Networking apps are helping people meet remotely

Whether you want to connect for business or recreate the casual chat with coworkers, there are a slew of startups and apps to fill a void and help people feel less isolated.

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Image: elenabs, Getty Images/iStockphoto

A few years back, Tom Jaffee attended a Chamber of Commerce breakfast so he could network with people. A serial entrepreneur in the networking space who founded 8minutedating, Jaffee was looking forward to making new connections.

"I really did not go for the scrambled eggs or the speaker but to connect with people," he said. "They had a little bit of mingle time and then everyone had to find their way to a table. I sat down, and it so happened that the guy on my left and the guy on my right were plumbers. I don't need plumbing, so the entire experience had no real value."

That got Jaffee thinking about a way to search for someone in areas of greater interest to him, such as digital marketing and retail sales. While those people might have been at the chamber breakfast, he had no way of knowing.

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And even if they were there, he may still not have had much time to connect. "Most events take up most of the time with speakers," he noted. "Whether in person or virtual, you want to have a tool that will make it easy to find the people who matter to you and connect to them."

So Jaffee began working on Shmoozfest, a networking app that is currently in redevelopment.

"The opportunity is huge for an app that people can use for all the events and groups they're part of so you're at the center of your hub," he said.

So are business networking apps, which are having a moment right now as networking in person has become more challenging with social distancing guidelines.

There are lots of apps in this space, including Upstream, Lunchclub, Shapr, Bizzabo and Invitly. 

"The past several months have been immensely challenging for the events industry and all of those who work within it," said Eran Ben-Shushan, Bizzabo's CEO and co-founder. "At the same time, this adversity has pushed the industry to rapidly adopt new and creative strategies for audience engagement that will continue to be key going into 2021."

Prior to March, Bizzabo only provided an event success platform for holistically managing in-person events, added Alon Alroy, chief officer of customers and strategy and co-founder.

In response to COVID-19, "we quickly pivoted the platform to support virtual events by partnering with an enterprise-grade streaming provider," Alroy said.

Reaching out today is more complex than ever, but also more powerful, said Peter Winston, CEO of user experience design firm Boston UX. "We have moved from a single platform—the phone—to a world with a lot of choices." This is key, because users can now decide how they want to connect with people and when, who initiates, whether an invite is needed, and how private the connection is, he said.

Also critical is whether a platform is easy to use. "Usability is about all of this," Winston said. 

Before the start of the pandemic, most professionally oriented networking or meeting apps were vehicles to connect with people in formal ways such as meetings, classes, and interviews, observed Dorothy Shamonsky, chief UX strategist at Boston UX.  "Now, with the isolation of quarantining and social distancing, you can see that people are just restless to interact with coworkers more and continue to meet new people instead of feeling like their lives are on hold until who knows when," she said.

The dearth of trade shows and informal meetups feels like a huge loss right now both by individuals and by companies that depend on them for promotion and sales, Shamonsky added. "So there is a business advantage to these apps, which is what will likely carry them along more than the isolation of individuals, but time will tell."

With more people experiencing Zoom meeting fatigue, a slew of audio networking apps have also cropped up, offering the ability to focus on a conversation without the screen time. Startups including Chalk, Space, and Watercooler, let users create audio-networking events or one-on-one conversations, but don't require an invite to join. Also new on the scene is Clubhouse, an invite-only audio chat platform in private beta.

The main attraction of these newer networking apps is that they are native to and comfortable to use on phones, as opposed to laptops and desktops, and they are lightweight and mobile, Shamonsky said.

Additionally, "They are more like the social interaction of standing around an hors d'oeuvres table rather than the formal interaction of a sit-down meeting—so not so structured, direct, full-on face-to-face, but more casual and conversational," she said. "They fill a space that meeting apps, networking apps and direct phone calls don't already occupy."

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If you thought there was no space for these new kinds of apps, you were wrong, Shamonsky said. "Surprise, necessity—or deprivation, or constraints if you are a designer—are the mother of invention."

Events and the ability to network look very different today, but Bizzabo's Alroy does not believe that in-person will ever go away. Instead, he predicts there will be more of a hybrid strategy of in-person and virtual post pandemic.

The ability to have targeted meets remains the end goal, said Shmoozfest's Jaffee.

"Events have always been important, but the most important part of the event for most people has been making quality connections in the limited time you have," he said. "Most events leave that up to random chance." Now, with social distancing being the norm, "a quality networking app provides a structured mechanism for making it easy for people to find and meet and connect and follow up with the people who matter most to them—or who are likely to matter most to them."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the status of the Clubhouse app.

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