Breaking through the Digital Barrier – Networking in the Age of the Virtual Summit

By Tom Zamzow, Founder, Zamzow Consulting

June 6, 2021

Summitry is a key ingredient in many an organisation’s public relations toolkit. It provides platform for thought-leadership and can position an organisation as a match-maker. Make it become the go-to address to find solutions to problems one cannot solve alone. Even better, it actually is a business model in and of itself (as is the case for the esteemed host of this article), with various other business models surrounding it: PR, event services, event management, catering, hosting, sponsorships, the list goes on.

There is one uniting value proposition that all of these business models must provide if they are to be viable: networking opportunities for speakers and attendees. And in this respect, we find ourselves in a pandemic-induced proverbial “pickle”. Summits had to go virtual, seemingly reducing an organisation’s ability to provide the rich network opportunities that make most of us want to attend in the first place.

–I say “seemingly”, because in my opinion virtual events carry a series of unbeatable networking potentials that are all too often overlooked–

You see, listening to inspirational and empowering speakers, filling ourselves with hope for a brighter future and staying up to speed with industry trends are great ways to spend our time. However, the real magic often happens away from the main stage. It is small conversations at the shrimp-cocktail buffet (or samosa station if you’ve opted for a plant-based diet) that create new alliances. It is the discrete conversations in small corridors that have the big impact. It is in those places that new alliances are forged, where a (pre-Covid) handshake can be the beginning of an empire.

Virtual summits are here to stay, even if the world goes back to what some (not me) would call “normal”. They are cost-effective, bear the potential for truly global reach and have a lower carbon footprint than in-person events. The technology to make them sensational is here, and organisations such as Horasis have been pioneering integrated virtual summitry solutions such as Run The World from the very start of the pandemic. But as any technology, these platforms are just a tool. How we wield this tool, is up to us.

I for one believe that we all have some studying to do. To turn what “seemingly” is a disadvantage compared to in-person events into a potential for global partnerships with impact. This article is a small and humble contribution to this effort.


If you decide to attend a summit, or virtual event of any kind, you are committing time, energy and attention span. It is all too easy to sit there passively and let speeches and key-note addresses wash over you while you answer emails on the side. You are neither here nor there, and it is about time that we focus on what is in front of us. Networking at virtual summits is not as easy as walking into a convention center and just winging it. There is method to it, and it requires preparation and effort. Yet, virtual summits make a lot of things much easier. People are already in a digital headspace, more inclined to respond to connection requests on LinkedIn and commentary on their activities across social media. You won’t have to try and physically hunt them down in the maze that is the 4 story convention centre. Let’s get into it, here is what you can do as a virtual summit attendee to maximise your network expansion:

Before the event

1. Develop objectives for your attendance. Have clarity about why you are attending in the first place instead of being somewhere else. This will also reduce the fear of opportunity cost.

2. Screen the event agenda carefully and plan your day according to topics and speakers that you want to be connected with, those which you believe will attract attendees in the niche you aspire to grow your network in. Be sure to have a robust agenda for yourself ready, and don’t get distracted by the razzle dazzle of it all.

3. Research the topics you will be exposed to in advance, as well as speaker profiles. Per session you are attending, develop engagement angles and sharable opinions that will make you stand out in the comment section.

4. Familiarise yourself with the features of the virtual platform. There is nothing worse than having your networking ambitions hampered by you not finding the “Do you want to connect?” button when you need it. Does the platform have virtual booths for speakers, brands or sponsors with whom you’d like to get in touch? Does it allow you to invite other attendees into micro-breakout sessions? How does the chat function work? Study it.

At the event

You have your personal agenda and engagement angles for the programmatic content ready. It goes without saying that it is crucial to be vocal in Q&As and the comment section. But now comes the juicy bit, where it is all about networking with the other attendees while you are busy hustling the main stage.

1. Log in ahead of time (if the platform permits it) to set-up your profile. It is your sales-pitch and bankable real-estate from which you can generate leads to other platforms for down-stream engagement (such as LinkedIn). Critically, and I mean critically, have an inviting profile picture. These virtual platforms are like social media, and most people will determine whether they want to read your profile based on a visual cue.

2. Managed to get there early? Brilliant! Most virtual platforms provide mingling spaces for attendees. Mingle! There are generally speaking less people logged on than when the event is in full swing, which gives you more visibility and opportunities to have personal conversations with attendees you deem of value for your network.

During panels, screen who else is in attendance. Jot down their names on a piece of paper (in case they leave while you are still busy) and on a second3.  device, quick-screen their footprint on Google and LinkedIn (all the while engaging with the main panel). Shortlist those that are of interest to you and, based on what you can find about them, create short and appealing conversation starters for each during the event. Make yourself known to them without going all in, people’s attention will be too stretched between attending the event and answering work-emails on the side for any meaningful connection.

4. In your breaks (aka when panels are running that aren’t part of your plan), revisit the virtual mingling areas, partake in the virtual speed-dating many platforms provide, and visit the virtual booths of brands and sponsors you had previously charted.

After the event

Many event organisers will offer micro-events to continue the conversation and provide additional opportunities for their attendees to get together. This is also the moment that you want to start actioning the leads you have developed during the event, as people’s attention span will be less stretched. Hop over to LinkedIn (or reach out to them directly through their homepages if available). You previously researched engagement angles for your short-listed networking targets. It is now time to expand on these. Depending on your objective for the connection (do you have something to offer, or are you in need of assistance?), develop a compelling message. Irrespective of what your objective is, a sure-fire way to is to offer something of value. A compliment, a piece of advice, an offer for assistance, interest. Works like a charm.

Keep track of your engagements and how your leads are developing, and you too will break through the digital barrier and unlock the power of networking at virtual summits.

Happy networking,

Tom Zamzow

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Tom Zamzow is the Founder of Zamzow Consulting, a boutique consultancy that leverages communications, partnerships and reputation management to bring people and businesses together for a more sustainable future. Tom also operates HIGHER! Career Podcast, a show designed to help people ace their careers and empower them to make their values come alive at the workplace.

If you enjoyed Tom’s feature, you can visit his own blog on balancing People, Planet, Profit and Purpose here. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn and follow Zamzow Consulting.