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  • Writer's pictureLiz Lathan

The secret to community engagement

Over the last 4.5 years, Nicole and I have built some incredible communities. We tried many different forms of it with our Hautie community, from in-person gatherings like the original Haute Dokimazo events to experiential trips like Secret Family Reunion. We’ve tried Facebook groups like Corporate Event Marketer & Haute University and Slack channels like Haute Conversations. Not to mention virtual gatherings like The Age of Conversation Summit, our weekly Unrestricted Hauteness shows in 2020, and Pulse Check in 2021,and even our short run of Monday Morning Quarterback in 2022.

Outside of Haute, our Grown-Up Girls Club is thriving off of monthly in-person gatherings and has spun up chapters in other states. We’ve participated in other communities like Will Curran’s new #eventprofscommunity, Marin Bright and JT Long’s Smart Meetings communities, as well our industry communities like CEMA, MPI, and SITE.

We’ve read all the books including Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering, Charles Vogel’s The Art of Community, David Spinks’ The Business of Belonging, Radha Agrawal’s Belong, Carrie Melissa Jones & Charles Vogel’s Building Brand Communities, and Vivek Murthy’s Together.

And through it all, the one thing we’ve learned is that you can’t force community. Creating a Slack channel and telling people to join it doesn’t make a community thrive. Throwing an in-person event and expecting a long-lasting community to be born from it isn’t a guarantee, either. But after evaluating, testing theories, and talking it through, we think there are really two kinds of community members, both with very different ways of engagement: Fans and Locals.

Building Fans

Most B2B community builders are like teams trying to build Fans. They create a space and they want people to flock to it and support each other. The problem is, without the team around, fans don’t usually self-organize. They come together to rally around the team when the team does things like play a game, offer autographs, or throw a party where the players will be hanging out. So as a company trying to create fans, you have to do something cheer-worthy. Fans want to support you. Fans want to share your content. Fans want to tell other people about you. And fans want to be known as your fans because it helps them find others who are like them when they travel. But it's important to remember that Fans are not just an audience. Audiences may watch content together, but they don’t engage in it. Fans, however, really care about the content and share it with each other - if you’re lucky, they may try to create new fans by sharing it more broadly.

Growing Locals

What most B2B community managers really want is to go deeper than fans... they want Locals. Locals take pride in their community and want to bring others into it. They want to introduce people to their favorite places and show them what they love. Locals want to be the first to know about the new things and they feel proud to have inside knowledge and share that with their friends. Companies want a thriving group of Locals to always hang out in their community space and be willing to welcome new members in and take care of them, and help keep the conversations going strong. Locals are friendly and welcoming and warm and extremely fulfilled by being part of their community.

Both are extremely valuable to your community, and you need both for a community to thrive.

Why you need both for a thriving community

In 1973, Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University published a research paper entitled The Strength of Weak Ties. Prior to his research, the assumption was that an individual’s well-being depended primarily on the quality of relationships they have with close friends and family. However, Granovetter showed that quantity may be equally (or more) important.

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering describes that you have an inner circle of people whom you often talk to and feel close with, and an outer circle of acquaintances whom you see infrequently or fleetingly. Granovetter named these categories “strong ties” (close relationships) and “weak ties” (casual acquaintances). His pivotal insight was that for new information and ideas, weak ties are more important to us than strong ones. However, strong ties form dense, overlapping networks — i.e. our close friends are often close friends with one another — and yet weak ties connect us to a larger and more diverse group of people.

And by bridging different social circles, weak ties are more likely to connect us with new ideas and perspectives, challenging our preconceived notions and helping to foster innovation and divergent thinking.

Random collisions with bright new people and ideas are what lead us to innovation, opportunity, friendship, and partnerships. Our superpower? We create those random collisions that are powerful because they are purposeful but feel serendipitous.

Obviously, all of this is possible at in-person events, but it is actually possible virtually, too. Virtual serendipity simply requires a unique set of ingredients, including both structure and spontaneity. And we wrote the cookbook.

How to engage your Fans

If you have customers, then you (hopefully) have fans. They watch what you do on social media, often reacting or commenting on your posts. They share your content with others when it resonates with them, and they may talk about it with other Fans. They wear your branded merchandise and recognize it on other Fans when they are out and about. So how do you engage them? Give them social content to react to and share, and offer ways they can show their pride with your logo or whatever rallies your community.

Seeing people wear the Nike logo lets you know that they, too, resonate with the athletic attitude of the brand, and you might be able to bond over fitness-related topics. Reacting to content from the Savannah Bananas and sharing it with everyone you know lets you laugh together and revel in the merriment and delight of this fantastic baseball brand.

It even worked for our community - we have hundreds of Hauties that proudly wear their t-shirts and hats at industry events and can recognize a shared love for meaningful and experiential events through that identity.

How to engage your Locals

If you have really loyal customers, then you (hopefully) have Locals. They are your inner circle - one step deeper than Fans. They are your power users. They tell their colleagues about your product or service. They may even speak on your behalf at industry events. You’ve gotten product feedback from them and maybe even built their requests into your products. You may share early roadmaps and strategies with them for insights and to hone your plans. If you haven’t done these things, those are your first steps to creating Locals. Add them to your advisory council and give them Beta access to programs. They should get time with your executives and VIP opportunities at your events. They are your inner circle of customers that you want to develop and retain, and they are key to your acquisition strategy for new accounts.

When I was at IBM, we had a curated family of Locals called the IBM Champions. Participants applied to be part of it and received a variety of perks to help them amplify their eminence through speaking opportunities, and help us by speaking on our behalf at conferences. We held gatherings just for them, and had special VIP experiences at our branded conferences for them. (More on this in a future article.)

We have created our own Locals through our Spontaneous Think Tank events around the country since 2017, and the Local Hautie community that emerged from our Secret Family Reunion event in 2019 formed an inner circle so strong that those participants are now life-long friends who continue to engage with each other via our WhatsApp chat, at industry events, and privately when they travel to each others’ cities.

We have another community of Fans and Locals called the Grown-Up Girls Club which brings women together monthly to learn a new skill or do a new activity.

These Girlies, as we call them, invite their friends into the community, and though we have about 200 Girlies in the group, we average around 10-20 at each monthly gathering, who we consider our real “Locals.”

How The Community Factory can help you

We create moments of connection to drive engagement among your Fans and Locals. Looking to engage your fans as a sponsor at a sporting event? Imagine an entire section of a sports stadium (let's call it Section 105) dedicated to experiential moments. If you’re in Section 105, you’ll talk about what happened at that game for the rest of your life. If you weren’t, you’ll tell everyone how badly you wished you were!

Trying to make your annual conference less annual conferencey? We can help you plan an agenda that keeps the energy flowing throughout the week, interspersed with collaborative moments of conversation among participants to drive that Local flavor.

Looking to gain insights from customers or prospects on your programs or products? We facilitate advisory board programs that engage your top contacts (your Locals), solicit real-time feedback, and help you build future-facing programs with their insights front and center.

Looking for a virtual program for your C-Suite clients that isn’t just another webinar or Gartner-led roundtable conversation? Add in a virtual adventure or a Spontaneous Think Tank so your invitation feels more like a gift than a request for their time.

Did The Great Reshuffle hand you a completely new team of professionals who have never worked together before? We craft immersive team planning and strategy sessions that focus on the fun side of business, driving camaraderie through ridiculous fun, laughter and leaving with a shared understanding of team goals.

Community begins with people. Bringing people together is the only way to launch, grow, and engage your community (and that can be in-person or virtually). Technology should be the LAST question you ask - that’s how your community communicates, but it’s not how your community will begin, nor how it will thrive. Put the people back in your community strategy.

Nicole and I, along with our team at The Community Factory are excited to help you launch, grow, and engage your community through small group gatherings and shared experiences. Or maybe you just need a little help figuring out how to engage with your customers on a more authentic level. We’d love to explore your goals and objectives and help you design the perfect program for them.

We're all just looking for people to connect with. If you create an experience where connection comes naturally, you've laid the groundwork for a community to form. You can't force a community to exist; Community is the beautiful byproduct when intention meets belonging. Remember that Locals like to share their secrets? Now you know the secrets to engaging your community, so what are you waiting for? Go!

Liz Lathan, CMP, is co-founder of The Community Factory creating better belonging through small, transformational gatherings that activate, grow, and engage your community. Contact Liz at

Liz is also one of the co-founders of Haute, the creative agency that pioneered Return on Emotion℠ as a blueprint and business metric for experiential programs.

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