In many ways, 2021 felt like a series of false starts. After a promising but brief return to in-person-only events in the spring, the Delta and Omicron variants forced many event organizers to renavigate a hybrid event landscape to engage both digital and physical audiences.
Even as their hybrid events remain a work in progress, many organizers now see their long-tail potential. According to EventMB Studio’s latest “State of the Event Industry” report, 63 percent of event professionals said that they see their events becoming hybrid in the future. And “by far the most positive result of hosting virtual events is the increased reach, with 36 percent of event planners citing this advantage,” said the report. “This is up from 34 percent last year, and it echoes a wider sentiment in the industry about the value virtual provides by reducing barriers to entry and attracting a truly global pool of attendees.”
In that same survey, however, more than one-third said engagement is their biggest challenge in hosting virtual events. One solution may be found in developing online communities — an in-between-events space that many associations and nonprofit organizations haven’t fully tapped into just yet.
KiKi L’Italien, CEO and host of online community, blog, and podcast Association Chat and consultant for Tecker International, said that she saw many associations that had relied on big, annual in-person meetings “scrambling” when the pandemic hit.
“They’re trying to figure out, ‘How do we give our members a sense of value and connection if we don’t have that online community already built in?’” she told Convene in early December.
“And the whole time they could have been figuring out a way to onboard their members from their virtual events, their webinars, any educational opportunities they have, their in-person events, into this ongoing regular engagement throughout the year with their members,” L’Italien added. “It’s so exciting that so many associations realize the importance behind it, but as with most things, it took the threat of losing — or actually losing — revenue, to make them see it as that important.”
Create the Space
A robust, permanent digital community has numerous benefits from an events perspective. Not only does it open up access to those unable to travel to in-person events, it can also serve as a home base for attendees to connect before, during, and after events, which is crucial for sustained engagement. “They’re connecting in your world — they’re not going off to LinkedIn or Twitter or whatever to find those people because you’re creating a home for them to do it all in one space,” said Marjorie Anderson, an online community strategist for associations and the founder of Community by Association.
Last April, Anderson shed light on this topic during the “How Online Community Has Changed in 2021” Association Chat episode hosted by L’Italien (see video above). Anderson said that she saw COVID-19 spur people to turn to online spaces “more than they ever have before” — participation in the communities she manages “[shot] through the roof.” And recent research shows this will likely become a part of the ecosystem of events — the 2022 “What’s Trending” report from BCD Meetings & Events and Hilton acknowledged that the events community will increasingly look to tech to build out permanent online communities, noting that “planners will be tasked with creating an online space that attendees can engage in throughout the year to get access to content, push out information, and be part of an interactive community.”
Building and maintaining an online community is a tall order, and L’Italien emphasizes that it’s important to set a strategy from the get-go. For example, for organizers at larger associations, that may mean sitting down with the team charged with member or chapter engagement to identify how to funnel attendees directly from events to the online community. “It’s easier for organizations who already have a clear idea about their online community — where it lives, how it interacts and all of that. For those who don’t, they need to figure that out and define where that’s going to be,” L’Italien said.
L’Italian cautions planners to avoid rushing to commit to a platform before a strategy is set. “The biggest, No. 1 mistake I keep seeing organizations make when it comes to figuring out how to create community … out of their online or even their in-person events, is that they think technology is the solution,” said L’Italien. “You can have the tool in place, but that doesn’t mean people will want to use it. You have to have a plan for how to create that natural flow for building and cultivating community.”
Connecting the dots between an online community and events will look different depending on the structure and resources of an organization — but the bigger goal is always the same. “If you’re trying to do something that’s more meaningful as an association and you’re looking at member engagement, what you’re really trying to do is to get them to interact with your content, to interact with each other,” said L’Italien. “Are you building engagement between members? Are you bringing people into community? How many new conversations were created as a result of bringing these people together? And that’s what you have to be measuring, not how many people showed up.”
On its website, online engagement platform Higher Logic shares examples of ways specific online communities are serving their members, including:
- The American Society of Civil Engineers offers Ask Me Anything–style career workshops and virtual roundtables.
- Genesys, a customer experience platform, launched a TV-like show series with pre-recorded videos on a particular topic and experts to answer customer questions.
- On nonprofit MTI’s community (serving companies in the heat-treating business), members can post questions or concerns and get feedback overnight from MTI’s membership base of more than 1,500.
- The Southern Medical Association uses Higher Logic’s mentor program software to provide a virtual tool for experienced members to mentor others.
- Data operations platform Delphix uses gamification to recognize people for contributions, such as testimonials, or speaking at a conference or user group.
Marjorie Anderson manages communities for associations like Project Management Institute. Speaking from that online community audience vantage point, she offers these suggestions to help market an event to an existing online community:
- Start by building awareness and anticipation far in advance. Anderson suggests inviting event speakers to chat with members within the online community space — in an authentic way, not to pitch to their session.
- Create an event-specific group within the community where attendees can get special perks.
- Prioritize post-event engagement. “Get them back into the community to have a conversation,” Anderson said. She suggests hosting an “Ask the Expert”–style conversation with speakers or thanking them with digital swag bags, exclusive to their online community.
“Those are things you can do to build relationships,” she said, “and get people excited about attending a virtual event.”
Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.