As capital assets collapse, intangible assets grow: networking in the age of digital

Written by Ann Francke Tuesday 09 June 2020
Ironically, this could be the best time ever to enrich your personal and professional networks...
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

On a recent Better Managers Briefing, I was delighted to talk to two leaders of networking and event-organising businesses who swiftly adapted to a digital way of working: CMI Companions Vanessa Vallely, CEO and founder of WeAreTheCity, and John Jeffcock, CEO and founder of Winmark. They share their experiences and tips here...

Work fast, together and forgivingly

John and Vanessa both had to adapt their business models overnight. For Vanessa, that meant putting out a call through LinkedIn on a Friday night for people to join her virtual webinar series and waking up the following Monday morning to find more than 50 offers of support. Her emphasis was on being fast, free and helping others. She also had to pull forward a big virtual conference and was able to recruit people more easily than she anticipated just by reaching out over social media – 50% of her next conference has been built on speakers she’s never met. “I’ve engaged with them via LinkedIn, Twitter or even Facebook.”

Vanessa’s team learned a lot in a small period of time, and now they’re paying it forward. “We’ve advised 25 other organisations and industries about the tools that are out there digitally. We’re sharing our experience with others so that they can mobilise quickly as well.”

For John, this has been both a digital and strategic pivot. “We basically went through nine months' work in two months… there was a holy-whatever moment when we suddenly had to turn 150 face-to-face events into webinars.” Fortunately, he had just put his systems in the cloud and hired digital expertise.

The period has been a stimulus for change and innovation. “Even senior people are now open for things that they might not have been historically.” John quickly added daily email newsletters across all his networks, and started acting as content curator, bringing together the best from McKinsey and others, and sharing that with his members – one has called it a “lifeline”.

Yes, the speed of the transformation has led to mistakes – Zoom crashes, speakers not joining, connection issues. But members and audiences have been forgiving. “People are a lot more understanding at the moment,” says Vanessa.

As capital assets collapse, intangible assets grow

Ironically, the ramping-up of digital experiences has led to closer engagement and more human connections. As Vanessa puts it: “Everyone is in the same-size box [on Zoom, Teams etc], so you are hearing voices that you wouldn't normally have heard.”

John agrees. “Everyone’s become quite informal, [events] are quite intimate… the suits are gone and the informality has broken down barriers.”

Both Vanessa and John believe that the digital world increases the contribution from diverse voices. Not having to travel makes it easier for more people to join virtual events. Says Vanessa: “It’s been a more engaging experience, and leaders are learning more about their own people and listening more.” John agrees, adding that the pool of virtual panellists is now wider because people can join from anywhere. It’s an exciting world where you can expand the size and reach of your audience at no extra cost.

Going global from your sofa

The virtual world has allowed both Vanessa and John to globalise their businesses much more readily than they’d otherwise have done. “We talked for a long time about expanding internationally,” says John, “we were looking at all sorts of places and now we’ve just gone global overnight.” His latest events have brought in members from places as diverse as Switzerland, Spain, the US and Kuwait.

Through the Covid-19 crisis, Vanessa has tripled her content and bring in speakers from all over the world. “I feel I have [built] a huge global network sitting on my sofa over the past six weeks... I can’t wait to meet them face to face, but I feel like I know them already.”

A 50/50 future

With all the benefits of virtual networking, will we ever go back to face-to-face networking and events? “I think that a lot of the virtual stuff will stick,” says John, adding that his member surveys show a preference for a 50/50 virtual and face-to-face mix. Vanessa agrees but adds, “you can’t beat that face-to-face interaction.”

Now’s the time to build your network

Unsurprisingly, both experts have grown their own networks significantly during this crisis and they think you should, too. “It’s an ideal opportunity to rekindle some of those connections you may have lost,” advises Vanessa, or indeed to make new ones. “Use the tools that you’ve got... Don’t be afraid to approach people. If they ignore you, move on, talk to someone else…

“Continuing to expand your network during this time is really important.”

John reminds us of the old saying that you need to contact someone four times to turn that connection into a relationship, but adds. “Go for gold, go and talk to people who can be useful to you.”

Next week, Ann will be talking to Elysia McCaffrey, Interim Director at the Government Equalities Office.

What better place to build your own network than at CMI’s new series of online events and webinars that take place throughout the year…?

For many more tips on effective networking and relationship-building, visit ManagementDirect (free to CMI members).

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