Four networking experts on the new networking normal
Until recently, networking made us think of events, receptions and dinners. Today, we immediately think of Zoom, Teams or some other form of video calls. But what does the future for networkers hold when Covid is over? We brought four networking experts together around the virtual table, and discussed the topic with them.
Our network experts
Stijn Van Der Meulen: Founder of Netwerkers.be
Hans Maertens: Managing director of VOKA
Celine Van den Eynden: Student Business & Languages who researched the future of networking for her thesis
Tom Baeten: Founder of Winger Academy, LinkedIn expert & trainer
If you look up the meaning of the word networking, the Van Dale Dictionary offers you the following definition: “To make and maintain contacts which are useful for your career”. However, it often appears that professionals give their own understanding to this term. How would you describe this term?
Stijn Van Der Meulen: Sounds like a good start, but I would also add the importance of sustainability and complementarity to this definition. When you network, you make contacts in order to be there for each other in the long run. And in order to mean something to each other, it is important that you complement each other well. That way, you will strengthen each other.
Hans Maertens: I fully agree that networking is not a one-time activity. That’s why I’m very happy that this definition includes the word “maintain”, because networkers tend to forget that aspect.
Tom Baeten: Sustainability is indeed very important, because it ensures that you can be of added value to each other in the long run. In addition, I think that “being useful for your career” can have many different meanings. Networking is not only about working together, but can also be about sharing knowledge or exchanging contacts.
Celine Van den Eynden: That’s right. Networking often happens without us even thinking about it. When you ask someone “Do you know someone who is good at x?” or “Who do I need to contact for y?”, you are actually expanding your network.
Due to a virus we all know, we have been doing a lot of online networking lately. What do you think is the biggest advantage of online networking?
Celine Van den Eynden: Time efficiency. When you attend an online event, you save a lot of time and effort. You no longer have to travel and can simply follow along from the comfort of your own home.
Stijn Van Der Meulen: This also means that distance is no longer an issue. Corona made us feel trapped, but has actually opened many doors. Today, we can network digitally with people from all over the country. The digital world even brings international networking opportunities.
Hans Maertens: Virtually, the threshold for networking is often lower, which makes the internet a good tool for making new contacts.
Tom Baeten: Online platforms like LinkedIn are also a good tool for maintaining contacts. Thanks to all kinds of notifications and reminders, you are always informed about the activities of your network and you get the chance to react immediately and re-establish contact.
Celine asked 90 Flemish networkers which type of networking events they prefer to participate in. Here, 97% chose physical events, and only 3% chose the digital alternative. Why do you think professionals prefer the physical track, despite all the virtual advantages you just mentioned?
Tom Baeten:Both forms of networking are so different that you shouldn’t really compare them. Online networking is more passive, while physical networking is very proactive. You step out of your comfort zone to approach someone and make a new contact.
Hans Maertens: Physical meetings also bring more possibilities in terms of depth and personal interaction. So online networking is certainly a good way to make contacts, but not to deepen them. That is why I think the online story will never replace the physical one.
Celine Van den Eynden: The remark Hans makes about personal interaction is indeed correct. My research showed that networkers really like the spontaneous, interactive, personal and informal character of physical events.
Hans Maertens: What I miss in this list of offline advantages, is the importance of serendipity. Online, these coincidences play a much smaller role, while they can create beautiful stories. At physical events, you often come across people you weren’t looking for, but of whom you are very happy to have found.
Let’s take a look at a poll Tom recently launched on LinkedIn about networking events. The results of this poll also indicate a preference for physical events, since 89% of the respondents chose this option over the online alternative. How do you see the future?
Stijn Van Der Meulen: The results of this poll are in line with my prediction, as I feel there is a huge hunger for offline events. At this moment, putting people together at a table is enough to satisfy them. After this long period of Covid, they have so much to say. I predict the future holds the roaring twenties of networking.
Tom Baeten: As far as I’m concerned, the magic of networking is in the mix between physical and online. That is why I see the future as a hybrid story, where we combine the opportunities and possibilities that the new normal has given us with the old school way of networking. For example, re-attending physical networking events will not only be very fun, but will also offer a big added value. We can then use the digital tools to maintain our new contacts. One form of networking certainly does not exclude the other.
Celine Van den Eynden: I I can totally agree with what Tom says. The future of networking is hybrid, where the virtual aspect will optimise the pre-corona way of networking.