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Event experience | 9 December 2016

How To Build Vibrant Online and Offline Event Communities

David Epstein

Of the average Chief Marketing Officer’s total B2B marketing budget, live events account for 24% of annual spend. That is the single largest marketing investment most marketing departments make each year. The reason for this is obvious: For most businesses, live events are one of the most effective ways for brands to engage with target audiences.

But while live events are undoubtedly valuable, so too is digital. For one thing, digital channels allow brands to stay in touch with a target audience throughout the year. Facebook has over 1.7 billion monthly active users, Twitter has 313 million, and Linkedin has 116 million. In short, for business event organizers who want to engage a target audience, the best option is to build an online community that is brought together during an offline in-person event.

This article will teach readers how to build vibrant online and offline event communities that add value to event attendees while giving brands a better opportunity to engage with a target audience.

Know that social media is not necessarily community building

Just because someone on your team is tweeting, snapping, and posting does not mean that they are actually building an online community. Contrary to popular belief, a social media manager and a community manager do different things and “doing social media” is not the same as bringing people together via online networks. 

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That means that as you develop an online community building strategy it may look quite different from a social media strategy that is usually designed to increase brand awareness or increase event registrations. In fact, it is possible to have two separate strategies that involve the same networks but aim to accomplish different goals.

For example, Bizzabo has a private event networking group on Facebook called Eventovation. This network is designed to build an online community of professional event organizers, where members can come together to share best practices. Additionally, Bizzabo has a broader social media strategy that employs a company Facebook page to distribute relevant news about our product and company to followers.

Online community building strategies

When it comes to building a thriving online community, you have many different tools at your disposal. To select the right tool for you, it’s important to understand the target audience. What social networks is your target audience most likely to use naturally? What sort of connections are these people most likely hoping to establish (friendships, business connections, relationships with industry influencers?) What social media platforms are integrated with the event networking app you are using, if you are using one. Here are some different community building strategies that can be implemented on different social networks. 

Twitter Chats

Twitter can be used for more than just Pepe the frog memes. Savvy community builders use Twitter to host regular “Twitter chats.” During these chats people come together to discuss questions presented by a moderator. Often, the brand hosting a Twitter chat will work with an industry expert (think keynote speaker) to answer questions from community members. Plus since most industry experts have a Twitter following, guest experts can be relied on to bring more people into the online community.  

Above, Buffer is one brand that uses Twitter chats well in order to build a thriving online community of social media experts. Buffer community managers tweet out the week’s Twitter chat topic, exciting their community members, then during the chat they ask insightful questions and even create shareable images that help to attract new Twitter users to the discussions.

Twitter chats are especially good for brands that are unwilling to commit to more time-consuming online community methods like creating a private LinkedIn or Facebook group, since Twitter chats occur at regular intervals and usually last for no more than an hour at a time.

Facebook Groups

Just about 1 in 4 humans are on Facebook, which means that chances are your target audience is already using Facebook to some degree. For organizers hoping to build an online community, Facebook could be the best bet, and thanks to a set of robust Facebook group features, it has never been easier for community builders to set up powerful Facebook communities that add value to everyone involved. 

Facebook groups have three visibility settings, Public, Private and Secret. Public groups are ideal for organizers and community builders who are trying to grow large networks of people, where privacy is not a concern. Private groups work well for organizers who want control over the people who are allowed into the group, since Facebook users will need to ask permission before joining the group. Secret groups are best for organizers planning invite-only or internal events where only a small group of select individuals should be allowed in the community. Secret groups, unlike Private groups, are not discoverable via Facebook search.

When launching a Facebook group, it’s best to populate it with content and discussions by involving close friends and colleagues. That way when the first community members join the group, they feel as though they are joining something that can provide immediate value. 

Above: Bizzabo’s Eventovation Facebook Group

Like with most online community building strategies, Facebook groups require regular upkeep and new initiatives to keep community members engaged. Creating a post schedule that features a range of diverse content from polls, to thoughtful industry related articles, to shout outs to active group members is a great way to build a lively online community hosted on Facebook.

LinkedIn Groups

One of the more traditional online community platforms, LinkedIn Groups has been around for quite a while now. Various social media experts have written entire books on how to use LinkedIn Groups for various purposes and rightfully so. As one would expect, LinkedIn Groups are best for business-focused online communities.  

As with Facebook Groups, LinkedIn Groups have various privacy settings that allow organizers to control who can join the group. The platform also features various commenting settings (as does Facebook) that provide Group admins with the ability to only show posts from members that are approved. Organizers concerned about many spammy or inappropriate comments may want to require comment approval, though setting this requirement can cause members to post less.

One powerful feature offered by LinkedIn Groups that is not available through Facebook Groups is the email digest. Depending on settings, community managers can opt to email group members a regular digest of recent LinkedIn Group posts. This can be a great way to keep less active members engaged.

Forums

A forum is perhaps the most flexible medium for building an online community. Forums are usually divided into boards where members discuss a particular topic. Each topic usually has at least one moderator who ensures that commenters adhere to community guidelines and to facilitate conversation.

Some events like Social Media Marketing World and Inbound Conference have developed thriving forum based communities where members learn from one another, and form valuable connections.  

When it comes to building an online forum, usually more work is required than when building a community using a social media network. However, there are some forum building platforms that make creating a forum a bit easier.

Forums are best for organizers and community builders who have a clear community strategy and who know that online communities will play a significant part of business strategy for years to come. Otherwise, investing the time and sometimes money in creating an online forum won’t be worthwhile.

Bringing online communities to offline events

As was mentioned earlier, despite a lot of focus on digital marketing strategies, live events are still one of the single most effective marketing activities. That means that organizers and community builders will want to find creative ways to bring online communities to life during live events, such as a user conference or networking event. 

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While there are a number of different tactics that can be employed to do this, the key is to make online community members feel recognized and feel connected with one another. Organizers can do things like invite online community members to special networking sessions, presentations or after hours parties. They can reference content from online communities in presentations, and can recognize active community members on stage.

Next steps

For readers interested in harnessing the power of online and offline marketing, creating online and offline communities is a great way to speak to a target audience via highly effective channels. To get started, organizers should first make sure that they have a great understanding of the target audience Are members of the target audience likely to want to join an online community? If the answer is “yes”, then what platforms are they most likely to use?

Once you can answer these questions, it’s time to program valuable online experiences for community members, from exclusive access to thought-leaders, to well-moderated discussions and free content.

To bridge the gap between online events and live events, organizers should think of ways that they can recognize online community members for their participation to make them feel valued and to encourage event goers to join the online community as well.

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