Author: Callie Motz

7 Tips for Community Building Through Virtual Events

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

5 Ways to Build Community Amid a Crisis (And Why It Matters)

We live in challenging times. But in any challenge also exists an opportunity.

Today, it’s the fear and uncertainty sparked by the rapidly evolving COVID-19 outbreak.

Tomorrow, your organization — or entire swaths of the population — could face another challenge.

That’s just one reason why building and cultivating a community is more important than ever.

Consider these words from Helen Keller: “Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.” The ability to build and grow in challenging times, just as you would in the best of times, is made easier and more meaningful within a community of shared intentions.

Communities provide support, connection and relief. They allow the most powerful unit, the small group, to accomplish things together and then scale within the larger group. Within a community, people feel just as comfortable celebrating as they do commiserating. Communities help people feel like they belong, that they have a voice, that their actions matter. Those feelings are powerful on an average day. Amid challenging circumstances, they can be the glue that holds fast, keeping your brand and audience together and working toward a common goal.

Your goal? Work on strategically building your community. Right now, this might even be more important if you had to or are considering canceling or postponing key annual meetings or gatherings.

Whether you’re a community building novice or expert, you can take steps in the coming days and weeks to strengthen the connections among your employees, members, audience and/or stakeholders. Start with these five tips.

1. Define your community — Before you can start conversations and help facilitate connections, you need to know your audience. Consider answering these questions:

  • Who does your community include?

  • Why are they an important part of your community?

  • What are some of their challenges?

  • What methods of communication do they prefer?

You could even take this visualization exercise a step further and sketch out personas of your key community members. This helps you understand them, their motivations, their role with respect to your organization, how to best reach them and what applicable questions or challenges you can help them solve.

2. Identify your community’s goals — Now that you have a clear picture of the people that comprise your community, use that insight to help collaboratively develop some strategic goals for your community. These goals should be driven and informed by the community members themselves.

  • Who can you tap from the community to be their voice in this conversation?

  • What information do they need or what do they want to accomplish?

  • Why?

  • And how can you help?

As you create these goals alongside the community, it helps to also reference strategic goals your organization or business may be working toward. Giving your community a chance to form goals that help accomplish these goals not only makes your work easier, but also gives community members a chance to feel truly invested in what you’re doing. The feelings of ownership and pride that come from being a stakeholder will not only help members of your community feel appreciated and recognized, but also that they have a seat at the decision-making table right next to you.

3. Start the conversation — By understanding your audience and what you hope to achieve together, you can start to create ways to converse, share and engage.

This is especially important in times of global uncertainty, such as what we’re facing now. Social distancing is keeping many people away from offices, gatherings, meetings and events. Seize the opportunity to let your community know you’re still invested in bringing them together, even if that unity is happening largely through digital methods. Consider tools like email newsletters, video chats, blog posts, social media channels and a branded mobile app to keep your community informed, engaged and invested.

Of course, you don’t need to deploy several types of communication at once! Take the following steps to start the conversation:

  • Revisit your community profiles and understand how they prefer to converse and be contacted.

  • As you experiment with these methods, understand that community building is a continual work in progress.

  • Refine your methods and tactics as you progress and learn even more about your audience.

  • Be receptive to feedback, and make it easy for community members to provide that input.

  • Better yet, ask your community members to be the ones to lead these conversations and reach-outs, giving them the stage to talk about the things that matter most to them.

4. Approach your calendar with flexibility — Convening is leadership. This means that events are typically a significant part of community building. Conferences, meetings and work sessions give community members a chance to learn, share, build relationships and solve problems face-to-face, strengthening not only individual connections, but also the entire community.

Yet when you’re forced to cancel, postpone or rethink an event, that can throw your community-building strategy into a tailspin. Take some deep breaths and a few steps back and reassess how you can still bring your community together in a different way.

Look at what you have scheduled and what you need to modify.

  • What did you want to accomplish during that event?

  • How can you still work toward those goals in a different format?

Can you:

  • Bring together smaller groups in virtual workshops?

  • Keep your community updated with recurring conference calls?

  • Foster virtual discussions or working sessions in places like a mobile app or a dedicated LinkedIn group?

Think of it this way: by keeping your community connected and engaged amid difficult circumstances, you’ll help strengthen those bonds and provide some much-needed stability and reassurance to those who need it. And you’ll also position your community to hit the ground running when challenges ease.

5. Keep the momentum going — Consistency is key to successful community building. Think of it this way: you can’t simply start a conversation and then walk away. Instead, outline the steps you’ll take to keep community-building a continual priority. Build a calendar for your communications, for example, so you can track the what, when and how of your outreach. This can also help you identify what sort of messaging, content and assets you need to keep your community informed and connected.

If community-focused gatherings and events aren’t already part of your strategy, start to think about ways you can bring your community together, even if those gatherings look a little different right now than they normally would. And again, don’t forget to encourage feedback and leadership from your community directly to more effectively measure your efforts and what you can change or refine to make them even more successful.

Do you remember the old saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day?” Well, the same applies to your community. You aren’t going to build a community in a day, especially in the midst of challenging circumstances. Instead, focus on the small steps you can take now to bring your community together. Those small steps often lead to bigger actions, and that’s what community building is all about.

What we know is this: organizations that focus on strength in community in times of triumph are the ones that thrive in times of crisis. In addition to these helpful tips, are you ready to talk about your community as a whole and how we can best continue to strengthen it? Wellington can help you get there.