Networking is part and parcel of our professional and personal lives because people need each other’s help to achieve better and faster results and to make a change. Like any gathering, virtual trade shows are a stellar way to build human relationships, helping you fuel your business clout. However, networking isn't just about what you can get out of people; it's also about advocating a pay-it-forward philosophy, meaning that whenever possible, you spread acts of kindness to others. So, before you join the next virtual trade show, remember to organize your networking strategy. It would be best if you focused on meeting new prospects, strengthening existing relationships, increasing your brand’s or profile's awareness, and generating leads. We have put together a practical guide to help you network like a pro and establish beneficial connections that will take your career or business to the next level.

1. Prepare Ahead of Time

To make the most of your participation in a virtual trade show, spend some time in advance to organize your coming schedule around the event. For example, make sure to block off time in your calendar, if not for the entire event, at least for the duration of the sessions that are most relevant to you and your brand. Think about your surroundings and the environment you will participate from beforehand to ensure comfort and lack of disturbance and interruptions. Is your background appropriate in case you turn your camera on? A white wall is okay. But suppose you want to give a glimpse of your personality. In that case, you can stand in front of a painting, your collection of records or guitars, a bookcase, a plant, or your children's drawings. A relaxed and pleasant ambiance will allow you to focus on the trade show and will elevate your levels of engagement and networking.

Don't wait for a few minutes before the trade show to navigate the online event platform. Instead, familiarize yourself with the host platform ahead of the event. Don't hesitate to contact the organizers or the support team if you have any questions or technical issues. On Balloon, event attendees can build a unique and compelling profile, which communicates valuable networking information. Precisely, you can include your bio, email, and location and add a picture, which can be your brand's logo. Move beyond your name and title, and dedicate some time to create a clear and attractive profile that tells your story, including your mission and the solution you bring to the table. Your profile's goal is to raise curiosity among prospects and potential partners, who will reach out to you to learn more about your products and services.

2. Identify the People You Want to Meet

Once you register for the virtual trade show, review the attendees' list to identify your business and industry's most relevant and influential profiles. Depending on how big the event is, this may take some time and effort. Still, it's guaranteed to bring a high return on your participation investment. While identifying the people you want to network with during the trade show, you can create a list of prospects who can potentially move further along in your sales cycle. Last but not least, don't ignore the people you already know. Reconnecting with them may give you new insights or help you meet some of your goals through recommendations and word of mouth.

At this point, you should also look for the registered competitors and plan how to approach them and collect competitive intelligence. For example, you can set aside time to visit their virtual booths and attend sessions where they demonstrate a product or give presentations. This will help you see your competitors' activities and establish new industry trends or innovation opportunities for your company. During the event, on Balloon, you can search attendees by name, see if they are online, and send them a message or a call request. Balloon takes people's relationships very seriously and promotes networking with advanced yet subtle chat notifications ensuring you don't miss a single networking opportunity during the event.

3. Plan the Speech and Greets Beforehand

During the virtual trade show, you will have many opportunities to introduce yourself and your business. To increase networking's positive effects, take a proactive approach and don't let on-camera discomfort stop you. Most people face the camera with a lack of confidence. But practicing your words beforehand in front of the mirror, with another person, or recording yourself and watching it back will help you enter the event's networking arena tenaciously.

It's a fact that with little attention span, participants don't have the patience to listen to other participants' muddled speeches. To this end, find out who you will be talking to and write a structured script emphasizing your authentic self. When you deliver, be energetic and engaging, but don't overdo it with hand gestures. Keep the volume of your voice low (you are already using a microphone) and control the pace of your speech with deep inhalations. A practical tip that transforms video communication quality is to look directly at the camera instead of looking at yourself on the screen when talking. This gives the impression of direct eye contact, and everyone feels engaged. Consider your outfit and appearance beforehand if you plan to go on camera. Presenting yourself on camera is a great networking opportunity! Please don't waste it due to a lack of readiness and preparation.

4. Tailor Your Elevator Pitch To Perfection

A well-thought and well-rehearsed elevator pitch (aka elevator speech) will give you significant leverage in networking opportunities during virtual trade shows. The goal of an elevator pitch is to help those who aren't familiar with your brand or profile understand your strengths, expertise, and unique selling points. You have about 30 seconds (the average time of an elevator ride) to explain what you do and spark the listener's curiosity in your products or services. If you, as a person or your company, have a LinkedIn account, the information in the bio is your elevator pitch. Now, it's up to you to continue improving it until it's perfect!

When putting an elevator pitch together, keep jargon outside because you don't want to perplex your audience. People tend to block out unnecessary information, and you surely don't want your pitch to slip through the net. Despite the practice being the secret to a successful elevator speech, you should speak naturally and maintain a conversational tone when you deliver it. The best way to engage listeners is to end your pitch with a question while also being prepared to accept questions. Finally, remember to be your best self and cheerful with a smile — innately, people are attracted by passionate and trustworthy personality traits.

5. Prepare a List of Icebreaker Questions

Networking opportunities can be easily missed when the momentum is gone due to anxiety or surprise. This is when a list of icebreaker questions will come in handy to calm yourself down and save you from the awkward silences. Icebreaker questions can be funny, introductory, and meaningful. Their purpose is to help you begin to know the other person in a relaxing way and advance conversations. What usually works well is to mention something that is relevant to the other person and you are familiar with. For instance, you can greet them in their language (as long as it's appropriate and doesn't involve cultural stereotypes), which may trigger a conversation about the time you visited their country and other travels.

At a virtual trade show where physical presence is missing from the communication's equation, icebreaker questions are excellent conversation starters when you want to network with participants from different professional or cultural backgrounds or discuss a topic that's new to you. However, bear in mind that a lousy icebreaker can lead to a disastrous interaction. So, be sensitive towards others, use your emotional intelligence to mitigate destructive communication dynamics, and avoid offending someone by mistake with your joke or comment.

Some examples of good icebreakers are:

  • How do you combat distractions when working from home?
  • What new professional skills would you like to learn?
  • What is your favorite karaoke song?
  • What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
  • What is your dream job?
  • What languages do you speak?
  • If you could live in any country, where would you live?
  • Would you rather be an Olympic gold medallist or an astronaut?

6. Tell a Captivating Story

No one wants to sit on the sidelines while others network and engage in vibrant and significant conversations. To get directly involved and make your presence at a virtual trade show matter, you should remove roadblocks to networking, such as weariness and monotony. An excellent way to do so is through storytelling. Share an intriguing and memorable story to build authentic relationships and rapport with others beyond the exchange of formal and superficial information. Let your story tell who you are, why you are at the event, what's your link to the industry, whom your solutions serve, and what's your vision. To make your story easy to grasp and memorable, add an element of suspense by presenting a problematic situation and its resolution.

Don't hesitate to use analogies (i.e., comparisons between two different things) in your story to acquaint listeners with unfamiliar concepts and situations. Steve Jobs was one of the best business storytellers of his time. Analogies such as desktop (the actual top of our desks), which he used to describe Macintosh's interface, have played a significant role in Apple's success story. Job's point was that you could move digital folders on your digital desktop precisely as you did with physical folders around the surface of your office desk. Hence, your computer screen (which at that time was a brand new concept) operates in the same way as something already very familiar to you: the top of your desk.

7. Add Value to the Conversation

Networking at a virtual trade show is fast-paced. Hence, no one wants to be stuck in meaningless or irrelevant conversations. Participants are looking to network with people who will introduce them to new ideas, challenge their thinking, and praise their best practices and skills. Don't feel obliged to always agree with others' points; add value to the conversation by presenting clear, evidence and fact-based arguments. If you agree, say why and offer your personal experience on the subject. When you are asked a question, don't give a yes or no answer. Expand on something helpful that will progress the conversation. Then, you can continue adding value by expressing curiosity about other people's concerns and pain points. Ask them how you can help and do so in practice by recommending a contact, book, service, or other resources.

If you talk with prospects, help them understand how your service or product will help them solve a problem — a problem they may not even know they have until you mention it. If you talk with potential partners or employers, make sure to check their LinkedIn in advance to grasp their tone, interests, and background. Let's say you find out that you have studied at the same university or have a couple of contacts in common. You can use this information as an icebreaker (#5)! Don't just throw comments in the conversation for the sake of commenting; understand the point and ask yourself: do I have to add new, valuable information? If the answer is yes, then speak up with clear, short sentences.

A practical tip here is to be ready to read the room and pay attention to your listener's body language. Are they looking away or reaching for their phone while you are still talking? These are signals that they are not engaged or interested anymore. The moment you spot this, you should know that it's time to wrap it up or — even better — make it about them. Ask them a question that shows you are interested in what they have to say.

8. Be a Good Listener

When you begin to network, allow the other person to talk about themselves first. During this time, your task is to be a good listener. It may sound obvious, but not everyone has the qualities of a good listener, which you can obtain through practice. A good listener is not someone who steps back or becomes a passive recipient of information. What differentiates average from great listeners is the ability to be actively present and support the speaker's thoughts through constructive feedback. It's acceptable to interrupt periodically to ask clarifying questions and give feedback without being defensive.

A big no-no while listening is to use this time as an opportunity to prepare what you want to say next or pick at the other person's errors and inadequacies. People can tell when you aren't really listening or can't wait to start talking about yourself rather than engaging in a two-way conversation. Remember that good listening skills will benefit the relationship with the other person in the long-run. For example, think of a fact or an experience the other person shared with you in your initial conversation, and use it in the future to show that they have left a lasting effect on you.

9. Have Relevant Conversations with People

You want to grow your networking outreach, but don't underestimate the importance of relevance when connecting with other people. Fundamentally, relevant conversations will make others receptive to your message and brand. In contrast, anything they consider unnecessary noise will have the opposite effect. Start the conversation with a question that will challenge the other person to think about a problematic area in their business or life that needs improvement. Then, grasp the opportunity to present them with a solution. This kind of relevant conversation works particularly well with prospects, who will appreciate the sincere interest in their needs.

Basically, with relevant conversations, you focus your attention on the other person, whether it is a potential customer, employer, or partner. The conversation is about what's relevant to them and not about achieving a personal or business goal. Touching upon things that the other person is passionate about will help you build genuine rapport and advance the exchange of in-depth insights.

10. Follow Up After the Event

Networking at a virtual trade show is only the planting of the seeds. To harvest your crop (aka develop strong business relationships), you must create a follow-up and stay-in-touch strategy. A day or two after the trade show, send a follow-up email to the people you met and would like to know better, expressing your appreciation for their time. Here, your listening skills (#8) come in handy again. Recollect a detail they shared with you during the event, and include it in the email to remind them who you are and show that they have left a lasting effect on you. In the same email, you can offer help (e.g., "Here's the link to the free eBook I was telling you."), but never ask for a favor at this stage.

Leave a few days before you connect with them on LinkedIn to seal the professional relationship. When you request to follow them on LinkedIn, add a personal note with where and how you met to help them connect the dots. Since this is your chance to showcase your work and talents, make sure you have a LinkedIn profile that rocks. Besides, social media accounts are a great source of information to find out about a person or a company's latest activities and accomplishments, which you can bring into the follow-up conversation.

The rest is keeping in touch. It requires a long-term effort but is worth it because keeping in touch with one person is like keeping in touch with their entire network, which could prove valuable when you least expect it. Once a month is a recommended time to check-in. At the same time, birthdays, work anniversaries, and family occasions are excellent excuses to reach out.

11. Stick to Conversation Etiquette

Politeness is a virtue that will help you build relationships with people and define your networking course. However, sometimes we may falsely come across as bad-mannered and coarse due to stress, excitement, or weariness. When networking at a virtual trade show, you will have a limited time to speak with the people you want. Thus, you must give an excellent first impression if you want these people to reply to your follow-up communication (#10) and ideally do business with you. If you come across wrong or inappropriate behavior on Balloon, you can ask organizers to block users.

Here are some tips on how to ensure that the other person feels respected during a networking conversation.

  • Don't bring unnecessary details into the conversation because they will bore the other person and kill valuable time.
  • Don't interrupt the other person; instead, encourage them to go on by asking relevant and thought-provoking questions.
  • When it's your turn to talk, don't focus only on yourself, but expand on your team, colleagues, etc., to avoid sounding narcissistic.
  • Don't exaggerate, and try to stick to the facts to maintain your credibility.
  • Accept that it's okay not to know everything, and admit so when you have doubts about a particular topic.
  • Keep in mind the setting you are in and joke with care because you don't know what might offend the other person.
  • Keep your piece short and use the right time to finish speaking without monopolizing the conversation.
  • Think of yourself as the host of a conversation, making sure the other person is having a good time, and feels appreciated and heard.
  • Call the other person by their name to create a direct connection.
  • Include quieter people in the conversation by addressing them and inviting them discreetly to say their opinion without putting them on the spot discourteously.
  • Don't rush into replying, but allow yourself time to organize and filter your thoughts. Most importantly, remember that silence is always an option, and sometimes the best one.

12. Expand Your Network

Enter a virtual trade show with the determination to step out of your comfort zone and explore new territories with not so like-minded people. If you want to expand your network, you must consider meeting people outside your industry and niche. Of course, we aren't saying to forget your area of expertise, but we suggest not to allow your job title or skills set to limit your networking opportunities. If you are concerned about how to engage with people outside of your industry, consider reading current affairs or bringing up universal subjects such as leadership, innovation, entrepreneurship, and remote work. On Balloon, it's straightforward to expand your network. You can see other attendees in sessions, workshops, roundtables, and meetings and opt to chat with them privately or have a video call.

Diverse connections will bring a fresh outlook on your professional life or business, even if they remain merely personal connections and never convert to professional. Personal contacts can be more eager to help you out in the future than professional connections, which are usually more invested in serving their interests. Anyhow, the best way to connect with a wide range of people is to talk about why you do what you do and how you find meaning in your work rather than talk about your daily tasks and responsibilities.

13. Stay Until the End of the Trade Show

Trade shows usually last three days. Attendees and exhibitors tend to use all their energy reserves on the first and second day and take it easy on the last day, letting networking opportunities pass them by. Our advice is to organize your schedule so that you distribute your networking efforts equally across the event. Many attendees save the last day to revisit the booths they noted down on days one and two. They look to engage with exhibitors in more detail at quieter times to learn more about solutions, costs, etc. To boost exhibitors' performance, on Balloon, we allow exhibitors to allocate staff members to their booth, with whom attendees can connect through a chat or a video call.

Thankfully, at a virtual trade show attendees can't see exhibitors packing up their booths before the event is over, hurrying to catch a flight or spend the last Sunday hours with their families. However, even at virtual trade shows, others can sense when you are rushing or not fully present, and are discouraged from engaging deeper. Remember that even a last-minute connection with someone can prompt a big lead or great partnership. So, stay until the end of the trade show and continue networking where others stop.

14. Create a Lead Capture Strategy

The majority of the trade show participants you will network with are browsing for products, services, jobs, employees, or partners. Some participants are already familiar with some of the event's brands and the solutions they offer, and others will come to the event to compare brands and take action. When you network, you have to be prepared to approach and challenge people regardless of their customer journey stage. Each person, depending on where they stand at the customer journey, has to be approached differently. For example, to entice a potential customer who isn't aware of your product or service, you can book them for a free demo or invite them to register for your newsletter. On the other hand, you will have a different conversation with someone who thinks you might offer them the solution they need.

The more people you network with, the more chances you have to achieve your goal: sales, finding a new job, sealing a partnership deal, recruiting, etc. In any case, during networking, you must keep others' interests alive, build trust, and be able to prove that you have value to offer. Balloon expo booths feature a "Register Interest" button (you can customize the button text) that attendees can click on to give exhibitors their contact details. It is a much more systematic and productive way to keep track of potential customers than the business cards in the fishbowl. Depending on your exhibitor tier, you can also add .pdf brochures, promos, etc.

15. Network with the Competition

Networking with the competition is often the most overlooked aspect of networking and one that raises many questions: How much information shall I share about my business? Do I ever refer a competitor to a client? Can I ask for mentorship from a competitor who has been for much longer in the industry? These worries are legit. However, if there's one place to connect with competitors, this is a trade show because it's neutral ground.

You want to network with the competition for various reasons:

  • Getting to know your competitors may give you insights about the industry you weren't aware of and open your eyes to things you were doing wrongly.
  • Identifying differences and similarities with your competitors allows you to rely   on them for business references, resources, advice, and even a strategic partnership to launch a new service together.
  • Being friendly with the competition creates a pleasant working environment that is less stressful and more creative.

Half of the networking job is done the moment you decide to enjoy the process. So, put your brightest smile on and bring in your personality to the next trade show, and be ready to meet interesting people from all walks of life. Balloon makes sure you have all the networking tools you will need along the journey! However, if you need our help, chat with our team on Balloon’s homepage, or contact us via email.