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  • Writer's pictureLiz Lathan

Building community through events

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Events are one of the most powerful ways to connect with and engage your community. They help you build relationships, grow your audience, and boost engagement among community members… but only if you plan for them to.


An event strategy that focuses on company KPIs around pipeline and revenue will likely be a successful marketing initiative, but is unlikely to form a lasting and impactful community.

But a community strategy that incorporates events and focuses on experience metrics like Return on Emotion, loyalty metrics like Net Promoter Score, and engagement metrics like conversation density will drive all the pipeline and revenue you’re looking for while simultaneously creating a real sense of belonging for your community members.


Your community strategy should run parallel to your event strategy, which should layer on top of your demand gen strategy. (It's a beautiful revenue-driving relationship that we'll discuss in future posts!)


Creating an in-person event that leads to online communities


In 2011, when I led the global event team at Dell and was handed the seemingly impossible task of creating and launching Dell World in 86 days, our intent was to create our own branded platform to share company updates and product announcements.


Up until that point, we launched products at third party trade shows to capture the already-existing tech media, but we had enough partners, VARs, and ecosystem suppliers to warrant our own show.


Our biggest challenge was that (at the time) we were more of a hardware company than a software company, so we didn’t have the same kind of enterprise user base that would get together to share helpful content as, say, an Oracle Open World or an SAP Sapphire. So we needed to create other reasons why our customers would want to become a community.

We had a very successful annual program for C-suite executives that was nice and small - about 150 executives gathering in gorgeous locations with incredibly-designed solutions showcase displays. So what would attract them to a larger, LESS intimate conference in a large convention center? The secret sauce was in creating micro-events inside the larger conference.


We crafted an Executive Summit that was capped at 500 participants, but within that had smaller executive experiences, evening events, and even executive briefing-style group meetings. In Community Factory terms, we'd describe these participants as our Locals. The larger customer set of the other Dell World participants were treated more like Fans - we threw an event that they could rally around, they could explore the expo hall, meet and network at our evening events, and form their own connections, but they weren't part of the inner circle.


Over the years that I oversaw the program, Dell World grew from 1,500 people that first year to nearly 7,000 participants the last year I ran it in 2014, but participants continued to tell us that it was the most authentic and welcoming of all the tech industry conferences. Why? Because our microevent strategy within the event made them feel at home.


Smaller gatherings like the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) programming, the Women in Tech track, the Dell User Forum user community, and even the sales-hosted small dinners, and ancillary programs that various business units, regional teams, and product groups created dominated the agenda. Rather than tamp down those programs like many other tech conferences do, we embraced them and used them to drive audience acquisition and to help participants feel like they belonged.


Now, online communities like DWEN and the Dell Client Community thrive remotely because they anchor their content sharing and community networking in virtual and in-person events like Dell World, advisory councils, and product launch events. They also offer the opportunity for community members to become even more Local through volunteering to get more deeply involved in product testing, mentoring, or customer advocacy programs. But these online communities don’t succeed on their own. They take a dedicated team of internal community managers, subject matter experts, and advocates, as well as external companies whose expertise is in administering, moderating, and maintaining these communities.


Just like the roads and infrastructure around your town's community, the infrastructure around your brand community needs constant support and nurturing, and a real dedication to investing in its success.


Creating a customer advocacy community

When I was at IBM, I primarily oversaw the events that our hybrid cloud and analytics team ran, including our part of the main IBM customer conferences (Interconnect, World of Watson, and Think), but during one highly fortunate reorganization, I had the honor of taking on the customer advocacy team, including supporting our IBM Champions Program.


This program is the pinnacle of customer advocacy and its participants are IBM’s true Locals. Primarily developers, these IBM customers apply to be selected into the Champions program which not only gets them the IBM Champion moniker, but also grants them access to VIP experiences at customer conferences, access to advisory panels and executive activities, beta program access, and other perks.

But what they really love about being part of the program is their support in amplifying their own eminence by getting speaking opportunities at IBM events, other tech industry events, through interviews, and on panel discussions at IBM’s invitation or through the network of other Champions. The Champion program supplies them with plenty of logo gear (backpacks, shirts, and so much more!) to help them publicly share their love of the brand and identify as IBM Champions.


On a fan engagement level, we ran a customer advocacy program using a tool called Influitive. I absolutely love this tool for engaging and rewarding your fans (and their customer advocacy training programs and annual user conference are fantastic!). We were able to customize an onboarding path for our fans and give them challenges and tasks to complete, gamifying their engagement with points that could be redeemed for prizes and access to certain events.


It’s important to understand, though, that when you’re using tools like that for extrinsic motivation through gamification, you are enabling your fans to stay loyal to you and interact with you, but you are not driving them deeper into your community.


To really create and engage a Local community, you can still use tools like this, but lure them with more meaningful rewards like invitations to advisory discussions, recruitment for beta testing programs, and invitations to join or speak at events; in other words, opportunities to drive actual human connection with you and others.


Communities have to be run by people, and that was one of the struggles we had with turning our IBM customer advocacy program into a community… the execution of the program was turned over to an intern to create challenges in the tool and keep the posts fresh. And while that works for a fan community that doesn’t need a “person” to belong to, it failed miserably for a community of Locals who really want to connect. The moral of the story is that it matters who you put in charge of your community. Even if your intern is the most amazing person on the planet (he was!), your community wants to feel like your company values them enough to put a long-term person in charge of taking care of them so they can form genuine relationships with them.


Why do people join brand communities?

People come to your community through one of two ways: They are invited in by another community member, or they have experienced something with your brand that made them want to spend more time with your team or your community members.


Once they find that you have a community for them to join, they want to feel welcome, they want to provide value, and they want to receive value. It’s important for you to understand exactly what kind of value they want to receive before assuming that they are seeking your content. You might even make this line of questioning part of your onboarding process.


Too many communities welcome people in and then bombard them with a barrage of one-way webinars, trainings, resources, articles, and blogs, when all the community members really wanted to do was connect with other community members. Alternately, many communities assume their community members want to network and talk, when they really just want a place to access content, read thought leadership articles, get technical help with a problem, and find training content.


When you bring them together for in-person or virtual events, do they want to consume or contribute? Understanding this will enable you to craft the right events to drive the community engagement you’re after.

If you've created an online community, the same holds true - understanding why your members were attracted to the idea of your community will drive what content or experiences you hold inside it - and most importantly outside of it.


Planning community events

Community events are more about the people than the content, though the content may be the primary reason your community is gathering.


A product launch is a good example of this. If you’re bringing together your top customers to announce a new product, the focus of the content will be for that purpose, but how can you leverage the participants in the room to become or support your community efforts? You can run an advisory session to turn them into advocates of the product, an early-adopter program to get them using the product first, a testimonial-capture area if the community had early access to the product; whatever you do with them, it’s important that the event has a community-driven purpose and your community members are offered the opportunity to be an active part in your success.


A community event may simply be a way to engage community members with each other, either by having them share content, or through peer-to-peer conversation formats like a Spontaneous Think Tank™ or facilitated roundtable discussion.


When planning community events, the biggest key to success is the size. Community events need to drive connection, so too many participants makes it difficult for people to form deep relationships.


We believe that a true community event - with the purpose of driving connection among community members - should be between 10 and 100 people. Smaller than 10 works, too, and it's completely possible with more than 100, but a thriving community with engagement, sharing, and active members should be between 10 and 100.


Much larger programs can, of course, be successful, but only by breaking them down into smaller micro events within the program.


How The Community Factory can help

If you are planning a proprietary conference conference and have "drive community" on your key objectives, let us take a look at your conference agenda and suggest areas where you can add in community-creating activities.

A few key points for self-diagnoses include:

  • Panel discussions do not equal two-way conversation

  • An opening cocktail reception does not, in itself, drive community

  • If you don't have someone welcoming your participants in, you have missed a prime opportunity to create community

  • If your agenda does not have session time devoted to peer conversation, you are missing community-creating moments

We can train members of your team to lead peer sharing sessions or think tanks, or we can be hired in to your event (like you would bring in a keynote speaker) to run a Spontaneous Think Tank for peer-to-peer sharing as part of your core agenda.


We can help you craft local small group experiences to replace a large (and boring) networking reception/boozefest to drive more meaningful connection through activity-based shared experiences.


We can help you create VIP experiences for a small group of advisory council or executive participants who deserve a more curated and impactful conference experience.


Got an online community that you're growing post-event? Let us evaluate your engagement plan and share some pointers on how to create and keep engagement going.


Need a white labelled, outsourced community manager to keep the dream alive (and the content flowing)? Let's talk!


We can help you to craft an in-person gathering to jump start your online community and keep the engagement going.


Need a full community engagement strategy that brings a red thread through your event strategy and into an evergreen community plan? Now you're talking!


While "community" may seem like a buzzword the way "experiential" was a few years ago, the reality is that we all want to belong. And after two+ years of social isolation, your community-building game stands a great chance of growing and thriving quickly. We want to help and encourage you to keep the home fires burning so it's not just a flash in the pan and gone in 3 months. Lifelong business relationships and true friendships await inside your brand community!


Liz Lathan, CMP, is co-founder of The Community Factory and pioneered Haute's Return on Emotion℠ business metric for experiential programs. The Community Factory creates better belonging through transformative gatherings that activate, grow, and engage your community. Contact Liz at liz@thecommunityfactory.com and join our email list at https://www.thecommunityfactory.com/contact

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