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For many digital entrepreneurs, the desire to connect with like-minded individuals, to exchange ideas, may seem limited to email, apps, Facebook groups and other channels on the internet.
Yet, while messaging apps and smart devices have made staying connected easier than ever, there remain unique advantages to getting a group of like-minded individuals together in the same room to simply … talk.
When this is your purpose, hosting a meetup is a great option. It’s a way for a digital entrepreneur like you to build on your relationships with clients, network and make connections with other people in your field, as well as help you progress toward becoming a thought leader.
Here are six tips for taking things offline and hosting a killer industry meetup in any city.
Set a clear purpose for the event.
While simply getting people together to socialize can be valuable in its own right, you will often derive significantly more benefit out of the effort and expense of organizing a meetup that’s got a clear goal in mind.
When setting that goal, Social Tables advises asking yourself why you are having the event and deciding on your goals in that context. Even if the goal is something as loosely defined as “industry networking,” letting attendees know what to expect in advance (and planning accordingly) is nearly always the best approach.
If the goal of the event is client-nurturing or lead generation, choose a theme or topic for discussion ahead of time (or take a page out of an established meetup like that of the Boston E-Commerce Meetup (which tends to host an expert panel). That helps create a valuable framework. No matter what the overarching goal, the idea is to position yourself as a thought leader, and to build relationships with other key players in your industry.
Get specific on the invitation.
One of the best ways to determine the number of guests is to plan the event well in advance and require that invitees RSVP. Alex Litoff, head of client services at Event Farm, notes that the data suggests that the “best R.S.V.P. rates come from sending invites three to four weeks before the registration deadline.”
Recognize that you may find it a challenge to get people to RSVP for an event where the venue is “to be determined.” So, if the location has not yet been locked down, be sure to at least include on the invitation the type of venue — for instance: “Local craft bar with a private event space.”
Consider setting a limit on the number of attendees, and including that number on your invitations, to create a sense of urgency and incentivize people’s commitment to attend. Setting an RSVP deadline, or even requiring a small fee, are two recommendations Meetup.com has for encouraging invitees to commit.
Another crucial piece of information for the invitation is the kind of refreshments being served. Open bars are a popular incentive to offer, but not only can they quickly eat into your budget, but, depending on the goals of your meetup, they might encourage the wrong type of attendee.
For many meetups, food is not a necessity and may constitute a needless expense, so be sure to consider what will offer the best ROI for your budget. If you must offer an open bar, consider limiting the hours or the types of drinks offered. Depending on your industry, you might even consider partnering with an alcohol sponsor.
Choose the most strategic location.
Many digital entrepreneurs can (and do) work from anywhere, but when it comes to planning a meetup, the geographic location is everything. The best locale for a meetup is one that’s home to VIPs in your industry or, alternatively, important clients. While no one location will be ideal for everyone, pick an area and venue that is convenient and appealing for the majority of your most important guests.
Don’t be afraid to get creative in your choice of venue. Many bars and restaurants, particularly in financial districts, will have private rooms that can be used for no fee as long as your guests are buying food or drinks. Coworking spaces, such as WeWork(which acquired Meetup.com for approximately $20 million, Business Insider reported), are also often an excellent choice for a venue, particularly if you’re already a member.
Set the tone.
What level of formality do you wish to convey to your target attendees? Drinks at a gastropub with all the latest craft beers comes across in a markedly different way than does the more buttoned-up atmosphere of a hotel event space.
Once again, your goals for the meetup and the audience for whom you’re hoping to drive value should be the key determining factors in the style of venue you select. Event-management platform Whova suggests even taking the layout of the venue into consideration when anticipating ways to make the event a pleasant experience for attendees, as this factor will impact considerations like traffic flow and the types of activities that should be available.
Bring your team for back-up support.
There are two types of support an event host typically needs: client-facing and logistical. In my experience, even the most charismatic and gregarious entrepreneur can only speak to a limited number of people at the same time in a meetup environment.
Rather than think it’s necessary to cover the whole room yourself, know that your team members can also play a vital role in maximizing the number of relationships you form.They can bring their own unique energy and perspective to the proceedings, act as highly effective advocates for your business and allow you to feel the freedom to relax.
Logistical support behind the scenes on the day of the event is just as crucial as networking prowess. Help on the big day will help you be more at ease, and, as Eventbrite points out, you’ll likely have a better time. That’s important, because when you are having a good time, your attendees are having a good time.
My own decade of experience with events and conferences has taught me to host events to which I bring along a coordinator and a few key team members. That kind of back-up frees me up to extract the intended value from the event rather than have to worry about logistics.
The fortune is in the follow-up.
Following up on the connections you make at a meetup is the most important step you can take to ensure that you extract the maximum value.
If the event was crowded, or you engaged in many different conversations, VerticalResponse suggests personalizing the follow-up to the type of conversation you had. The Muse even offers email templates for follow-up situations ranging from contacting people older than you to contacting former colleagues. The site also suggests leading with the name of the event where the two of you met.
Nailing this part of the process will make it easier to build on the relationship you have just begun to forge in person. Even if the goal of meeting your new connection isn’t a sale, a follow-up will demonstrate that you valued the conversation and are interested in a continued relationship.
While many benefits come with the freedom digital entrepreneurship affords, sometimes there’s no substitute for old-fashioned face time — and not the kind that requires an iPhone.
From what I have learned over the years, the six tips outlined above can elevate your brand’s authority, position you as a thought-leader and impress your guests, all without breaking the bank.