“Community,” as defined by Wikipedia, is “a group of interacting people, living in some proximity (i.e., in space, time or relationship).”
In today’s world, communities have evolved. They are now created in both online and offline environments. Event organizers have the power to foster communities that let their participants benefit from others, before — or even if — they ever meet in person.
A solid community that operates regardless of when and where conversations take place can be a cornerstone in helping organizations realize their goals. Here are some tips for creating a sustainable community.
1. Understand the needs of your attendees. The first question to ask is exactly what do your attendees need from each other? Is it “best practices” sharing, or are they seeking technical expertise? Are they highly social by nature or will they need some prodding?
2. Determine where they network now. Are your potential community members active LinkedIn users? Do they use Facebook personally, but not professionally? Are they “technophobes”? Are they on the cutting edge of technological communication? It is generally easier to build an online community in a platform that people are already using as opposed to trying to drive them to a new forum. If your group is scattered, creating a new private community could be a viable option. For some people, the phrase “social networking” is unappealing and overwhelming, while an online community or forum is more palatable.
3. Merge the online and offline before, during and after an event. Is there a way to connect people through a special telephone round table? One way to do this is to select individuals who are passionate about a particular topic to join a “Google Hangout,” where they can actually see each other’s faces and hear their voices via a videoconference.
During an event, schedule time for community members to gather — at a special cocktail reception or at reserved tables during lunch — so they can meet face-to-face.
After an event, schedule time when community members can discuss what happened and what topics deserve more attention. Another option: Facilitate regional luncheons or social events and encourage participants to share ideas in-person on a more frequent basis.
4. Listen to the community. Organizers can learn a lot about what the community does and does not like simply by listening to the conversations taking place. Developing a rich community is as much about listening to the chatter as it is creating chatter.
5. Seek out community leaders. Members must be passionate about a community if it is to thrive. Recruiting people who are generally active event participants can help shape the community, particularly if they are encouraged to lead or begin conversations. It’s also important to invite others to join the community and give feedback as the community grows. As an organizer, you should make sure that everyone feels a sense of ownership.
Meeting planners are in a unique position to foster community-building. With a little planning and direction, they can develop communities that thrive with the exchange of ideas and the sharing of information, becoming a valuable resource to event participants.