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Mixers or Speakers: Choosing a Format for Your Networking Event

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This post is part of a series called Running a Networking Event.
How to Make Sure People Actually Attend Your Networking Event

Hosting your own networking event can establish your presence in a particular industry or geographic area. You'll have the chance to make sure that people know you, in particular, and associate your name with a helpful event. But you have to create a successful event before you can take advantage of your increased connections.

One of the biggest questions you need to answer when planning an event is what format you want to focus on. Mixers, where attendees just hang out and get to know one another, are obviously popular for events where networking is the main goal. But bringing in a speaker for part of the event or otherwise arranging for a learning experience for your attendees also has its benefits.

Keep It a Simple Mix

The value of a mixer is that it's easy to arrange. If you get a group of people together in a room, you've succeeded in creating a mixer. Of course, you want to put together an event that's a little more appealing than hanging out in a random room somewhere — but you can still plan something relatively quickly and easily.

You do have one difficult decision in front of you when planning a mixer: how to handle refreshments. It's become fairly standard to at least hold mixers at a location where people can purchase their own refreshments.

Depending on who is sponsoring the event and what the overall goals for the event are, it's not uncommon for an event to provide a certain level of refreshments (like beverages and appetizers). A meal can even be a networking event in and of itself. By choosing the location of your event carefully, lining up refreshments can be simple: many restaurants, bars and coffee shops can offer a set price for putting together drinks and food for an event's attendees.

Give Them Something To Talk About

Consider what are hot topics currently for the types of people who you want to bring together or if there are any big draws who will be willing to help you out with your networking event.

For some people, networking is second nature: it's easy to walk up to anyone and start a conversation. For others, the process is a little more difficult. They need a clear idea of what to say before they can launch themselves into a new introduction. Creating a shared experience fast tracks the networking process because everyone in attendance can start out by discussing the speaker they just heard. It's a shortcut to creating something to talk about for your attendees, beyond the basic questions of "what's your name?" and "what do you do?"

A speaker isn't the only coversation-starter you can provide. Screening a short film (especially a documentary) or centering the event around an exhibit can work just as easily. The key is to spark conversations between your attendees. Consider what are hot topics currently for the types of people who you want to bring together or if there are any big draws who will be willing to help you out with your networking event. Creating a learning experience that can spark connections can take just about any form you can think of.

Start with a Location

Because the space you hold your networking event in can often dictate the specifics of the event, deciding on the location first can often be a good place to get started. Most communities have numerous spaces that you can use for free, like a private room at a library. Others won't require any sort of upfront payment, but will expect some sort of financial reward — a restaurant may offer your event a private room, based on the understanding that everyone who attends will buy lunch. Keep an eye out for details like whether a space can offer you different set ups, like seating for a speaker.

Since the location can often set the tone for your event — an expensive restaurant implies that attendees are upscale and have good taste — make a point of visiting the space before making your decision. It's also important to consider your audience: a location, combined with an expected price tag for the event, can keep some prospective attendees away. It's important to find a balance that appeals to the people who you want to attend.

Make sure that you get a commitment from the venue for your networking event before you move ahead with too much of your other planning. In order to market your event, you need to be able to tell people when and where it will be. You need confirmation that you'll be able to hold your event. Furthermore, unless your networking group is very small — think three or four people — your preferred venue will need advance warning of your plans. After all, you don't want to share the space with a whole slew of other networking events at the same time.

Pay Attention to Timing

Depending on what time of day your event occurs at, you may need limit the format of what you're offering. Later in the evening can be a tough time for a speaker, especially in terms of holding an audience's attention. If you want to engage attendees' critical thinking skills, you're going to want a time of day when they're fresher: lunch or early evening might make sense. There are even successful networking events that happen early in the morning — although some prospective attendees may be less excited about trying to squeeze in an event before heading into the office.

Think About Sponsors

If you want to offer refreshments or you need funds to pay a speaker, you may want to line up a sponsor. Doing so can affect what sort of event you plan to have: a sponsor may want a chance to speak to the group of people who you've brought together, as a reward for helping fund the event.

Finding such sponsors can be as simple as choosing a company with interests that overlap yours, that will want to reach the audience you're bringing together. Put together a budget and bring it to them. If you ask for a set amount that's relatively small, many companies will at least consider your offer.

You don't have to have a sponsor, of course. Even if there are expenses to go along with setting up a networking event, you can cover them yourself: your business can be the sponsor and you can write certain related expenses off on your taxes.

Consider Your Other Resources

As you're deciding the format of your networking event, it's worth considering what resources you have access to. If you have a buddy who would not only be interesting to the audience you're trying to attract but would be willing to speak for free, you might have an obvious format for your first event.

Bringing in a speaker gives your event added appeal. It's a useful marketing strategy and creates actionable value.

Particularly for the first networking event you put together, it's important to choose an approach that will be a draw. Even if you've met most of the people who you hope will attend, you need to create some allure that will convince them that they absolutely need to come to your networking event.

Bringing in a speaker gives your event added appeal. It's a useful marketing strategy and creates actionable value. You will probably not have the same speaker more than once, so there's an added layer of urgency: any future networking events that you organize won't be the same as this one, so attendees only have one chance to catch this particular event.

Your personal network may also be able to provide you with other interesting content for a networking event, like a panel on a current issue. You may even find that your network can connect you with a sponsor or a space to help you speed up the planning process for your networking event.

A Comfortable First Event

When you're creating your first networking event, it's crucial that you plan something that you feel comfortable with — even if that means starting a little smaller than you might otherwise prefer. Take your own preferences for a networking event into consideration: you've probably been to quite a few over the years, so it makes sense to focus on doing something you like, if only so you'll want to do it again.

The great thing about networking events is that you can hold them as frequently as you'd like, provided you've got multiple groups of people you'd like to connect with. Build up your skills over several events so that you can really wow the peple who you need to.

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