Is your community flat and faceless? Just a bunch of avatars, headshots, or even worse– one of those nondescript circle heads on an oval and gray background? Well if so, you’ve come to the right place. There are three steps that I am going to take you through to build your online community with an event strategy that will help people feel fully alive and like they’re beloved and belong instead of faceless user number 7 of 9,000 from your tertiary cohort in product version 1. From a business perspective, this is especially important in an uncertain economic climate where customer lifetime value and reducing churn is critical.
The first step to building a fully alive community is to ACTUALLY CARE. I know that sounds cheesy, I know that sounds oversimplified, but actually caring is foundational and often done in a fake or corporate way. But caring can’t be outsourced and it has to come from a place of inner empathy and cannot be contrived because people are going to see through that. You need to interact with people in a truly human way, which means to be live, relational, and IN- PERSON. Now, in-person doesn’t mean that you have to be physically in the same room together. It drives me crazy in the event world that we say “virtual” vs. “in-person”, as if when I’m attending virtually I’m no longer a person? No thank you Mr. or Mrs. event organizer, I’m not very happy with that.
In-person is all about PRESENCE. You can be in the same room with someone but not really there in-person or present with them, such as all the people you see at restaurants that are sitting at the same table but on their phones. They aren’t really present to each other.
On the other hand, you can be on a phone call with a family member who is a thousand miles away and is going through a hard time and feel closer and more connected than ever before because you are choosing to be fully present and focused on them by getting out of your own little world. So forget this virtual vs. in-person stuff; it’s always “in-person” if you’re being present, being relational.
The second step to building a fully alive community is to do that first step CONSISTENTLY.
Relationships aren’t built without consistency. The first time you meet someone, you exchange pleasantries, but then you leave and don’t see them for a long time and the next time you do, the same pleasantries are exchanged. The whole relationship basically starts over again because without consistency we won’t even be able to build or even have a relationship.
Human, caring, relational, live, in-person, present, consistent– have these words always top of mind as you’re building your community and you’ll definitely go from faceless and flat to fully alive.
The third step of building a fully alive community is to understand, respect, and leverage the power of the ripple effect. Up to this point I’ve talked a lot about theory and you may have noticed that it’s very focused on one person at a time. So how do you scale that? It’s not possible to be present one-on-one to each and every person in your audience. But thanks to the ripple effect, we can have a powerful impact on people even if we don’t engage with them by being fully present to the people we DO engage with.
For example, I like to look back in history all the way to the times of the Bible. You don’t have to be spiritual or religious, that’s not the point of what I’m about to say. But we see these stories where Jesus would encounter one person in a group of hundreds or thousands of people. He’d walk up to them, know them personally inside and out, be present to them and exchange a few sentences and not even perform a miracle every time. Yet this would have a huge impact on every person gathered around, no matter how big or small the audience. It would usually go one of two ways– either the crowd would get so angry that they’d want to kill him like we see in cases with Pharisees who are threatened by Jesus, or alternatively people would be struck with awe and wonder and often become followers of Jesus. What’s so important to note here is that Jesus was usually encountering one person, just one person at a time, and that would affect everyone else in the audience.
To put this in terms of modern day events, say you’re having a Q&A and bring someone on stage but before answering their question you take a moment to remember what I was saying earlier about being truly human, truly caring, focusing on the relationship, and empathizing with them. Use that as the basis before you even answer their question. When you do answer the question, people aren’t only going to hear an answer to a question, but they’re going to read between the lines and see you for who you are- someone who really cares. It will humanize your brand, so your brand will no longer be a faceless organization to them and it will humanize the event, where people feel actually listened to and connected. It will be real, and not just some manufactured marketing piece.
Another place we can see this play out in events are in breakout groups or networking events. Even taking a few minutes to pop into some rooms or engaging with a few people one-on-one can make a huge impact. We once hosted an event where a high profile speaker known by millions of people took the time to be present in one-on-one networking. There were almost 5,000 people there and I’ll never forget what one person typed into an event-wide chat, “I was doing networking and it was good but then I encountered the speaker and… JACKPOT!” They had a really powerful experience one-on-one and then told everyone else about it. The comment got a ton of likes and replies and everyone was excited and shared in that joy even though they themselves didn’t get to meet the speaker. That one connection had a ripple effect on all the other attendees.
In summary, when you are truly present and truly relating with people consistently, even if that’s one-on-one and it feels like it’s not scalable, it is through the power of the ripple effect that often naturally happens when people notice you’re different and actually care about them.
Let’s conclude by taking all these theories and examples and putting them into a concrete strategic plan. What this can look like in practice is hosting two member events per month and one larger, more public event once a quarter, at minimum. The two monthly events are going to be for your users, members, or whomever is your existing audience base. One of the events can be content based such as your typical webinar, but I recommend adding in opportunities for those one-on-one moments like bringing someone up on stage to answer questions. This kind of event should feel pretty natural for you and is just adding more relational elements to your average webinar-style event. The primary goal is for you to interact with your audience, and for them to interact with you.
The second monthly event is going to be more about networking and instead of getting people to interact with you, you want them to interact with each other to start building relationships independent from you. At minimum, this event type should involve some of breakout groups; ideally, one-on-one speed networking. As people start building relationships with each other, they’ll be more committed to your community and also start self-serving one another and self-generating content instead of relying on you to instigate everything.
The final event, which is more public, that you should host once a quarter, is going to be a “come and see”. You want your existing member base that has been coming to the monthly events to still attend this event, but this quarterly event is going to have a higher production value and likely be longer but still retain elements of the two monthly events. You want to have content that gets them to interact with you and you with them, as well as opportunities for them to interact with one another separate from you. The key to this event is having your regular attendees invite friends. This will increase the top of your sales and marketing funnel and be a great way to proactively qualify leads by means of them already trusting you through the personal invitation they received from one of your existing community members. To make this happen, you need to make it as easy as possible for your members to invite people by giving them sample invite templates and links they can easily share with others.
When you take the time to care and be human, you’ll be truly relational and start building the trust and connection that all communities are founded on. If you do this consistently, people will show up over and over. This will have a ripple effect that goes beyond just those you are engaging with one-on-one and the whole community will begin to know you for being distinctly different in that you truly care about them and they feel that the community is a place where they can belong.
In part two, we will talk about how to collect great insights and feedback from our communities which will both help the community feel heard and also provide lots of data and insight on the community that can be used in many ways.