Ironically, event professionals are an industry that is changing and an industry that never seems to change. Like many black swan events, there are often long-term changes to the way businesses operate and consumers act. According to a recent McKinsey and Company study, 90% of executives said they expect the fallout from COVID-19 to fundamentally change the way they do business over the next five years. Those same executives also reported that the pandemic would have a lasting impact on their customer’s needs and 75% said the crisis would create new growth opportunities. Could online event communities be the answer?
So, what will stick with events?
What continues to gain traction across event manager blogs, discussion groups and industry chatter is harnessing online event communities’ power. Ironic since it is something event professionals (and audiences) have been discussing for many years, well before the pandemic. Having conducted event focus groups for years, it was common feedback. Regardless of the industry or event size, every group desired to extend their three days to year-long engagement. From the connections they made, the business conducted, the sense of community they often felt at events to the learnings, it was always an utmost desire to “keep it going.”
It makes sense given the investment of resources (both in time and money) for a three-day event. We have all been to a great session and wished we could continue the conversations with the speakers and other attendees. Most of us have gone alone to a conference and wished there was an easy way to connect to other attendees in advance to meet up on a topic or just a social meal. Exhibitors and sponsors would always prefer to start a conversation at the event with “it’s great to meet you finally” versus hear “what do you do?” The list of benefits and examples of why we should leverage event communities are endless.
So why now?
As the pandemic has endured (on gone on further than anyone ever expected), organizations realized that year-round engagement is not only an insurance policy for the risks singular in-person events can often face; it is what everyone wants in their events. As new and previously untapped audiences have attended virtual-only events, organizers are scrambling to find ways to extend and increase engagement, networking and connections as the core value propositions that in-person events were so effective at generating pre-pandemic. While everyone seems to agree that virtual events will not replace in-person events, the value of events is far more than just the in-person interactions in such a short window of time.
So how do online event communities work with hybrid events?
When it comes to hybrid events, in-person events will be the centerpieces of the virtual experiences surrounding physical events. For many organizations, the most effective virtual component will be event-branded online communities.
In our latest research study (LINK), 44% of association members shared that it’s become more important to have an online community in 2021 than in previous years. However, we found that only a tiny percent of association staff report using one. So, it not only serves to benefit your events, but it will also benefit your organization.
Sounds great, but why will it work?
Audiences are already conditioned and accustomed to using digital tools to feel more connected and engaged with their peers. Peers are one of the most trusted sources in digital spaces.
I travel a great deal for both work and personal enjoyment. When I am looking for a restaurant recommendation in an unfamiliar town, I turn to Facebook over Yelp. While Yelp provides me an overview of what the public thinks of a dining establishment, I have been in cities where Taco Bell is highly rated. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Chalupa, but my friends will make recommendations for a small local Mexican restaurant versus a chain. Or since I am a bit of a foodie, a unique local establishment, or some great BBQ. My peers will also likely know I am allergic to seafood, so they will not make that recommendation either. My peers and colleagues will better serve me, and I will trust them more than the general public.
Association and event communities have built-in trust because of familiarity, privacy protection, and community ownership. Just this past week, another Facebook data breach compromised 533 million users phone numbers and personal information was leaked. The more trust a participant feels, the more likely they are to freely engage with others.
Even if they have only attended your event once, they will likely already feel connected to the event and its community. If it is a new attendee, they will want to engage this community as quickly as possible to make the time most valuable. These are not strangers meeting online; they are a group of individuals with a common goal and interest – your event and your organization.
Will this help our in-person events?
Absolutely. Event advocacy or net promoter score (NPS) via online channels is a universal driver of attendance. And since most people attend events to solve problems, make connections, conduct business and gain knowledge and skills – your online community becomes an extension of why they already attend. This past year, our research (LINK) has shown this has grown more important, with 45% of respondents saying a chance to learn career skills or certifications is more important than in 2020. Followed quickly behind is 46% who said it was more important to network with others in-person and 45% who shared being able to network with others via digital platforms & communities. We have all heard of FOMO. Event communities can create it by offering “member or registered attendee only” areas, special events and sessions only available to registrants. That exclusivity will drive event registration sooner to benefit from the content, sharing and networking reserved for “club members.”
These connections and interactions create a circular loop: People want to meet the people with whom they interact in an online community. When they connect and engage at events, they contribute more to your online community in authentic, relevant and ongoing discussions.
Can we generate revenue with an online event community?
Of course! Online event communities offer companies year-long opportunities to remain in front and engaged with their target markets (your attendees). Companies can participate in many ways, between highly valuable thought leadership sponsorships and events to online advertising opportunities.
Some event organizers only allow participation in their event communities to those who exhibit or sponsor this in-person event (to drive in-person revenue), while others are extending their reach to those who may not attend in person but still want exposure to your audiences.
Regardless of your approach, there are many ways to cover the cost of the platform via sponsorships.
Are there other benefits of online event communities?
While this list extends beyond this, here a few:
Content – Most events are filled with great content. Content that expires moments after it is presented. An online community maximizes the usage of existing educational content and speakers for days, weeks or even months afterward. Some will include this as a member benefit moving forward, while others may charge for it.
Networking – Connecting our audiences has been a challenge this past year. Well-built event communities create curated and meaningful interactions and connections around affinity. Examples include topics of interest, job role/title, products, services, geography, skills, etc. And for introverts who may feel less comfortable networking in-person, a community provides a level playing field and safe space for digital networking year-long.
Data and Insights – As we learned with a year of virtual events, the data became highly valuable. Your online events community is not only a place to connect; it’s a goldmine for data, interaction insights and market and member intelligence. The data will be a real-time data source not only to plan your in-person event but can also help organizations strategically plan for 2021 and beyond.
Ready to learn more about building an online community?
If you’re interested in hearing more about our strategy and approach to online communities, watch our recent discussion with Personify’s Erin Sullivan and Benjamin Morton. During the webinar, they explore the benefits of communities for associations and nonprofits and reveal strategies to get your community off on the right foot and keep it going strong. In this session, you’ll learn:
- What an online community is and how it plays an important role in your engagement strategy that is unique from your organization’s other digital tools
- A strategy to launch a new community that will make your members and stakeholders feel welcome and understand how to get involved
- Essential best practices in online community management for organizations of all sizes
- A walkthrough of Personify’s community platform and how to bring these best practices to life within the software
- And much, much more.