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Physical vs virtual: How will we network from here out?

For the last three decades, South by Southwest has reliably drawn international crowds to one central Texas city. Until this year. The annual pilgrimage of musicians, and more recently, tech devotees, was abruptly canceled a mere week before its first scheduled event. Other gatherings – including IMEX Frankfurt, Adobe Summit and the F8 Facebook Developer Conference – met similar fates, as global concerns over the novel coronavirus threatened the safety of in-person participants.

So what do you do when the show must go on? Go online. At least that’s what some startups are proposing.

But with networking events serving as some of our most reliable means of idea exchange and professional connection, many are understandably concerned about its future fate.

How Coronavirus has affected networking

Remember when a handshake was the most natural thing in the world? A signal of peace, camaraderie and potential partnership? Well, times have changed my friend.

In a pandemic-stricken work world, networking for the socially distant is almost exclusively confined to the screen. As of this writing, a popular video conferencing software is outpacing Netflix, Facebook and Instagram with its usage.

And if you thought large gatherings were anxiety evoking before, the fact that the government has practically issued cease and desist orders for groups larger than 10 probably isn’t helping.

Without the imminent promise of a vaccine, large gatherings and personal contact with strangers will probably continue to get a side eye for the foreseeable future.

Is it remote events only from here out?

Humans are innovative and adaptable. There are countless startups and softwares that only came to fruition once their creators saw an unmet need. Virtual networking really isn’t any different.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see more conferencing/LinkedIn hybrids for some time, but we’re also aware that humans are social creatures. So if you really love those in-person breakout sessions and professional connections at the hotel buffet line, you can probably look forward to those, too – someday.

Pros and cons

Thinking about trading out that trade show for a virtual networking event? Glance at this pro-con list of physical vs. virtual events first.

What you’ll get virtually:

  • Accessibility: Where disabilities, language barriers and budget constraints once made it difficult to attend some in-person events, participants can now be accommodated from the comfort of their home computer.
  • Budget: Startups and businesses rocked by economic crisis may be looking for ways to cut costs while keeping their sales pipeline full. Online events and virtual webinars can help minimize your marketing budget without sacrificing leads.
  • Flexibility: Not even inclement weather or a global health crisis will force you to altogether cancel, unless you just want to.

What you’ll miss going virtual:

  • Meals: Let’s face it. Food is a selling point of any in-person conference. Mealtime also invites the kinds of natural conversation attendees probably come for.
  • Guaranteed engagement: Work from home for any amount of time and you’re bound to battle distraction. At least in-person audiences are bound to some social norms, like not leaving the room every time a delivery arrives.
  • Chance meetings: There’s nothing like landing your latest deal or making a career-altering contact at a physical networking event. Sure, it’s not impossible to do online, but eye contact makes you much more memorable.

It remains to be seen whether IRL conferences will be adjourned for good or if virtual networking events will flatten once the curve does. Though it’s likely we’ll see events skew digital as different industries slowly stagger to their feet. But online or in person, just don’t expect to shake on it.