What are Virtual Communities and Why Should You Invest in Them?

Strong virtual communities are at the core of an event’s success. Here’s how to build and nurture a successful one of your own—at a distance.

Categories in Tips, Virtual Events

This article is a part of e180’s Virtual Events series, where we tackle the biggest challenges organizers face in planning and hosting successful virtual events—one article at a time.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced many sectors and businesses to reckon with its consequences, and the event industry may be top among them. As in-person gatherings and events are cancelled, some businesses transitioning remote, and a large percentage of the population in some kind of isolation, the question of how to gather and engage with people virtually is at the forefront of many of our industry counterparts’ minds.

After all, if in-person gatherings aren’t going to be possible, event professionals and community leaders of all kinds still need a way to convene their people and continue to service the needs the in-person gatherings try to meet. For many, that means transitioning community-building activities like events into a new virtual format. But with this shift comes many new questions, like:

  • How do we provide the same content virtually that we typically offer during our gatherings?
  • What does a virtual gathering feel like? What is its shape? What is the relationship with the participant?
  • Is it possible to generate the feeling of community online?
  • What possibilities do a virtual event or meeting hold that are not possible in person, and vice versa?
  • What value do we, as event and/or community organizers, bring to the table?

One of our own key questions at e180 is how to align our new virtual solution with our in-person mission of offering a service that radiates a sense of belonging and community; an experience that empowers participants to turn to their peers for authentic and relevant knowledge-sharing conversations.

Whatever comes of the crisis and the subsequent reimagination of gatherings for virtual audiences, it’s critical to include this sense of humanity and a means for participants to connect and share with each other. Our participants need to feel like they’re a part of something relevant and impactful—a community that is worth exploring and getting to know.

In order to convince people to immerse themselves in your event’s content, they first need to trust you and believe that you are bringing value to their lives. In this piece, we’ll explore what constitutes a virtual community, why it matters for the future of your event, and how you can create that feeling of trust to bring value virtual communities of your own.  

Whatever comes of the crisis and the subsequent reimagination of gatherings for virtual audiences, it’s critical to include this sense of humanity and a means for participants to connect and share with each other. Our participants need to feel like they’re a part of something relevant and impactful—a community that is worth exploring and getting to know.

What constitutes a virtual community?

First and foremost, in-person and virtual communities share most of the same characteristics except for the obvious: the ability (or habit) of meeting up in person. At the root of both (and it might seem trite to mention, but sometimes we forget) both forms are made up of people: individuals with shared interests, values, concerns, knowledge or experience.

The bonds that hold communities together revolve around the common interests that brings them together in the first place—things like belief systems, sports and activities, hobbies, professions, or even neighborhoods. You might say that members of a community are participating in a collective story.

Source: www.cru.org

At the same time, a community may be both cohesive and fragmented, straddling a fine line between trust and disagreement. For example, a group of video game aficionados might very well include members with radically different political opinions. As someone who convenes people, the question you should start by asking yourself is: what is the point of connection I’m providing?

A healthy virtual community is one that spawns a feeling of ownership amongst all members, and requires some level of interaction, participation, and contribution.

As someone who convenes people, the question you should start by asking yourself is: what is the point of connection I’m providing?

Why virtual communities are essential

What are the benefits to virtual community-building—and is it worth it in the long run? From creating new opportunities to get to know your customer base to enlisting new brand advocates, there’s no shortage of great reasons to help connect the people you care about. 

Enthusiastic Members Bring More Members

Whatever your format, providing relevant content for your people makes great opportunities for engagement. You’ll create a group environment that will likely delight its members and encourage active participation. In a vibrant community like that, enthusiastic members are often inspired to recruit new ones, which results in lower acquisition costs on your end, and helps to establish a more effective means of communication and interaction between you and your stakeholders.

Generate Great Business Outcomes

In the for-profit sector, community involvement is sometimes seen as a tool that falls neatly between marketing, branding, and corporate social responsibility objectives. But building an engaged community can lead to more than hitting marketing targets or sustainability targets: it can become your business model, and shape the way you communicate with your partners and prospects. This will in turn catalyze a boost in important company performance indicators like reputation, employee engagement, customer retention and ultimately, sales.  

What’s more, building powerful groups can mean having direct access to a group of customers or users—the best way for organizations to know what’s popular, understand which needs aren’t being met, and figure out how to fit new products or services into those gaps. 

Change the World!

Interest-based groups connected by shared beliefs and aspirations (and not shared purchasing habits, for example) can lead to social transformation. The story that emerges from the relationships between members who work together on something mutually inspiring is what leads to a feeling of commitment to the cause. 

If you create alignment between your own objectives and those of your intended community, the advocates that arise from it will be loyal, committed and passionate.

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The why of building community is the same online as it is in person. Today, the big challenge we’re facing is how to generate these outcomes by creating virtual communities of individuals. This requires a distinct form of attention and care on the part of the organizer. How can you do this? We tackle this in the next section.

Three Steps to a Setting Up a Strong Community

There are three major elements to building any vibrant community, whether it’s in-person or virtual: understanding its purpose, outlining the desired outcome, and then planning your process to achieve it.

1. Understand the purpose behind creating a virtual community

The first and most important requirement for how to build a community is being transparent about your purpose as an organizer. It doesn’t matter whether you are a popular shoe company peddling its wares or a charity seeking to fund programs for at-risk youth, as long as you are transparent about your intentions, you’ll find satisfy your members. Of course, this means turning inward and really challenging yourself to understand your purpose, which may be easier said than done!

Once you understand your purpose behind building a community, you will need to consider your audience’s perspective and identify the reasons why your purpose might resonate with potential members of your community. Once you understand your purpose behind building a community, you will need to consider your audience’s perspective and identify the reasons why your purpose might resonate with potential members of your community. You might try to do this with human-centered design-thinking exercises, for example.

In addition to the why behind your group, you’ll also need to seek clarity on who you want to reach out to, where you will find them, and decide on when you’ll reach out to them. Most importantly, you’ll need to establish what you want the desired outcome for you and your community members. Be careful not to conflate purpose and outcome!

2. Outlining the desired outcome of bringing people together 

A desired outcome can take many forms: do you want your community to be time-based or permanent? Will the community be centralized around your content, communications and activities, or is it decentralized, self-guided, also engaged in the production of relevant material? 

Whatever your desired outcomes may be, the process is where you’ll use your outcome and think backwards, planning the required steps that will lead to your objective.

3. Planning your process to achieve your desired outcomes

To start, you’ll need to identify the various communication touchpoints that exist between you and your members, and find ways of maximizing their effectiveness at connecting yourself with your audience and your audience with itself.

Communities also require a careful mix of personal agency and guidance, so your process needs to take that into account. Designing a stale, rigid process that is convoluted is a mistake, and makes it hard to adapt if a need to pivot surfaces—as is the case with the advent of the coronavirus, for example. Communities are more resilient when organic.

 

How to Sustain Your Community

The following are key elements to keep in mind to protect the longevity of your community project:

A Shared Story 

The common denominator among what seem to be most important needs for people right now is the ability to interact with each other, and maintain relationships. One way to help inspire connections between new people—and, the formation of new group—is to piggy-back on shared experiences and stories they can all relate to. So, what’s the story you’re telling? How will you tie that to relationship building opportunities for your virtual community? And to get more granular, what meaningful opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, knowledge-sharing and collaborative creation are you offering based on that theme? 

Patience 

Building community takes time. No one event, marketing campaign or shared interest is simply going to lead to a community. Time is a requirement because trust is a hard thing to come by, especially when it comes to online communities.

Timely and Useful Content

As a community organizer, what you offer needs to be relevant, timely, moving and worthwhile. The participant needs to have faith that you will be providing such an experience or they will drop you. Let’s face it, there is very little assumed personal pain associated with not attending virtual events.

Facilitation

You’ll probably need to be actively involved in your community during the beginning. Smaller, newer communities might need some help with facilitation before they’re ready to be fully self-directed. All the activities including communications, that are organized by the community organizers fall under the category of facilitation. As the organizer, active involvement also shows that you care.

Keep it Fresh

Shared goals and interests will keep people around—but not necessarily active. You’ll need to spice up your gatherings with the unexpected: with incentives, or perhaps games and prizes. You’ll need to generate regular content and invite your participants to do the same.

Choices and autonomy

It’s worth repeating that people today are presented with a continuous stream of content to choose from. Despite the challenge to focus on any one thing, it’s clear that we are in an age where learning and experience of culture is self-directed.  It’s important for organizers to provide your people with choices and let them take the path they are most comfortable with.

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During this global pandemic, it’s clear that people have a need to connect, share stories, and exchange ideas. Whether through group Zoom calls for special events, collective live video dance parties or communal singing from balconies, people are reaching out and connecting with each other. There’s a lot to learn from what’s happening around us! 

Virtual communities are a powerful way to connect with individuals, spread knowledge, build new, and sustain old relationships. They are valuable sources of information and opinions, producers of data and content. But, most importantly, they are a necessary component of personal and professional life in a world that feels increasingly interconnected everyday.