For a Community Manager, it would be fair to assume most of the work will take place online when building and managing your community. The inherent connectivity provided by the web offers an extremely convenient way for people to meet others who share a common interest or aim, or seek out people to help them with problems they may have. However, there are many limitations to this in terms of building a strong and healthy community, which can be resolved by inviting your participants to meet offline and face-to-face.
Online communication is very easy, but also tends to be transient, with community members dropping in and out; it's convenient for them to treat the virtual space you provide them as somewhere they can go when they need support, but the trick to keep them there is to encourage them to see your community as part of their daily lives.
So what are the benefits of taking your online community offline?
Don't clench - I know you feel safe behind your computer screen, and it's probably right to assume that your participants feel the same, but there are major benefits to getting them out of the house and down to an offline event.
Meeting the people they chat with online will make them real. The anonymity of the internet can make for fair-weather relationships; the physical contact of a handshake brings this shimmer of humanity into reality. Spending time actually chatting in free-flow, rather than considering each utterance as you you do when posting on a forum for example, allows for true bonding. Participants will leave feeling they have truly connected with their community peers, having learnt finer details about each others' lives that generally don't come up in great detail in highly focussed online discussion.
As minor as it might seem, actually having eye-contact with someone when you talk to them and being able to read their body language makes an immense difference on how you behave towards that person and often creates or increases a relationship. Given the fact that your members all share a common interest, the opening introduction is easier than meeting complete strangers and they will become closer a lot quicker than when meeting online.
It's also easier to get valuable feedback on what community users really think about your space; being able to discuss quirks and annoyances is more effective verbally, and you can engage in some "what if?" scenarios to gauge interest in new features.
Finally, meeting people properly and enjoying some food or drink in a social setting enhances their connection and feeling of inclusiveness in the community, and allows you to better understand their interactions and motivations.
Some ideas that might work for your online community
So the benefits of organising offline events for your online community are clear, but what kind of events would best facilitate worthwhile bonding and strengthen your members' connections with each other?
I've attended many meetings between members of online communities I've participated in over the years, and find that these are one of the simplest and most enjoyable experiences you can provide to your community. They are also incredibly easy to organise: find a venue that is easily accessible, book a space (many pubs and bars offer free booking so it doesn't have to cost anything either!) and advertise the gathering via your forums, newsletters or blog. You can even print branded name badges to help your participants to recognise each other quickly.
If you have a very large community which is very focused on a particular topic, you could set up a conference to provide knowledge sharing and networking. This is a bit harder and expensive to organise, but the impact will be greater than just a normal meeting. Book some speakers on your community's topic, write up a schedule, invite your members to attend workshops and plan a couple of networking drinks afterwards. Polling your participants on what they want to get out of such a gathering will make the process of planning this easier.
Don't want to take on the responsibility of being the host? You could enable your members instead. Set up a mechanism for them to propose calls to action and provide them with a virtual group and event-organising packs which would include tips on how to plan, promote and host a successful event around their call to action. This would have the added benefit of decentralising your efforts and allowing members to meet on a local level, potentially reaching geographical areas you wouldn't be able to by only having one venue.
Another way to encourage your community to take their relationships to a more fulfilling one is to open a marketplace for them to sell goods or services to each other. This can easily be done through the creation of a dedicated forum, Facebook page or even by using a Twitter hashtag. Make sure you write up some clear rules to ensure problem-free transactions. If this initiative is successful trust levels in the community will rise and their relationships with each will become more complex and deep.
If in any doubt about the above, attend a meeting around one of the communities you frequent at the moment. All will become clear. The more you take your online community offline, the stronger the bond between your participants. As this bond grows your community will gradually become a vital space for them, increasing daily visits and participation levels. And of course, with new members seeing a busy and welcoming community, you will also benefit from a higher retention rate, which makes organising future events even easier.
Do you have any other suggestions for real world events a Community Manager could organise for their online community? Have you attended similar events? If so, did you find them useful and a positive experience?
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