How to leverage events in your community strategy

Brian Oblinger

About the author: With over twenty years of experience in the industry, Brian has launched and contributed to the success of hundreds of communities, including Acer, Alteryx, Autodesk, Comcast, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony PlayStation. He co-hosts a podcast called 'In Before The Lock' where he shares his experiences and free resources to help community professionals succeed. By day, Brian provides strategic community consulting to brands around the world.

When I first got into online communities in the late 1990’s, we had neither the capability nor the desire to meet people beyond the plain text on our screens. Fueled by dramatic warnings about meeting strangers from the internet IRL (“in real life” for the non-nerds among us) and the novelty of all-digital communication, we were content to keep it strictly asynchronous. Fast forward 25 years later and it’s hard to imagine a compelling community strategy that doesn’t include events — both online and in-person.

Through the 2010’s, the trend of integrating events of all types with communities reached escape velocity. We built programs around AMAs, expert days, meetups, user groups, top contributor events, streaming talks, and annual company conferences. Community members had come to expect these activities and very much looked forward to them as a core pillar of their belonging. The biggest shift was toward in-person community events that brought people together in hundreds of local markets around the world. Community teams were dedicating significant time, resources, and budget to event delivery. Just when it felt like we had reached peak event strategy, COVID-19 rudely reared its ugly, cantankerous head.

Leverage Events in Community Strategy

Those that were already thinking globally and delivering virtual events were well positioned, while those that were focusing primarily on in-person events were forced to throw out their strategies and make hard pivots. One year later, as society contemplates a return to some in-person activities, brands are trying to work out what events will look like going forward. If you’re looking for a proclamation about when we may be able to return to physical events, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’ll leave that one up to the scientists.

What I can offer is deep personal experience in the form of best practices and insights. Learn how to build a great events strategy, engage your community, and deliver bi-directional value below. Let’s go.

Align cross-functionally

There’s a good chance that someone in your company is already executing an events strategy in some shape or form. They’ve probably learned a thing or two about what your customers want and how to deliver it in a repeatable way. They may already have technology in place. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Aside from absorbing learnings and leveraging resources already in place, it’s important to sync different teams' calendars to ensure that they’re not competing for the same attendees too often. There is also quite a bit of value to be had in cross-promoting each others’ events to maximize reach and accelerate your shared goals. Events are a team sport.

Understand your audience

Why should people come to your event? One of the most common mistakes brands make is thinking that events are about talking about what they want to talk about (themselves, typically). On the contrary, successful events are about identifying the needs of a specific audience and delivering compelling content, speakers, and experiences. Valuable outcomes often include solving problems, sharing key insights, and fostering connections among attendees. If you focus on giving value first, you’ll receive it back in spades.

Modality, duration, and cadence

Structuring events properly matters, and the proper structure will change based on the audience, agenda, and desired outcomes. Is it a virtual industry user group, a local meetup, a small invite-only VIP event, a community-exclusive event, or a large conference? Is it thirty minutes, sixty minutes, or a half day? How can we maximize impact within those constraints?

If the event is to recur, you’ll definitely want to set a regular cadence. For example, you may set the expectation that the meetup will take place on the second Tuesday of the second month of calendar quarters. This makes the schedule predictable and allows attendees to block it off on their calendar. Announcing an event only a few days or weeks ahead often doesn’t leave enough time for attendees to make proper accommodations in their schedule and leads to low attendance figures.

Optimize for authenticity and scale

No one wants to attend an event where they feel they’re being sold to. Designing, messaging, and executing events by the community, for the community will give you the best chance of success. This means prioritizing the needs of attendees over your own and enlisting the assistance of customer leaders.

Building a network of trusted hosts, setting up proper incentives, and giving them access to the infrastructure required to deliver is key. Companies like OutSystems do a particularly great job of this, providing resources and guidance to organizers to ensure authentic experiences that customers love. Building this network also allows you to scale the quantity and reach of events into many more countries around the world than you would be able to if only your employees were responsible for execution. This is how you grow an events program.

Give the people what they want

I’ve often said that any in-person event worth attending has five key elements: presentations, networking, access to power, fast wifi, and food. That hunch has been verified over the years via post-event survey data and personal experience. Whether the event is virtual or in-person, attendees consistently rate learning and networking atop the list of reasons why they keep showing up. Free pizza and beer are a driver for in-person events. Plan accordingly.

Select and integrate platforms

Once your experiential requirements are clear, it’s time to survey the landscape of platforms and choose technologies that will make your strategy come alive. Depending on the types of events you want to run, there are a lot of things to consider. How will people find out about events? How will they RSVP? Is there a streaming video component? Can you post the recording afterward?

For more robust programs, you may have to integrate a few different systems to bring the complete experience together. This is what separates the good from the great.

Don’t forget to tell people about it

If you’re wondering why your current events program sees sparse attendance, this is likely one of the major reasons. Like communities, events require a robust and continual promotion program to succeed. Build it and they will come does not work. You have to tell people about the event, ask for their RSVP, ask them again, and then remind them twice in the days leading up to the event.

Communities are tremendous places to promote events. Your customers are already there, they’re invested, and likely already primed to engage. Establishing a culture of both online and offline engagement is very healthy for all involved.

Live and learn

Events, like so many things, are fluid. Don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different things to see what works. Learn from your mistakes, engage your community to understand how you can improve the experience, and go forward with the optimal solution. I believe in you.

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