A publicist with a big tech PR agency stepped into the Monkey Bar, a midtown Manhattan venue I had arranged as a networking meeting place. I had previously met her in the online world. She looked around cautiously, hoping she would recognize me from my Facebook profile picture. Within an hour, we were laughing and telling stories over cocktails, as if we'd known each other for years.

That was the first gathering of what I called a "Sip & Pitch," inviting PR professionals to share innovations and news with me during a short visit to New York. I had only met them previously on Facebook through a private group called PR, Marketing, and Media Czars, created by Jennifer Demarchi, a public relations professional, to bring more than 20,000 publicists, writers, and marketing professionals together online and share resources and pitches.

I am clearly not the only person who is bringing online connections together IRL (in real life). Peloton -- the creators of a network of in-home exercisers -- produces an annual  "Home Rider Invasion" attracting 1,000 fans from 43 states, who gather in New York to meet the trainers and competitors with whom they've been cycling in the virtual world. One rider finally got the meet the other people who "rode" with her throughout all nine months of her pregnancy. The Home Invasion attendee says, "Our most touching stories from the weekend involved meeting other "PeloCouples"--too many to name--who, like us, share a love of fitness, fun and community."

Many other businesses are realizing the benefits of online-to-offline connection too. Co-working giant WeWork purchased Meetup last year for $200 million, according to Business Insider. WeWork clearly is expanding it's capabilities as a "community manufacturing machine." That phrase coined by Wired sounds rather sterile, but the concept of using digital media to connect people with similar interests may be exactly what we are all craving. Organizers are also creating "LinkedIn Live" events in their communities, as a means of networking. Starting conversations is easier when you already know a little bit about the people whose hands you're shaking.

Publisher Tiffany Pham produces an annual conference called Mogul X, targeted primarily at millennial women.  For years, publishers have been producing trade shows, but Pham offered up free tickets to her biggest global influencers, so they could gift them to other readers who they wanted to meet. One student from Romania built her own Mogul community at her school and shared her free tickets with other women worldwide so they can learn from each other, according to the Mogul X organizers.

Jeffrey Abramson, who describes himself as an "Experiential Strategist," believes that these new online/offline communities are simply a replacement for the country clubs and religious institutions of the past. "People are seeking out human bonds to expand their networks and their minds...real life engagements remain where the magic is--humans are social animals.  It's essential to our health.  As technology makes it easier for us to explore our interests, it also has the tendency to isolate us from real connections if we are just doing it from our couches.  We have to work harder to make efforts to engage with others IRL and I think that this is instinctive to digital natives in some ways.  They are seeking gatherings and events the way an animal seeks water when its thirsty."

If you organize or attend a physical gathering of people you met in the online world:

  • Do some pre-research, so you'll have conversation icebreakers. 
  • Expect the best, but keep in mind that people may not be as impressive or clever IRL as they are in their profiles. Learn to gracefully move on from conversations that aren't going anywhere (professionally or personally).
  • Keep in touch with the people you meet. Take photos and post them online and update your e-mail database.
  • If you're so inclined, start planning your next gathering. We often get so caught up in our digital lives that we forget the value of human connection.

As for the Monkey Bar gathering...I now have several new "friends" and connections (genuine ones, as opposed to the Facebook and LinkedIn varieties) to look to when I need story ideas or sources.

Published on: Jul 23, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.