Amp Up Your 2021 Virtual Events with an Online Community

Community Strategy, Customer Stories // If a virtual event is on your roadmap for next year, make your event stand out from the crowd with an engaging event community.

Kaila Timmons
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We all know from experience that it’s hard to stay engaged in virtual events these days. Even when you have the best intentions to attend the virtual event and listen to the entire presentation, home distractions, workload, and urgent requests always seem to get in the way.

Since it looks like we can anticipate another year of remote working, does that mean that we just give up on virtual events?

We say no. Done right, a virtual event can be a great opportunity to get your audience engaged, create invaluable connections, and keep learning together.

But the way we did virtual events in early 2020 shouldn’t be the same way we do virtual events in 2021 – we’re not scrambling now. Plus, the things our customers, members, and employees are looking for have changed. It simply means we need to rethink the strategy.

Let’s look at how you can broaden your virtual event strategy to include audience engagement with an online community.

Engage Your Attendees with a Virtual Event Community

If a virtual event is on your roadmap for next year, make its impact last longer with an online event community.

Your attendees are looking for education and connection, and an online community – a community surrounding your event – can help you create that sense of connection and engagement that you miss by not being in person.

But it’s not just “feel-good” results. An online event community helps you accomplish your larger goals for the virtual event, whether you’re running your event to:

  • Reach new audiences
  • Drive new leads
  • Grow your brand through thought leadership
  • Educate customers or current members
  • Turn freemium users into paying subscribers

The more engaging and valuable your event is, the stickier your event’s impact will be, and the closer you’ll be to achieving those goals.

What’s an Event Community?

If you’re new to the concept of an event community, you can think of it as the event’s digital “home.” You’d still run your event on a virtual events platform, but you’d pair that experience with all the engagement tools the community has to offer, like networking opportunities, Q&A, discussion threads, and a resource library.

It helps engage your audience before, during, and after your virtual event.

Your event community can help you make sure attendees continue to find value in the event even after it’s over. They can discuss ideas with each other, ask for notes on sessions they couldn’t attend, and keep up the connections they made at your event.

The event community can also reduce the amount of follow-up work you have to do after the event. You can guide members’ questions to the community, where you can upload presenters’ slide decks and other relevant information.

But don’t take it from us – learn how others are doing it.

5 Reasons Why These Organizations Adopted Virtual Event Communities

We spoke to a few organizations who used virtual event communities in 2020, and they shared how taking a community approach helped them create more compelling events.

1.    Provide networking and connection opportunities

Strategic HR works with human resources teams, and you can imagine how HR teams have had to change plans quickly and adapt throughout the pandemic. Here’s how Chief Operating Officer Katie White described their virtual event:

“With coronavirus, HR teams are in the hotseat. Our audience is charged with creating policies and taking care of employees and safety in the workplace. When it became clear that we would have to shift to a virtual event, we wanted to make sure we could create a way for our attendees to network and connect – something they highly value from our in-person events. That’s exactly what our event community did.

2.    Maintain sponsorship revenue

With your basic virtual event format, there’s just no good way to incorporate sponsors. They want high-value exposure if they’re going to pay. With a community, you can try any number of monetizing strategies, whether that’s sponsored ads on discussion posts, sponsors paying for access to the community, getting one sponsor to pay for the community site – the sky’s the limit.

Leanne Ryan (National Manager, Service Delivery at the Governance Institute of Australia) put it this way: “Because we had an event community for our virtual conference, we were able to maintain our sponsorship revenue. We could still offer a space for sponsors to get recognition and drive engagement with attendees – while also generating additional revenue for our event, a critical part of its success.

3.    Support event flexibility

With a virtual event comes many logistical questions. Just ask anyone who’s tried to plan one this year. With an event community, Strategic Association Management was able to answer some of those questions. And it was a big success, too!

Meetings Manager Olivia Tibiletti at Strategic Association Management, said this: “When we made the switch to virtual, we reformatted our event content so that instead of having to choose between tracks during the one-day, in-person event, our attendees had more options over two days. We were able to offer our members more value and more CAE credits. Our leadership team was blown away by our Higher Logic event community. Even though we had to make the shift to virtual quickly, our community didn’t feel like an afterthought. It made our event look valuable, robust, and professional. It was a huge benefit to the organization.”

4.    Provide important education

It was true at the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s still true – our audiences are seeking education and help to face new challenges.

Natalie Marino, Marketing and Event Specialist at the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science, said: “Our members are swamped right now, as many of them play a critical role in coronavirus testing. But they still are looking for education and support – and we need to be that resource for them. Our Higher Logic virtual event community was the perfect place for members to connect, access resources, and engage in discussion around our event content.”

5.    Attract more attendees

We had multiple organizations say that they were able to attract more attendees than ever before.

“The Council on Undergraduate Research had to pivot to virtual conference in 6 weeks. Key to our success was leveraging a trusted partner Higher Logic. CUR utilized their event community to bring both content and engagement to our community,” we heard from Lindsay Currie, Executive Officer at the Council on Undergraduate Research. “While nothing replaces that face-to-face connection, the flexibility of the platform, which was already familiar to our members, allowed our community to get more out of our first virtual event. Many members expressed their gratitude for going virtual; they wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise.”

Jamie Wigand, Executive Director at the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, shared, “This year, our virtual event was so popular that we had to limit registration. The Higher Logic event community was easy to use and looked great! Attendees had incredibly positive reviews. I can’t imagine a better way to do a virtual conference.”

The thought-provoking question for 2021 is this – Even if you have more attendees, can you guarantee your attendees stayed engaged?

We’ve got some ideas on how you can use your virtual event community to do that.

7 Tips for Engaging Your Audience with a Virtual Event Community

Once your online community platform is up and running, you’ll want to adopt strong community management techniques to get your audience involved. Try these tactical tips for weaving in online community engagement into your virtual event.

1. Turn the Community into a Resource Hub

Do some pre- or post-event footwork by uploading your materials to your online community. This way, you can continue to engage attendees even after your virtual event ends. They can discuss ideas with each other, ask for notes on sessions they couldn’t attend, and find all presentation materials in one place.

Ask the speakers to share additional resources in the resource library that complement their presentation. Link continuing discussions to your event community and encourage people to share any thoughts or further questions in the discussions. This spurs engagement and the community becomes a source of knowledge for the event.

2. Involve Your Speakers and Experts

Make sure the presenters get involved in the online discussions before and after their sessions. This extra contact with experts is a huge value-add for the attendees. You might even consider making it part of their speaker agreement.

Create a discussion thread that’s accessible as soon as your session ends, where attendees and speakers can discuss the session. If you can, have your speaker post the initial content so that attendees can respond.

Both you and your presenter should be monitoring the post-event thread a few times a week to ensure that all post-event questions are answered. This keeps your webinar content relevant and gives the members a sense of direct communication with the presenter.

3. Run “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) Sessions

Following your event, start an AMA thread where your staff and presenters are available in the community to answer questions on an ongoing basis. Ask a couple of other subject matter experts (even experts among your member or customer base) to help your presenter field questions and keep conversation flowing. Pro tip? Tap a couple of attendees that you know are all-in to get conversation started.

4. Create Seed Questions

You can use pre-prepared questions, or seed questions, to help keep contact going. For example, if you have a live webinar, use the questions from your chat log that you weren’t able to answer during the session to create conversation in your community afterward.

Even if you think you have identified a topic that will lead to audience interaction, it’s always best to be prepared to fill those awkward silences especially when moving your event to a virtual format. Collecting seed questions prior to your event will not only avoid that silence, but will also give your speaker an opportunity to prepare responses and give you insight into the audience’s interests.

5. Create More Personal Meetups

For virtual events, try creating smaller online meetups with limited entries so people can connect virtually. Keep the groups smaller so people can interact without a lot of noise. Record those meetups and share with your community or create write-ups of tips and tricks learned from them.

Share a coffee (or beer) with your attendees. Plant informal ice breaker questions to get the conversation going and make the interaction more personal, for example: “Where do you see the future of the industry?”

6. Gamify the Experience

If you want to add a little fun to the day and further encourage engagement, take the opportunity to award people a virtual badge in the community for attending your conference. Another idea is to let your audience know you’ll be randomly awarding prizes, like gift cards, a coupon code for a free course, or LinkedIn Premium memberships to participants on threads throughout the day.

7. Ask for Attendee Feedback

As long as you’re prepared to hear the good and the bad, using your community to seek attendee feedback can be very helpful. You could post a survey in the event community, start a discussion thread specifically for suggestions, or even get one of your super users to start the discussion, in case attendees feel more open sharing when it’s not to you directly.

These are just a few of the ways to create engagement in an online community. Learn more in our Guide: How to Get More Engagement in Your Online Community.

Lean on Community to Create an Engaging Virtual Event Experience

The COVID-19 crisis is teaching us how the connections we have built and the digital landscape we’re living in can help us stay strong, together, but it’s also proven that engagement is mission-critical.

Although your organization may decide to avoid in-person events for the foreseeable future, online community can make your virtual events stand out and create an engaging, valuable experience for both you and your audience.

Kaila Timmons

Online Community Manager

Kaila is a community manager at Higher Logic, currently working with the IBM Community. She specializes in helping local software user groups and their leaders and enjoys bringing the benefits of online collaboration to thousands of IBM Community users around the world. When not supercharging community member engagement, Kaila enjoys a mango White Claw and spending time with her fish, Steven.

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