Best practices in building an online community for your event

Live events carry a special thrill—but what happens after everyone goes home? How can an eventholder capture and build on that excitement? A strong online community will allow you to extend the life of an event on both sides—to generate buzz beforehand, and to keep the magic alive long after the physical gathering is finished. Yesterday we co-hosted a webinar on building a vibrant online community around your event. Our own Tamara Mendelsohn was joined by Pathable CEO Jordan Schwartz and, in a terrific last-minute cameo, Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Many great ideas and best practices were covered during the session. These were the key takeaways.

Setting Goals

One of Jordan’s overarching points was that when it comes to building an online community, setting goals at the outset is critical. Why do you want to start using social media? What are your unique aims as an eventholder? Knowing what you want will help you determine which social media platforms best suit your needs. Building on this:

  • Choose the social media platforms that make sense for you. Each has unique advantages and disadvantages. For example, Facebook and LinkedIn limit conversational variety. A blog is less connective, but the organizer can guide a conversation. And Jordan and Jeff touted Pathable, a white label community solution for events. Look to strike a balance across several platforms—budgeting the most time and resources to those that benefit you the most. And don’t rule out more basic strategies. As Jordan noted, “everyone knows how to use e-mail.”
  • Define and use metrics. Too often, eventholders jump into social media without a clear sense of what success will look like. There are now many tools for measuring social media progress. Use them. You need to be able to trace community growth and event success to specific approaches you’ve tried. You also need to know quickly when something isn’t working.

Choosing Your Champion

To new users, online communities might look self-sustaining. They’re not. Facebook, Twitter and the rest all take work, ideally in the form of a dedicated individual who can keep dialogue flowing and seed productive conversations. This duty can also be shared—the point is to be proactive. Some key notes about community management:

  • Your community manager must be able to speak for the whole. It can be tempting to pass off the Twitter duty to, in Jordan’s words, a “young, hip intern.” Avoid this. You need someone with real organizational knowledge who you trust to speak for the whole, in a consistent and coherent voice.
  • Know the tone of modern social media. While your CM doesn’t need to be a “social media addict” (in fact, this qualification isn’t critical) he or she does need to understand how Twitter and Facebook dialogue sound and function. Again: The tone of the community manager is the tone of the organization.
  • Expect the position to change. Before and after an event, the community manager should plan to be extra-engaged. The job responsibility isn’t static.

Nurturing Community

You have goals; you have the right person running your social media. Now what specific things can you do to nurture that community? Jeff, Jordan and Tamara each had some tips.

  • Identify “attendee-champions” in your community. Your community manager doesn’t need to be the only leader of the community, and shouldn’t be. Reach out to your most engaged users. Community members have unique credibility and can be your greatest assets.
  • Be your own model participant. Eventholders will take their cues from your lead, both in terms of tone and in the way they treat each other. Establishing a model is the best way to encourage respectful, high-quality engagement.
  • When it comes to content, simply ask. Everyone knows that content is king. But as one of our attendees asked, “What kind of content?” Why not pose the question to your users? It’s a great way to jumpstart the conversation. And ask them in a way that produces answers. Jeff recommended multiple-choice questions about what kind of content people would like to see, as people like to feel guided. And they’ll feel less intimidated if an opinion has already been offered.
  • Don’t wait until your community is perfectly tech-savvy to get started. That will never happen anyway. Remember that people want to connect socially—your role is to encourage this and smooth the path. Reach out to even the least “tech-oriented” members of the community you want. “It’s worth being a little ahead of the curve,” Jordan noted.

Troubleshooting

There are plenty of risks that come with an online community. But the consensus was that most of these can be headed off with a few basic tactics.

  • Advise sponsors that better online behavior produces better results. Spamming is a real concern for event organizers who let sponsors into their online communities. But spam isn’t even the best approach for those sponsors. Jeff suggested you show stakeholders how to build relationships in social networking communities and use these instead of just selling their wares.
  • Be clear up front about expected behavior. Inappropriate online interactions are much more likely occur when users haven’t had any guidance from organizers. This is where setting a model works well, but defining boundaries early can also be helpful.
  • Realize that events have a unique way of regulating behavior. One of the great things about live gatherings, from the online community standpoint, is that people simply tend to behave better when they know they’ll later meet in person. It’s just another reason to be a fan of live events!

Special thanks again to all who attended this webinar. You asked some great questions, and also helped instantly blast the answers through some of the very social networks we were discussing. The webinar was not only about great online communities—it was evidence that we’ve got one!

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