Networking is likely one of your association’s member benefits – and it’s a big one. People join professional organizations because they want to meet other people in their respective industry. It gives them an edge.

That said, networking is so interesting because even though we all want and need to do it, very few of us actually enjoy it. Often, networking can be intimidating.

So how can your association connect the dots? How can you help your members who want to network actually do so? We’ve got some tips:

1. Offer online opportunities

This is the obvious answer, but it’s worth a little bit of explanation (and exploration). It’s no secret that talking to people – especially a large group of people – is much easier to do online. When all eyes aren’t on you, the pressure’s off.

That said, what type of online networking opportunities are you providing your members with? And more importantly, are you incorporating them into “the everyday?” What we mean by that is are you encouraging networking even without the full-blown events – the conferences, the webinars, the Twitter chats, etc.? If not, you may want to. Again, networking is such a big benefit at your association, and because of that, it should be present in the day-to-day.

A few ways to encourage that:

  • Create an online social community with different channels/topics, allowing members to come and go and converse as desired
  • Consider creating a hashtag for your organization (maybe it’s just your acronym) to allow members to chat/keep in touch on a regular basis (The American Society of Association Executives typically uses #ASAE, and it’s just a good way for members – and non-members – to keep in touch/interact on a daily basis, without having to wait for a full-blown networking event)

That said, in addition to these small, day-to-day opportunities, you’ll want to provide the full-blown online networking opportunities (the virtual conferences, the webinars, etc.) as well. It’s all about having a mix!

2. Offer small events here and there

Now in addition to online networking events, you’ll obviously want to have in-person networking events as well. But don’t feel like they all have to be big. Consider offering small events here and there.

There are two approaches you can take here:

  • Consider capping your attendance – One option for keeping your networking events small is capping attendance. Perhaps you rent out a fairly small space, and if that’s the case, attendance is limited to 100. Note: If you go this route, let that be known – clearly! – in your marketing. First, you don’t want people to be upset if it sells out. But second, it might actually encourage some people to attend, if they know it’s not going to be large and overwhelming.
  • Tap into special interest groups – If you don’t feel comfortable capping attendance but still want to try out smaller networking events, consider focusing on special interest groups. One month, consider hosting a happy hour for your young professional members. Then another month (even if it’s three or four months down the road), consider hosting a happy hour for your student members. Again, having smaller events like this – particularly when there’s a special interest group involved – can make networking not only less intimidating, but more enjoyable.

3. At large events, get creative with your room layout/design

Now obviously you can’t get rid of your big networking events – and you shouldn’t want to! They’re great events and people likely enjoy them. That said, to make the networking at those big events easier, be mindful of how you prepare the room.

A few ideas here, particularly if you’re in one large conference room:

  • Place a few tables (either sit-down or stand-up) around the room: Think about some of the big conferences you’ve been to. Were any of them vast open rooms with people standing everywhere? If so, it was probably tough for you to approach a group. Now did any of those events have tables throughout the room? If so, it might’ve been easier for you to sit down at a table of five or seven than it was for you to approach a massive group of people. Keep that in mind when designing your next room layout (for big networking events). You don’t have to have enough seats for everyone in the room. In fact, you don’t even have to have seats at all! Just give something for people to gather around. Tables can often make big spaces feel small and provide people with a sense of comfort and security.
  • Insert a few icebreaker stations – The hardest part of networking is approaching people and getting the conversation started. Help your members out by giving them a reason to congregate and giving them something to talk about. For example, games! Jumbo Jenga, cornhole, giant Connect Four, etc. These are all games you can easily buy on Amazon and they could have a HUGE impact on your next big networking event.

Want more tips for making sure your next event – whether big or small, in-person or virtual – is a big success? Check out our Complete Guide to Association Event Planning below! It’s filled with best practices for before, during, and after your next event. Plus, it’s free!