By Taralinda Willis
A typical week—not during a pandemic—for Cassidy Wartenweiler includes as many in-person meetings as possible.
Wartenweiler works in project development for Eppstein Uhen Architects in Madison, Wis., and in normal times, it wasn't unusual for her to make an eight-hour round-trip drive for a meeting with a prospect. A people-person through and through, she thrives in large networking events, where she can check in with 20 or 30 different connections in one place and make new connections through casual encounters.
So what does business development look like when in-person meetings are out of the question?
Wartenweiler has been embracing the shift to virtual networking, and she has found new ways to do what she has always done: get in front of people, listen to them, develop relationships, and provide value. And since many experts anticipate that virtual events will continue long after the pandemic ends, her newfound skills are proving to be timeless.
For government affairs directors, networking is the glue that holds their many relationships with local elected officials together. As the importance of engaging with local governments grows in the coming years, government relations professionals will find themselves needing to maintain relationships with policymakers across larger and larger areas. The following virtual networking tips from Wartenweiler can help government relations teams build and maintain relationships from afar.
1. Use private messages
2. Get fluent in all of the top platforms
3. Find creative ways to surprise and delight connections
4. Use virtual-friendly games and engagement tools wisely
5. Don’t overdose on virtual meetings
6. Provide value that’s relevant to the situation your connections are in
7. Embrace the benefits
8. Learn from others
One of the first rules of networking is to always show up early, and that applies to virtual events as well, especially if the platform is Zoom. Zoom allows for private messages between attendees, so Wartenweiler takes advantage of the lull before events start to say hello to people she knows and introduce herself to other attendees. “Clearly we have similar interests or we wouldn’t both be there,” she says. “So I’ll just write something like, ‘Hey, we’ve never met before, I’m Cassidy—I’d love to connect afterward.’”
Don’t just limit yourself to the virtual video conferencing platform you’ve always used, Wartenweiler says. Microsoft Teams provides a crisp picture quality for groups of four or fewer, but if you’re meeting with more people, Zoom allows more faces on-screen at a time, keeping people more engaged. Google Hangouts can be a good way to connect one-on-one without being distracted by looking at your own face.
If you know how to use multiple platforms, you can put your meeting attendees at ease by offering to use the platform they are most familiar with.
When deciding which platform to use or how to structure a meeting, ask yourself the same questions you would ask for an in-person event: Who is your audience? Does everyone know each other? Can everyone see each other? How do we get everyone engaged?
Wartenweiler’s networking style reflects her lively personality, so she has been finding ways to bring that creativity to virtual meetings. One idea she’s considering is inviting a prospect to coffee and then mailing them a mug with her company’s logo and a bag of local coffee. She’s also thinking about how to throw a virtual dinner party for a client by teaming up with a local chef to do a virtual cooking class. And to stay connected with a women’s group, she tried leading the attendees through preparing a cocktail with the utensils she had on hand. She’s no mixologist, but it made for a fun event, she says.
“That’s who I am—I’m goofy, vulnerable, I wear who I am on my sleeve,” she says. “With virtual networking, we have an opportunity to play around. No one has expectations about how this is supposed to work. So be vulnerable with the technology. Be willing to fail. Don’t be afraid to still be human.”
Games can be a really great way to get different people onto the screen and keep people engaged. Wartenweiler said she has seen some event hosts use games in the middle of an event to break up the monotony of staring at the screen.
Virtual game platforms have exploded since the pandemic began, so there are many to choose from with a quick Google search. But some work better than others in a business meeting, and some require no apps at all. A few games to consider include:
If you were used to traveling all over your state or region for in-person meetings, you’ve probably got more time in your schedule than you’re used to. This can make room for more virtual meetings, but Wartenweiler says don’t overdo it. Those quiet hours in the car can provide a much-needed reset to recharge your social energy. Take advantage of the ability to meet with more people than usual, but set reasonable limits for yourself.
It’s very important to still be sensitive to the ways COVID-19 is affecting your connections. For example, Wartenweiler covers the health care industry, so she’s focusing on providing her clients information that is relevant to the pandemic.
And for that, she says it’s been amazing to have a nimble marketing team that immediately pivoted to create educational resources related to COVID-19. Wartenweiler has reached out to her health care clients and prospects to ask them what information they would find valuable, and then relayed that to the marketing team.
With virtual networking, you can connect with people all over the country without the expense of travel. You can host large events with much lower costs, and you can make those events accessible to more people. You might even find that your virtual events get higher attendance than your in-person events. Wartenweiler says EUA had double the normal attendance for a recent virtual event compared to their typical in-person attendance.
When you run out of your own ideas for virtual networking, take a look at what your peers are doing. Wartenweiler says she is seizing the opportunity to learn from others who are also embracing virtual networking. She has gotten together virtually with other business development professionals to share tips, and she also engages with her peers on LinkedIn. A few names that came to mind for great virtual networking tips were Ashley Quinto Powell, Jennifer Javornik, and Maurice Cheeks.
In this strange new reality, there are no rules about how to build and maintain the relationships that keep your government affairs program running. There’s no right or wrong, so experiment and be willing to make mistakes. As long as you stay focused on building genuine relationships, you can meet your goals and even exceed them during the pandemic. Through it all, Curate has been dedicated to delivering the relevant municipal information to our clients to build relationships and find opportunities at scale.