One of the most valuable functions of virtual events is often the most overlooked: community building. While “virtual” might not be what immediately comes to mind when you think about community building, it can provide a wealth of meaningful, cost-effective opportunities for helping people become and remain engaged on a long-term basis.
This past year has been really isolating for many people. As humans, we’re wired to seek connection with others, and not being able to do that has left people looking for opportunities to find group connections wherever they can. A recent study showed that 40% of people feel less connected now than they did before the pandemic, and 1 in 6 people surveyed had called customer service just to talk with someone.
Virtual events are a key tool for community building because they create authentic opportunities for human connection while also meeting people where they are, both geographically and mentally. They can also help foster community by ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to contribute in a way that in-person doesn’t always allow for. One attendee described it well: “In this virtual environment everyone has a front row seat, and everyone has a voice in the room.”
The best virtual events incorporate community building strategies and in return create stronger communities. Here are seven ways to do that:
Don’t feel constrained by the (perceived) restrictions of the virtual environment. Too often in planning, the question becomes, “How can we do what we’re limited to doing in a virtual environment?” This leads to a “virtual event” that’s nothing more than a video call. It’s important to recognize that unless you’re working with a firm that specializes in virtual events, you’re going to be limited by your working knowledge of virtual technologies and what you’ve seen done before by someone else. The better approach is to start with what you want to do and how you want people to feel – then partner with a virtual event production firm to discover the unique opportunities you have for creating your virtual event or series of events.
Define your goals and objectives. This is something we cannot stress enough, and it’s how we begin every client engagement (in-person, virtual or hybrid). If you don’t define what you want to achieve or why, you don’t have a guidepost for making decisions or measuring success. People are usually surprised by the number of different options available, and the only way to figure out what’s best for your organization is to know what you’re trying to do.
Identify the ideal ways for your attendees to connect. Think about who your attendees will be and how they “normally” interact with each other. The more specific you can be about your audience, the more helpful this exercise will be. Try to think beyond “my audience includes all of the employees in my company” and think about the departments, job roles, familiarity with tech, communication styles, and personal preferences of the people you’re trying to reach. For example, if your attendees usually work independently but used to have lunch together every other Friday, what virtual experiences could help create this same feeling of connection? If a team works collaboratively but has video-call fatigue, what new tools can be introduced to keep that sense of connection? In a world that is now hybrid in almost every aspect of our lives, leveraging new technology and connectivity tools to recognize each other, share news, find opportunities, and form groups becomes increasingly more important. Companies are identifying opportunity gaps in their current employee engagement strategy as the future of a more permanent hybrid workforce continues to be our new normal.
Keep groups small enough so people can easily digest the material and connect with each other. A core tenant of community building is the use of small groups. When groups are large, people can get lost and feel disconnected. Imagine walking into a crowded hotel ballroom. Now imagine walking into a friend’s living room with five other people. Your expectations for your own participation and how much you’ll interact with other people are very different. With the small group, you’re probably assuming that if you don’t already know everyone, you will soon, and that you’ll have conversations with the other people there. The same holds true with virtual events. This is how communities are built.
Create ample and unique ways for people to connect with each other. Virtual events provide endless possibilities for unique ways to connect. Knowing the ways your audience will most want to engage is the first half of the equation; the second is creating multiple unique options that give them different paths to connection.
One client with a purpose-driven event had an overwhelming number of attendees. Asking them to connect based on their purpose or their mission wouldn’t have helped, because by virtue of attending the event they all identified a similar purpose and mission. As part of their user profile, we asked them to select two or three interests that they had outside of this organization, and then we used a tagging system to create opportunities for people to reach out to others with similar interests. A scheduling tool within the event platform allowed attendees to create a get-together of people in their interest groups, allowing for more meaningful connections without the need for coordination or management by event staff.
Another client had previously run a prize program for its sales reps that included a destination trip for an in-person prize selection. Travel restrictions made this impossible, so we created a 3D prize room that allowed winners to “be” in the same room with gift concierges. Winners could interact with the gifts and multiple winners could be in the room at the same time, helping guests feel as close to in-person as possible. Most importantly, it created a shared – and realistic – experience for the winners that can help nurture long-term connections.
Don’t wait to connect people. Community building is one of the purposes of virtual events, so don’t wait to introduce people or give them tools to connect with each other. We recommend starting before the event, which can include things like a simple approach of suggesting a few people that they meet at the event via email all the way to getting them in the platform early and pointing them towards how to start networking right away.
Make a plan for continuing momentum after the event. Once you’ve created an amazing virtual event or series, you’ll get more out of your investment if you can keep the momentum going after it’s ended. Develop a plan for how that will happen as part of the planning for the event itself, so it doesn’t get overlooked. One way to approach this is to treat follow-up events as an extension of the main event – for example, a break-out session scheduled for a future date. Also consider ways to allow attendees to keep connecting on their own. Digital meeting spaces and apps can empower people to continue being engaged throughout the year.
Early on in the pandemic, a client with a very tech-adverse audience had to switch to a virtual event. The client was understandably hesitant and initially viewed virtual as something they would do this time only because they had no other choice. What they found, though, is that their attendees loved the virtual environment. They valued the ability to chat in real time and they felt more connected with the content because they could discuss it with other attendees. The client has decided that moving forward, virtual will be a part of all of their events – even the in-person events.
Community building through virtual events means more connected employees, customers, and stakeholders. By adding virtual to your marketing or even human resources mix, your investment will save you time and money in attrition and other marketing costs.