2014-14-October-The-Conversation.jpgWhat I’m about to tell you may sound counterintuitive: you can use face-to-face events to build engagement in your online community. If you think about it, you realize the outsized role that online interactions play in our lives. When I wake up early in the morning, I check email first, Twitter next. And that’s before I get out of bed.

During a typical work day, I’m emailing, texting, posting, tweeting, liking and commenting. These online interactions are available to us via a swipe or click, 24 hours a day. It’s easy to forget the value of the original social media: meeting in person.

Community Building Event

CMX Media hosted a gathering on how to build amazing community events, featuring presenters from Product Hunt, Eventbrite and Yelp. The face-to-face event (in San Francisco) enabled community builders to gather over pizza, wine and beer. Let's take a look at some ways that face-to-face events help build engagement in online communities.

From Weak Ties to Strong Ties

Consider that Twitter is an online community with both weak and strong ties. I’m following a couple thousand users whom I don’t know “in real life” (weak ties). I’m also following family members and friends (strong ties).

Over the years, I’ve nurtured relationships with users via regular interactions on Twitter. While we’ve never met in person, I understand their hobbies, interests and personalities. But something changes when we meet face to face.

A more substantive connection develops that’s just not possible via Skype or Google+ Hangouts. Think of someone you haven’t met in person, but friended on Facebook. After you meet face-to-face, did the nature of your Facebook interactions change? It does for me. Spend five minutes with someone in person and you feel like you know them in a much deeper way.

That’s the power of the face-to-face connection.

After an in-person interaction, the weak ties (Twitter) convert into strong (or stronger) ties. Consider what you’re likely to do when you return home after meeting new people from the community. First, you’ll log into the online community and “add” them (i.e. follow those users or send them a connection request).

Next, you’ll review their recent activity in the community. Finally, when you come across those members in future posts or threads, you’re far more comfortable cracking a joke or challenging one of their points. More engagement via stronger connections? Check.

Facilitate Introductions, Which Lead to Connections

Erik Torenberg is director of community at Product Hunt, a community site “for product-loving enthusiasts to share and geek out about the latest mobile apps, websites, hardware projects, and tech creations.”

A presenter at the CMX Media event, Torenberg uses brunches and happy hours to facilitate face-to-face connections among Product Hunt members. The Product Hunt site helps users discover the latest tech products, but is also a matchmaker of sorts for entrepreneurs, investors and members of the media.

When you’re navigating through an online community, your focus is around content: you’re reading, liking, up-voting and commenting. You’ll discover new users and establish online connections, but all around the context of the content they produce and share. Brunches and happy hours, on the other hand, are purpose-built for establishing connections.

On a visit to the Product Hunt site, a user may discover five new products shared by users. In a Product Hunt brunch, on the other hand, the same user may meet and chat with 15 users. Those chats develop genuine relationships. And those relationships may lead to business partnerships made possible by the brunch.

Scale Growth via Localized Event Management

Facilitating connections and engagement via face-to-face events does not scale particularly well, especially as your community expands across the globe. It’s not practical or cost effective for community managers to become event planners. Just imagine beverage costs alone, as you expand globally!

Instead, the community manager should define standards and specifications for events, then find and recruit local ambassadors to plan and host them in particular areas or cities.

In a detailed blog post, Torenberg describes tactics he uses to get users to host local meet-ups. According to Torenberg, “You are simply supporting and promoting, but locals have to organize it. This takes the burden off you, of course, but also allows them to personalize and make each event special.”

This video shows footage from the first Dutch Product Hunt meeting, which took place at The Next Web headquarters.

To serve as further inspiration, we can look no further than TEDx, an event series that is “designed to help communities, organizations and individuals to spark conversation and connection through local TED-like experiences.” 

Lauren Cucinotta, Head of Community Engagement for TEDx, shared insights on how TEDx grew to 9,000+ events in just five years. The key, according to Cucinotta, is tapping into your members’ passion:

Assuming you’ve truly created something of value, your product can create an emotional reaction in people that inspires them to take physical action, whether it is to buy something, to share your idea, or to host an event.”

So how can you plan and host face-to-face meetings for your online community? Use the approach shared by Product Hunt’s Torenberg: start by finding success with small events, then build upon them to create larger and larger events. From there, apply your model more broadly by finding and recruiting local ambassadors.

Title image by Evgeni Sotov (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license