Congregating at the Online Watercooler

How Shelly Palmer's virtual networking salons have evolved amid the pandemic

A virtual watercooler
The original idea was to curate the audience, pick a topic and have a salon-like discussion about it. Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Shelly Palmer

I missed meeting new people and I missed bumping into people I know. So six weeks ago, we introduced Shelly Palmer Online Networking Salons. They are free, category-specific, weekly 20-minute, super-curated, small Zoom meetings where you meet new people, bump into old friends, hang out for a bit and then get back to work. The results have been nothing short of amazing. And we’ve learned some things that I’d like to share with you.

From online networking salon to online watercooler

We originally designed these “free, category-specific, weekly, 20-minute, super-curated, small Zoom meetings” using a salon metaphor. The idea was to curate the audience, pick a topic and have a salon-like discussion about it. This worked fine, but everyone was not always well-versed in the individual daily topics, so many attendees just listened, which was not what we intended.

A ‘that’s interesting’ moment

But then something wonderful happened. Some of the salons naturally evolved into online watercooler conversations—old friends and new acquaintances taking a few minutes out of their very busy work days to talk about things that are important to them. It was—and is—magical.

The format

We host eight salons per week and the format is simple. After a minute of opening remarks, the attendees are sorted—by a very interesting algorithm—into small breakout sessions with five to eight people per discussion. There, they introduce themselves and take a minute to say whatever they want to say. Then, the rest of the time is spent hanging out at the online watercooler.

Method evolved, but goal achieved

I like where we ended up. We’ve created a platform where hundreds of people can enjoy the comfort of chatting with their friends while benefiting from the serendipity of meeting new people. I couldn’t be happier. But there’s a bigger lesson here.

Some say, “Follow the road, not the map.” Others say, “Follow the map, not the road.” Which is right?

We had a plan: Build an online salon. We had a working offline model: My in-person salons are the most productive business gatherings I host. We had test data: Beta testing showed the online salon format would work. We had competitive data: We attended online salons hosted by others that we admired and felt were successful.

We could have followed the “map.” It was our vision. The map clearly laddered up to our business strategy and things were working fine. In practice, we enjoyed “excellent” results from the salon format. Feedback was 85% positive, which we thought was statistically unbeatable.

But the road was leading us elsewhere.

Our self-assembled community is filled with super smart, super successful, interesting professionals, but right now, everyone can use a few minutes in a virtual break room with an online watercooler to gather around.

So instead of following our map or the road, we stayed laser-focused on our mission to create an online experience that replicates—as closely as possible—an environment where you can meet new people, bump into old friends, hang out for a bit and then get back to work.

I’m proud that this product launch not only embodies our approach to mission, vision and values, but also demonstrates that we practice what we preach. You’re welcome to join any or all of our “online breakrooms,” and please feel free to invite your friends. (And yes, after some market testing, we’ll probably rename them. In the meantime, please join us.)

Shelly Palmer online networking salons


@shellypalmer Shelly Palmer is CEO of The Palmer Group, a strategic advisory, technology solutions and business development practice focused at the nexus of media and marketing with a special emphasis on machine learning and data-driven decision-making.
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