet new people but I didn’t want to be in a “happy hour” group.
I wanted to be part of an organization with substance… But as it turns out, there aren’t a whole lot of young professionals groups that are focused on professional development more than they are on partying.
So, I started my own group.
We started on Meetup as South Florida Young Professionals and eventually outgrew the platform.
We eventually moved to our own site, used our Facebook page, group and email list to communicate and sold tickets through EventBrite… and now we’ve evolved beyond just in person events to what you see here.
Our primary goal is very simple: to develop young professionals and to put them in the right place, both mentally and physically, to create a better community.
Our long-term goal is to become the largest and most influential young professionals organization in the country (as it stands, there are tons of career specific young professionals groups, but there isn’t an organization that’s focused on bringing young professionals together across industries to build them up).
We started out by hosting mostly social events because they’re the easiest to get people to attend.
As we evolved, we grew a heavy focus on self-development and service, but always make sure to have our fun.
With that said, if I had to guess, I would say I’ve hosted at least fifty happy hour/social events and can easily draw 50-100 people to an event.
Because I’ve hosted so many networking events, I have it down to a science.
The purpose of this whole back story wasn’t to brag but just to make sure that you know this isn’t just fluff.
I’m giving you all of the strategies that I use that have helped me consistently host successful events.
In the interest of length, this post is specifically written about hosting networking mixers. I could get into the details of hosting a dozen different types of events, but mixers are by far the simplest to host and the easiest to put together and starting a mastermind group is a close second.
Planning A Networking Event
Besides wanting to get people together, the first thing that you have to decide is the purpose of your event.
… Is it to build professional relationships?
… Maybe raise money for an organization?
… Make a new announcement?
… Raise awareness for a cause?
… Recruit members?
While you’re planning your networking event, you should know what your “one thing” is. Don’t skip this part… You need to know what your purpose is so that the rest of the decisions in the planning process are infinitely easier to make.
We run our events as series.
Each series has 4-6 workshops, a service project and 2 social events (each series runs 4-6 months). The first social event of the series is the Mid-Series Mixer. That is a free networking event where our ‘one thing’ is to get non-members to an event, get them to meet our members in a casual setting and get them excited about joining the group.
At the end of the series, we have our Diamond Event. Our Diamond Event is also a social event but is meant to be a little more formal than our Mid-Series Mixer and we award our members who have completed the series and announce our next series.
Your purpose and structure doesn’t have to be as formal as ours, but you need to have a specific purpose in mind.
You’ll have dozens of decisions to make in planning your networking event and when it comes time to promote it, you’ll need to be able to communicate it’s purpose in a clear and concise way.
Start working on that now.
Next, you need to know your target audience.
Everyone talks about having a niche, I know. If you’re like I was, you probably want to just skip past the unsexy part and get to the planning.
Don’t do it!
It’s the most important part of having a successful event. Your demographics don’t have to be by age like ours is. Your focus can be on gender, interest, religion, political affiliation, whatever you want it to be.
The goal of a networking event is to put like-minded people together, so focus on getting specific about the type of people at the event rather than quantity.
People will have a better time if there’s only 10 people who attend but they have great conversations than if there’s 100 people that they can’t connect with.
For us, we target young professionals ages 21-40 who want to make an impact on the community. Our average member is 25-35 and is a few years into their career already.
Knowing this makes planning and marketing the rest of the networking event easier because I know how to target them. I know what our members like and are looking for and I know what they expect.
We are strict on the 40 year old age limit because there’s tons of events for professionals where the audience is in their 40’s and 50’s and there aren’t enough for young professionals.
I’ve asked people who were over 40 to leave our events. Our members come back because they know what to expect. If we start straying away from that, their loyalty will waver (and every time we lose focus on our purpose, we HAVE lost them).
Target Number of Attendees
Personally, I don’t like when events get bigger than 50 people.
When there’s more than that, people resort to treating their business cards like frisbees and throwing them at anyone and everyone because FOMO (the fear of missing out) kicks in.
Our attendees get overwhelmed with too many people and lose depth in their conversations.
I love mixers of 30-50 people because you can talk to a decent number of them in 2 hours, it’s intimate enough where you can build great relationships, people will remember you, the people who are a little shy don’t get overwhelmed and you will have conversations that will lead to a welcomed follow-up. It’s also easier to remember names and give introductions when there’s only 30-50 people at the event.
Will you charge?
At first, I was really resistant to charging for our events because I didn’t want attendance to drop.
At first, I was really resistant to charging for our events. Once we finally started charging, our attendance actually grew. People put a value on things they have to pay for. I’m not saying you have to charge, just don’t have to be afraid of it.
If you’re going to charge, just make sure you’re offering something in return (drink tickets will suffice – more on that in the venue section).
Originally, we would charge sporadically for events to cover our costs and it worked fine, but our organization really blew up when we implemented our subscription model. The membership gets you into all of our events. The stakes are absolutely higher from a leadership standpoint when you charge on a subscription basis, but it makes it easier to host events because you don’t have to work as hard at promotion. If someone doesn’t want to join, they can still come to our events for $25/event, but as you can see, joining is the better deal.
If you’re already getting overwhelmed, I recommend you download your workbook that accompanies this post. This post teaches you how to plan a networking event and the workbook will help you put it into action.
When I’m working on a project, I’m a little (ok, I’m lying) I’m very meticulous.
Our members will tell you that they call me crazy because of how detailed I am about our events. You could probably argue that I’m borderline OCD…. That’s because if my name is on it, I expect it to be extraordinary. While that might sound great and all, it’s terrible for delegation purposes and my stress levels. That puts 100x more work on me.
I’m still working on leveraging because you can’t plan a great networking event if you do it all by yourself. I’ve learned that people will absolutely contribute (and be excited to do so) but you have to make them feel like their contribution is valued and welcome. Saying thank you isn’t enough – make them feel like you need their help.
Go ahead, let that ego down. You do need them. You’ll put on a better event with the help of others.
Make Your List
Next, you want to have at least 5-10 people who are influencers in your target demographic.
I’ll start by saying I didn’t do this at the beginning, but I wish I had. Find a few people who are really passionate about whatever your purpose is and get them onboard and do yourself a favor… Get them onboard when you first start planning the event.
More than anything, you’ll need help with your invite list, promoting the event and venue suggestions or introductions. If you know anything about millennials, we want to do things that have a purpose.
If you’re asking an acquaintance for an introduction, they’re not going to get excited. If you ask them to help you put together an event so that you can raise money for a cause, I’m willing to bet that their attitude will change.
By having these influencers, you’ll establish credibility around your event instantly which will make all of the above easier. Remember, promotion is going to be your toughest battle (especially if this is your first event).
People are bombarded with hundreds of invites and bits of information every second so you’re going to have to deal with the people who just don’t take action because they’re already overwhelmed by information. Your influencers will make it easier to create buzz around your event.
Finding the Venue
When you’re finding a venue, my suggestion is to always go with a newer restaurant or bar.
Established places usually charge for the use of their rooms because they can. Newer places need to get people in the door and your attendees will appreciate it because it’s somewhere they haven’t been before.
This is where knowing if you’re going to charge or not comes in handy. I can’t speak for everywhere, but here in South Florida, most places will offer drink tickets for their happy hour price… Most places will charge me $5 per drink ticket and we pay at the end. I’ve also had places charge me just for the bartender in the private room and they offered a free drink ticket and appetizers.
It really depends on what they’re willing to do but you won’t know until you start the conversation.
Approaching the Venue
Instead of reaching out via email or by phone, I recommend you go to the venue that you’d like to host at and ask for the manager.
Yes, you absolutely read that right.
Trust me, it’s easier that way. Tell them that you want to bring 30-50 people to buy drinks from them and wanted to know if you could use their private area. By being there, you’ll get all of the kinks worked out, know exactly where you’ll be and how the event will flow. A few things to look for:
- Whatever you do, make sure that the networking event is in it’s own private area. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to figure out who belongs to the group because there’s people walking back and forth through the group to go to the other side of the restaurant or to go to the bathroom.
- Make sure the venue is small enough that it forces people to be close to each other – they’ll talk to each other that way. Think of it like a middle school dance – you have to get everyone interacting because they’re all scared of each other. Having a small venue makes that way easier.
- This is a small detail that most people will overlook but it makes a difference. Make sure that the venue isn’t long and narrow. Your attendees will move around less and talk to less people because they don’t want to draw the attention of everyone by walking through the crowd to get from one end to the other. Networking doesn’t come naturally to most people so make sure that you do everything you can to make them comfortable.
- Don’t give them too many places to sit. You want people on their feet so they’ll move around and talk to each other. As soon as they plant their butts in a chair, they instantly close off and stop talking to people.
If you decide not to charge, you’ll still want to let the venue know that you’re bringing a group.
They may still offer to give you drink tickets and light appetizers on the house (that’s a nice extra but don’t count on it). Make sure that you’ve worked out how attendees will find you once they get there.
After meeting with the venue, confirm with the venue representative in an email everything that you’ve talked about, ensure that you’ve worked out payment (if there is any) and that you’re on the same page with expectations.
If anything changes, keep the venue in the loop. There’s nothing they hate more than having to accommodate major last minute changes.
By now, you’ve planned the major parts of your event. You have your influencers, know how to convince someone to come to your event with your clear and concise messaging, and you’ve secured your venue.
I know this is a lot, so I created a whole workbook on planning a powerful networking event for you.
Next up, it’s time to start promoting the event.
The Grind: Promotional Frenzy
Designing the Marketing Materials
Now comes the fun (and stressful) part…
The marketing. *Cue Law & Order style duh-duh*.
If you’ve never heard of Canva, you better become besties with the platform.
It’s the best way to design pretty much anything. Canva is free to use (they charge $1 for some of their templates or their images, but you can import your own images for free). You can design your flyer quickly and painlessly using their beautiful templates.
They’ll look professional and it’ll be easy to do. You can let everyone think that you spent lots of money on your marketing, but we’ll keep the Canva secret between us!
Create the Event Online
If you’re putting this together as a recurring event, you’ll need to figure out what platform you want to use.
Meetup is awesome for bringing a constant flow of new people to your events but I absolutely abhor their limited capabilities to communicate with members – so if you use Meetup, don’t let that be your main source of communication. You’ll want to direct them to a different signup form so you can get an email address and phone number.
Whether you’re doing this to start a group or just a one-time event, create a Facebook event for it and then direct everyone to RSVP on EventBrite.
I freaking LOVE EventBrite.
EventBrite is so user-friendly, beautiful and full of amazing stats… and to top it off, they have an app called “Organizer” which makes it beautiful and simple to check people in at the networking event too. However you decide to promote the event or start growing your group, I recommend using EventBrite as the place where you have people RSVP or buy tickets.
Facebook & LinkedIn
Now that you the event setup and the flyers put together, it’s time to go to work on promoting the crap out if it (the crap is definitely necessary because if you don’t overdo it, you’re not going to have the success you’re looking for). Firstly, you’re going to have to introduce the event to your network. I recommend starting about 2 weeks in advance.
Invite everyone to the event on Facebook. Most people leave it at sending an invite but a lot of people ignore invites, so this is just a warmup.
A few things about promoting…
- If your Facebook page (not you, the individual) hosts the event, you can boost the event (as in pay to have it seen by more people). There are tons of articles and videos about boosting posts. In my experience, if you spend $10-$20 for the 3 days before the event, you’ll get a few more attendees than you would have had otherwise and you’ll stay top of mind for the people who were “maybes”.
- Make sure you promote the event in groups too. For us, there’s a bunch of young professionals groups on both Facebook and LinkedIn, so I always post them there too. The key to getting people’s attention in groups is that you have to make the event stand out. There are dozens of event invites going through those groups, so be different.
So once you’ve done all of that, start promoting the crap out of it on your personal page and get your influencers to do the same. Please…I repeat…PLEASE…DO NOT USE LANGUAGE LIKE:
“It would really mean a lot to me if…”
Wording like “RSVP today!” has ‘I’m going to sell you something’ written all over it.
For the rest of the god awful wording above, no one cares about you. I’m not being mean but people are not going to go out of their way to support you, no matter how much you have a winning personality. Regardless of what they tell you, they’re going to go because it will benefit them.
They might even donate money, but it’s not to support you — it’s because it makes them feel good to donate. They might come, but it’s because they wanted to, not because you wanted them to.
All of your marketing needs to be centered around how it benefits them.
The wording above says ‘I’m special so you need to care about me’ rather than ‘you’re special so I want you at the event.’ If you have an issue with this new approach, that’s probably because you’re putting your ego above the success of your event. I know this because I’ve been there before.
Being that I target millennials, my marketing approach might be a little more playful than if you were targeting a little bit of an older or different demographic. I have a ton of fun with my marketing (it’s my favorite part of both selling real estate and running my organization). I can’t tell you how many compliments I get on how much people love my Facebook and Snapchat presence – not because I do anything special, but because I keep it super positive, fun and informational. A lot of what they love is how I promote my events.
A lot of what they love is how I promote my events. When I first started, I was 100% certain that I was going to lose a bunch of friends because I was so annoying about the events. Now, I’m always going for a laugh when I’m promoting our events and they love it. I can’t speak for promoting on LinkedIn yet because I’ve just started becoming really active here, so I’m still finding my voice.
Every post can’t be about the event.
Social media’s algorithms will only show some of your posts, so make sure your posts aren’t spammy. Focus on the 411 rule. The rule says you should post four posts that are not related to business, 1 post that’s informative and 1 post can be salesy. I follow this rule normally, with the exception of the 3 days before an event… Which leads me to ‘the blitz’.
Three days before the event, I go on an absolutely ridiculous promotional blitz.
Pretty much every single thing I post is about the event during the three days before the event. The key is that you can’t add a link to every post. Mix it up!
You can post information about the cause, mention other people who are attending the event, talk about planning the event and go for a few laughs. We will also post pictures from past events, talk about the groups, share jokes and I always go #hashtagcrazy.
The hashtags have sort of become my signature — I don’t expect anyone to actually use them to search for other posts with the same hashtag, but I do them because they make me laugh and because I’m a millennial (I know, such a well thought out excuse).
Most of our members are super active on Facebook and Snapchat and less so on LinkedIn, so if I were to do this on LinkedIn, it would be a little more formal and a little less playful.
Here’s an example of one of my posts on Facebook:
Facebook won’t let me share the video here, so below is also a few screenshots of it. The video is comprised of screenshots from my Snapchat story which is just the ticket sale confirmations. This is the best example of social proof ever. It shows them that other people are buying tickets and that if they don’t, they’ll be missing out.
My goal in doing this is to wear people down to the point where they can no longer come up with excuses not to come. They finally break and decide they have to be there or they’ll be missing out on something. I absolutely go into ‘overkill, overtime’ mode.
If your advertising is boring, it’s not going to get their attention. I have a lot of fun with this and I’m VERY annoying about the event but it works. It gets people to the events. I’ve never had someone complain that I was doing too much —I’ve only gotten compliments for how committed I am to this so my best advice is don’t be afraid to be annoying.
If you’re not passionate about it, you won’t get anyone else to be either.
Most of your tickets/RSVPs will come in the 48 hours before the event so don’t freak out if you’re not getting responses.
Most people don’t want to commit until they know they can actually come which is exactly why I always start my blitz 3 days before. Those last three days are not procrastination, that’s strategic.
We always get a few people to RSVP early on but everyone else waits til right before.
During the 3 day blitz, I post every 3-4 hours about the event and I am not afraid to show how serious I am about getting people there. Because I’m so ridiculous about it, we now have members who are also going crazy promoting the events for us too.
Being passive about your promotions will not get people to your event.
This chart is just to show you proof of how much people wait til the last minute… This was for our last mid-series mixer. We sold 55 tickets and the event was on November 2nd. On Halloween, we sold 10 tickets, on November 1st, we sold 15. The day of, we sold an additional 19… This is why I do the blitz for the 3 days before the event.
If you want to get RSVPs or ticket sales sooner, there are a few things you can do… If you put a cap on your RSVPs, you’ll get RSVPs/ticket sales faster too because you’re appeasing their urgency.
Again, I don’t like to go over 50 attendees, so I’ll usually cap the tickets at 55 or 60 for our mid-series mixer. As soon as we hit about 40-45 tickets, I start posting the link to EventBrite with however many hours and tickets are left.
Every time I do this, tickets go immediately.
You can also do tiered pricing. For example, the first 10 tickets are free, the next 10 are $5, the next 10 are $10 and so on. Another variation of this is to put deadlines on ticket prices — tickets are $X until this date, and then they go up to the next amount until that deadline and so on. You can do all of this in EventBrite.
Lastly and ABSOLUTELY most importantly, do not neglect personal invitations.
We all have a bajillion (yes, a bajillion — not just a million) things going on in our lives so it’s easy to brush off or forget the people and events that are not right in our faces. When you’re doing your personal invitations, do yourself a favor and don’t sound like a club promoter. Make them personal. Have a conversation like you’re inviting a friend out for a drink. Ask them if they already have plans for that day and share your messaging about the event.
Tell them why you want them to be there and if there’s anyone you want to introduce them to. Focus on how their attendance would benefit them, not you.
They will only go if and when you can show them how attending will benefit them. Start the personal invites early (2 weeks or so before the event) and keep a list of yes’s, no’s and maybe’s. I like to do this in Trello because you can rearrange the cards easily and it’s visually appealing. I have six lists in one Trello board:
- Hit List: These are influencers and people I’m working on getting to an event but have never been yet.
- To Invite: These are people who have been to events before but haven’t been yet.
- Yes: No description necessary.
- No: I always include why they can’t come.
- Maybe: These are people who said maybe. Don’t let non-committal people ruin your event. Keep following up with them until they give you a yes or no.
- Don’t Bother/Invite: These are people that I don’t want to come back to events or I’ve just given up on inviting because they’re wishy-washy.
About 2-3 days before, confirm with all of the yes’s to make sure they’re still coming and try to get a solid answer out of the maybe’s. The morning of the event, text them all to remind them, let them know how to find you and what to expect with parking.
If you consistantly do this, you’ll get far less maybe’s and more committed yes or no’s. You need to make sure that they know that they are wanted at the event.
When people feel wanted, they will show up.
If you act like you don’t care if they come or not, they won’t bother to show. Let that pride down and let them know they’re wanted. It’s for the good of your event.
Pro Tip: After the event, anyone who said maybe or yes and didn’t show, reach out and let them know they were missed. Tell them how awesome the event was and how much better it would have been if they were there. I promise they’ll be at the next event. Don’t just read this post and forget everything. Put it into action with the workbook that I’ve created for you.
Je Ne Sais Quoi (The Little Something)
You’re going to have three types of people at your events.
- The Networking Pro: They know how to work a room, they’re masters of small talk and they attend events regularly. They might even run into some people they’ve met before at your event. They know why they’re there and they know how to get what they want.
- The Once-In-A-Bluer’s: These are people who aren’t necessarily opposed to networking, but they don’t make a habit out of it. They will usually hang in the background and observe. These are generally the people who ask themselves why they come to these events anyways because they don’t go with a defined purpose.
- The Newbie: These are your attendees who’ve never been to a networking event before and they don’t know what to expect.
Everyone will fall into one of these categories to varying degrees and you want to make sure you can give every single one of them a five-star experience. You want the networking pro to talk about your event after and come back next time. You want the OIAB’s to take action after the event and you want the newbies to have a good time.
That’s why this section is called the je ne sais quoi (the little something).
It’s the little touch that makes people continue to talk about your events and continue to come back. It doesn’t take a whole lot. It just has to be something that comes as a pleasant surprise. We do a few things to give them that experience…
- Hugs: I’m all about authenticity and getting people to be comfortable. I don’t believe in the old rules of networking, hence why I wrote this post about exactly that — so whenever someone reaches for a handshake, I always grab them and say “we give hugs, not handshakes.” That will usually get their guard down. That physical touch automatically gets them more relaxed.
- Name Tags: At our social events, we always have name tags, but we don’t just do names. Under their name, we always have them put the answer to our random question for the event. We’ve done favorite ice cream, favorite Disney movie, liquor, what animal you’d be and dozens more. I usually leave it up to the first two or three people to come up with the question for the night. Name tags don’t tell you anything about a person if there’s just a name but the random question gives them something to start a conversation about. It works every single time.
- Introductions/Clique-iness: when someone gets to the event, we always have them grab a drink and a name tag. I walk around and introduce them to other people. Once they look comfortable where they are, I move on to the next group of people. This immediately gets them talking to people so they don’t feel awkward at the beginning and makes sure that they don’t walk in the room standing around looking for someone to connect with. This also serves to make sure that people don’t get cliquey. That’s the biggest complaint about networking groups —there’s a few people who are like an elite little circle that no one else is allowed to be part of. Making sure that everyone is introduced to other people forces them to start talking to other people. People love this because they don’t have to awkwardly start conversations by themselves.
Be Humble & Graceful
This sounds like it would be obvious, but make sure you go above and beyond to be humble.
Since you’re hosting the event, people will try to put the spotlight on you and shine attention towards you. It’s very easy to just eat it up and relish in it, but don’t — remember, they’re there for them, not for you. Keep the focus on them. You can gloat after the event (and trust me, after a great event, you definitely will!).
- After you’ve introduced everyone, stand back and observe. If you ever pay attention to me at an event I’m hosting, I do a lot of this. It’s the most amazing feeling to see that all your hard work has paid off when you see a bunch of smiling faces and people who are talking to each other. Make sure that everyone’s talking to someone and if there’s anyone awkwardly by themselves or looks uncomfortable in a conversation, strike up a conversation with them.
- I do a lot of check ups. You’ll find people tend to gravitate towards groups so I’ll just walk up, put my hand on whoever’s back and just ask if everyone’s ok and if they need anything. Sometimes they’ll have a question for me about the group, they might just include me in the conversation or they might just say they’re fine. I know they’re fine because they’re laughing together, but that check up is just to show them that I care.
- Make sure you show them how grateful you are that they came and really listen when people speak to you. Don’t get distracted by everyone else. If you’re talking to one person, finish with them and include other people in the conversation, but don’t break your focus for every little distraction or you make them feel like they’re not important enough for your attention.
- Make eye contact! It’s easier than ever to have your eyes somewhere else when it’s your event and you’re keeping an eye on everything but be aware of that. It’s just basic manners.
- Seriously, stay humble. Make an effort to go out of your way to do so. I don’t mean humble brag, I mean stay completely humble. Let the attendees do the bragging for you.
To Speech or Not To Speech
This is completely up to you. Some events will warrant it, some won’t. I make a speech at our Diamond event but I don’t at our mid-series mixer. Either way, you need to have a call to action and figure out how to deliver it so that everyone receives it. If you’re raising money for an organization, you should absolutely make a speech —even if it’s just a few minutes.
If you’re not going to make a speech, make sure you go out of your way to talk to everyone and share what the purpose of the event is. It is completely up to you. I don’t think every event needs one so this is where you go back to your purpose for the event. If you make a speech, make sure you thank everyone for coming, keep it concise and try to stay away from ‘I’.
Again, this isn’t about you.
Now that the event is over, you probably won’t sleep because you’ll be high off of the energy from the event. Follow-up the day after — no exceptions.
This is where you go back to your purpose again.
You should reinforce your call-to-action in a way that adds value and is not salesy. I usually do this with an email, thanking people for coming and I usually end it with “since we didn’t really get a chance to connect, I’m interested in learning more about what you’re doing. Would you be open to grab lunch or coffee some time this week?”
Keep your follow-ups relevant.
For example, if you did the event as a fundraiser for a charity, don’t go trying to sell them something for your business and don’t you dare just add them to your business email list. You haven’t earned that right yet. They gave you their information for the event or organization that they attended, they did not give you their information for you to add them to your spam list.
I find that the lunch/coffee is a great way to transition the conversation to learn more about them and what else I can do to help them — and in my case, if they have any real estate needs.
I hope that you’ve gotten a ton of value out of this and feel a little more confident to go out there and host your own networking event. It’s a lot of work but also a lot of fun… I wish you the best of luck.