Virtual networking allows business building through pandemic

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger listens to speakers at the annual Georgia Chamber of Commerce - Eggs & Issues Breakfast. Many networking events have been canceled and replaced with virtual events because of the coronavirus pandemic. Bob Andres / AJC FILE PHOTO

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger listens to speakers at the annual Georgia Chamber of Commerce - Eggs & Issues Breakfast. Many networking events have been canceled and replaced with virtual events because of the coronavirus pandemic. Bob Andres / AJC FILE PHOTO

Gayle Ely used to go to networking events two or three times a week. But in the age of self quarantine, those in-person gatherings quickly fell by the wayside.

How do you trade business cards from six feet away?

Without the typical business mixers, Ely worried that she wouldn’t be able to maintain work relationships or build new ones. For many small businesses, those relationships lead to referrals, which keep companies growing. And in a time of quick economic contraction, those relationships are all the more valuable.

So Ely, an executive coach, was pleased when the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce quickly offered online opportunities to meet and mingle. She joined two last week.

“I actually thought it was great,” she said. “The thing I love best is that I don’t have to get in my car and drive anywhere.”

At a virtual networking event, there are no handshakes and fewer opportunities for people to chitchat about their hobbies or the Braves’ prospects. But planners and participants alike say they’re still valuable for making sure people stay connected, particularly at a time when they’re more physically disconnected than ever.

The pared-down version of Gwinnett’s typical networking events will continue as long as there’s interest from participants, said Gwinnett Chamber President Nick Masino. He said they are a way to combat loneliness and create connections for people who are used to interacting with others regularly.

“This is something we had to do,” he said. “We would’ve never embraced a networking technology like this if it wasn’t for a disaster.”

At one Gwinnett event last week, membership services manager Sara Persing directed about a dozen participants meeting on Zoom to take three minutes to introduce themselves and their business. Many focused on how they could help people through the unprecedented coronavirus event. Members sat at home offices, at dining room tables, outdoors.

There were some technical difficulties — videos that weren’t working, microphones that were on when they shouldn’t be or off when someone was talking. But afterward, several participants said they thought the experience was valuable.

Many of them repeated it the next day, and some even said they preferred it to in-person meetings.

“I think it’s more personal online,” said Shelly Bloom, a real estate agent. “You’re looking at a person’s face.”

Gwinnett has been contacted by other chambers, in Hall and Coweta counties, about their efforts.

Susan Kraut, the vice president of strategy and operations for the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce, said her group is planning a virtual networking lunch next week to replace the in-person events that had to be canceled. She’s also looking at industry-specific events, so people can commiserate and share tips about the specific havoc the pandemic has wreaked on members.

Kraut said the events can’t completely replace in-person interactions. The pockets of conversation that occur when people learn they have something in common aren’t easily replicated online. But she said video events, often over Zoom, can make a difference.

“We’re just not meant to be in isolation,” she said. “As long as it’s impactful, we’ll do it as often as necessary.”

Tech Alpharetta is also planning virtual events for members said CEO Karen Cashion. She called it the new normal — and the only option.

Cashion said human interactions through such events are preferable to listening to a webinar. And while some benefits to in-person meetings are lost through virtual events, Cashion said online connections can still be effective in developing business relationships and creating new opportunities for companies.

She expects people will be more comfortable with online networking after the country returns to normal, and will continue to demand online events.

Ida Pond, the executive director of the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce Georgia, said her group would consider virtual networking even once in-person meetings are again de rigueuer. With metro Atlanta’s sprawling geography, she said, it could help connect some members who are far flung or just can’t battle traffic to get to events downtown.

Pond, who participated in a Gwinnett event, said she felt like people got to the point more quickly online. But she said the experience felt more like listening to personal infomercials, with little opportunity to ask questions of others. It’s also harder to connect after the fact, with no easy way to make plans for a coffee or lunch follow-up, she said.

But during this period of limbo?

“Most people want to network in person,” she said. “Under these circumstances, people are still looking for ways to connect with people.”

Brandon Cockrell, president of Linchpin Sales Interactive, was finishing a work call at the beginning of one Gwinnett session. If he had been going to an in-person event, he said, he likely would have skipped it entirely for fear of walking in late and interrupting the flow.

As it was, Cockrell felt like he could stay on mute and join later. Participating in an online event where others could also talk about what they were doing to get through the disruptions of the pandemic, he said, was “reassuring and refreshing and valuable.” Plus, he said, the fear of public speaking is mitigated when you’re just talking to a computer screen.

“For me, it was a little bit easier not to be in a room full of people,” he said. “Outside of death, public speaking’s everyone’s fear.”