Scott Steinberg is an award-winning professional speaker and bestselling expert on leadership and innovation, and the author of Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty (TarcherPerigee, 2016). Among today’s leading providers of keynote speeches, workshops and seminars for Fortune 500 firms, his website is www.AKeynoteSpeaker.com.
Call it a community, tribe or target market: in all cases, building and maintaining an audience for your event is key to keeping a competitive edge. What’s more, according to The National Bureau of Economic Research, the amount of time that we spend online has been on the rise, making it imperative that you put a focus on finding clever ways to connect with and engage potential clients via the internet and social networks. As researchers also note, when it comes to connecting with businesses and brands in the digital space, most people simply log on and log off of online platforms at will — unless they have an incentive to stick around. Luckily, time spent amongst others with shared interests (aka, the community) often qualifies as just such an incentive. But before audiences can be encouraged to interact and communicate through your event’s various virtual channels, it’s vital to find more effective ways to captivate and engage them.
Consider that event-based online communities fill a unique space in the business world, being keyed to highly specific topics, themes and areas of interest. Your methods of growing these platforms will therefore be largely content-driven — and have to be equally differentiated, as well as original. Learning to scale is vital too: People-based platforms only grow when enough people participate within them, and your community won’t expand exponentially until user activity reaches critical mass. This chicken-and-egg dilemma means that you’ve got to consistently be providing unique insights and information (e.g., research, white papers, one-of-a-kind opinions, videos with industry thought leaders, exclusive behind-the-scenes access, etc.) that audiences can’t get anywhere else.
Furthermore, your first users also must be convinced to become active contributors and evangelists. Regular call-and-response tactics asking for articles, videos, graphics and other contributions, (e.g., suggestions, stories, comments and feedback) can help. That’s because initial community members are likely to polarize, becoming heavy users of your site or actively avoiding it — and those who do decide to get involved are likelier to directly attract and draw (and/or be directly connected) to each successive wave of community members.
Because you’re looking to gather and galvanize others around shared interests, it often helps to picture your online presence as a separate, self-contained event unto itself. Rather than simply post advertisements and teasers, it’s instead wiser to use online outposts as digital extensions of your event brand, where unique stories, infographics, reports, presentations, interviews and other pieces of context coexist. An essential draw for any meeting or special occasion is program content. Treat online channels as a forum through which to spark discussion and present preludes to, additions on or extensions of live, onsite programming, and you’ll find ample reason for audiences to tune in and keep coming back. Archives should further be supplemented by material culled from the special occasion itself. If you’re not livestreaming or recording sessions, recapping presentations and offering downloadable handouts online, you should be. But by and large, online platforms should serve as a standalone launching point for further insights and dialogue, and a central hub for material related to your program that prompts regular conversation and comment.
You absolutely need to have someone at the wheel of efforts focused around communicating via social networks, though. Consider that all major airlines now have nearly 24/7 social media responders on call to handle customer inquiries, as do many quick-service restaurants — and that their online communities often don’t technically exist outside of actual social media accounts. Today, audience expectations when it comes to both engagement and response times are sky-high — appoint a community manager for your event to handle these tasks.
Likewise, it often can work to the benefit of an online community to help encourage real-world interaction — through live events and programming — that meet more frequently than annual or quarterly get-togethers. Consider that many industries, such as technology and media, are highly regional and the larger your platform, the more likely groups of users also will be physically present in the same city or region. Former Etsy community strategist Morgan Evans notes that the key to successful community management is proactively cultivating grassroots connections. Like a political campaign, the broadest possible message succeeds when it is repeated in small, intimate pockets — pockets which can take the form of salons, happy hours, classes, mixers, panels, networking events and other easily orchestrated extensions of your event brand.
And remember: the most important step to creating success with an online community is to define some simple objectives and rules from the outset. The goal could be to galvanize around virtually any topic as defined by your event. The key metrics used to determine success for the program could be based on variables such as the number of attendees, sponsorships sold or amount of user engagement. In any event, all goals you’re shooting for should be measurable and objective.
To get started defining your vision and approach, professionals recommend asking exploratory questions such as:
Defining a clear vision and purpose; creating a profile of audience members you specifically wish to attract; providing content that’s too good to ignore; consistently sparking dialogue and audience input; and adhering to meaningful metrics will help you stay focused as you build your online platform. Remember, humans are many things, but seldom predictable. However, the more you can incentivize them to take part in your event’s online community — whether by sharing their thoughts, asking questions, uploading videos, connecting with thought leaders or otherwise — the more you’ll watch your community (and event) thrive and grow. C&IT