Unlocking Serendipity at Conferences & Events

Last month, I attended a 3-day conference focused on education & the future of work. There were 3,000+ attendees – and I barely knew any of them.

So of course, I did my homework. I spent hours browsing through hundreds of individual profiles, thought carefully about who might be interested in what I’m doing, read up on a select few attendees, and crafted and sent dozens of personalized cold emails.

Thanks to my legwork and a couple folks who did the same by reaching out to me, I had set up a few meetings in advance. And overall, I enjoyed a fantastic conference.

And of course while there, I met some people serendipitously as well. However, for every individual with whom I had a meaningful conversation, just based on sheer volume, I estimate that there were 10 missed connections.

I wish conferences & large events as a whole were structured a bit differently.


The Problem

You’ve probably experienced this before. You are a newcomer at an industry event / conference. You want to meet people, but it can be overwhelming

Take the happy hour mixer. The free food & booze is always great. After all, who doesn’t like Coronas and shrimp cocktails? (As they say, everything tastes better on a stick!)

At a mixer, by default you try to glimpse at name cards and appearances, size-up the context a bit, and try to approach people who seem open and friendly.

More or less, it’s a stab in the dark – you might meet someone who changes the direction of your business & career. More often than not, you make an acquaintance, who while a perfectly wonderful person – has different interests than yourself. Both of you realize this, so you engage in a few minutes of polite small talk before moving on.

For the most part, I do enjoy that randomness and excitement, but our time is a valuable thing. And I’ve long thought that there must be a more efficient way to maximize the value of connections created and increase the overall level of serendipity.

I doubt that my experiences & sentiments are unique.

As a whole, I wish conferences and events would do more to create connection between the attendees. And I think that there are some simple things that can be done that would add enormous value.


The Solution

The next time I sign-up for a conference or event, I would love to be asked (and be forced to respond to) 1 -3 of these questions:

  • What is ONE thing that you need help with right now professionally?
  • What is ONE topic that you would like to learn more about and why?
  • What is ONE interesting thing about your industry / position / career that few others know?

I’d want my answers to be made publicly accessible to other attendees via some type of web / mobile app interface. After all, wouldn’t you want others to try to help you?

And from the opposite perspective, I’d look for people I wish to connect with and try to “Give First” by addressing their stated needs as a way of getting in touch.

Not only are these questions great icebreakers, but they are actually even more valuable as a filtering mechanism. They help all parties better understand what they need, who to talk to, and what to say.

Interestingly enough, our company DeepBench helps people answer these exact same questions – in a slightly different setting. You can think of DeepBench’s system as a filter, designed to sift through millions of professionals around the world to make the connection that you need to find the information that you want.

We are starting to do some AI-powered matching at DeepBench right now. It is not yet used in the realm of large, live events – but our experience indicates that automatic matching of individuals can certainly be done. Sidenote: perhaps whoever pursues this idea can partner with DeepBench from a technical perspective.


Market Size Estimate

Not all event / conference attendees want to better connect with new people. For example, some VIP panelists & keynote speakers are too important to be bothered. Plus, many industry veterans attend these conferences with a key goal to reconnect with old friends.

I actually suspect that this is the primary reason that such a matchmaking tool isn’t widely used by conferences.

Most conferences are centered around the VIP speakers and NOT the masses. Even the organizers themselves are generally VIPs – after all, one has to be well connected to organize a large, successful conference.

My working hypothesis is that decision makers in this arena are disconnected from and do not feel the pain of a large chunk of end-users.

For the rest of us plebes & industry newcomers – we only know a handful of people at any event, and a better matching tool would be very useful.

I estimate that between 50-75% of all attendees at every professional conference would find helpful a filtering mechanism that helps make connections.

How did I ballpark that number? Simple – just start with the % of the population who are introverts and add a few extroverts like me who just want a tool that allows us to find the right people to approach.

If I were organizing a large, professional conference, I’d pay an extra $1-$3 / attendee for the aforementioned matching capability.

With something so simple, I could provide enormous value for my audience. And I could use this data to better understand my audience and improve the event year after year.

Within the USA alone, there are 200 million conference attendees annually – so this one feature represents a $200 – $600 million annual opportunity domestically.


Competitive Landscape and Path to Market

The market for corporate event apps is highly fragmented – see the Google Search results below. I’m not quite sure why that is. My hunch is that the barrier to entry is very low, there is no real network effect, and there is too much customization required for each conference for any single app to enjoy true economies of scale.

Customer acquisition costs & churn seem very high for a new entrant. So my conclusion is that this business opportunity is less viable as a standalone start-up idea, and more viable as part of an existing platform.

It would make much more sense for an existing conference / event technology company to build in-house, or an incumbent could license software to do this.  *coughs* Come talk to me if you are one of those incumbents! 😉



About the author:  Yishi the co-founder & CEO of DeepBench — We connect users with experts on any topic in any industry, and we also license our software to enterprises to better unlock expertise internally. (Check us out if you are interested in joining our network or using our product!)

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May 19th, 2019

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