9 Ways to Drive Online Engagement At Your Next Conference

In the realm of what I call distributed social business, where your community members are geographically dispersed, I think one of the best ways to increase participation and engagement is through conferences. In most social business or deep collaboration environments, the real world is still where the rubber meets the road in terms of actually pushing forward towards the group’s common goal. So it makes a lot of sense to fully leverage a conference where most or all of your online community members will be. Doing so can deepen bonds among fellow members, enhance the overall sense of community, and build solidarity around the community’s common goals and vision.

I just returned from a conference where nearly half of our online community key players were attending. The goals of the conference were similar to that of the online community’s, so it made a lot of sense to tie the community website to as many pieces of the live conference as possible. I’ll dig into 9 ways we leveraged the conference to foster higher levels of participation and engagement with our community website.

Badges and recognition

To kick things off right, we wanted to be sure all conference attendees knew who was in the club, and who was out. For each conference attendee who was already a member of the online community, we affixed a little branded sticker to their conference badge. The sticker signified that they were a member of the online community. We were calling upon social game mechanics, where the folks who hadn’t gotten recognition would be compelled to register and attain the badge that indicated they were now in the club. The sticker became a status symbol.

Buy-in from keynote speakers and moderators

We briefed all our keynote speakers and moderators on the goals for the conference and how those tied to the online community goals. They were encouraged to post content prior to the conference, asking the community to help shape the conference topics and discussions. We drafted an elevator pitch that they could all utilize during their talks too. Everything always ended with, “continue the conversation on the website…”.

Integrated messaging

After achieving buy-in with our keynoters and moderators, we went a step further buy integrating online community messaging into the conference agenda and other program materials. No attendee would be able to leave the conference without knowing about the community, its goals, and how to plug in and engage.

Announcing a conference goal

In addition to our integrated messaging approach, we created a conference wide community goal: everyone who hadn’t registered yet needed to, and that those who had registered needed to get involved with the conference conversations online. Updates were made whenever we had a general session (when all attendees were in the same room). Right before the conference was over, a final report was given. While we didn’t achieve the goal, a majority of people did act upon our call. Over 35% of attendees who hadn’t yet registered did so during the conference. And 25% of conference attendees plugged in and contributed to the site.

A comfortable place to hang out

We created a home base, a place for members to relax, or for potential members to learn about what they were missing out on. The location was centrally located, and was conducive to content-creation: a place where members could sit down and engage with the site. But it also had just a tinge of bling to attract attendees. We knew many of our members were not laptop-carriers, so we made sure to have 5 or 6 laptops peppered throughout the lounge. Our interior designers did a great job creating an overall good vibe.

A game with prizes

We created a checklist and printed them on little 5″ x 7″ cards. When attendees stopped by the lounge, we greeted them the card, which gave them clearly defined tasks:

  1. Visit the lounge
  2. Register if you haven’t yet
  3. Start a discussion or weigh-in on an existing one
  4. Jot down your name and activity
  5. Pick your prize

For the prize, we were offering some locally-sourced organic chocolate bars, something we knew our environmentally conscious group would appreciate. Most took us up on the chocolate bar, but some opted out. To each their own. I think it’s important to note that extrinsic rewards, like chocolate (or cupcakes), can be very effective in driving behavior change. The trick is to keep it up (for those that need it) long enough for them to realize what the value of participation means to them. The reward is simply a gateway to understanding what that value is. It could be different for each individual (mastery of the tool, expertise, affinity for sharing/helping, pursuing the altruistic goals of the community, etc).

Seeding the site with pre- and post-conference content

This was a big one. The site was seeded with content about the conference before it kicked off. This allowed us to not only generate buzz about the conference, but gave members a greater sense of responsibility and control with how the conference flowed. Conference speakers posed questions to the community to stimulate in-conference discussions. They also asked community members for tips on how to shape their presentations. For post conference content, we will be posting a conference wrap-up video, and image collage of attendees, and getting some diverse thoughts about the conference by way of member blog posts.

For all conference content, we used a tag that collated all conference-related material on one page. This was key in giving members quick access to the content they wanted to engage with.

Exclusive meet-ups

We also drove towards a sense of exclusivity for community members at the conference by offering to host several member meet-ups. This was a great way to give our super-users some props for their work so far. I think one way we could have improved the exclusivity element would have been by having an after hours lounge party where only super users were invited. Next year I think we’ll be more mindful of this one.

Twitter

While our main goal was to drive conversation on our own site, we didn’t want to overlook the potential power of Twitter. Our Twitter goal was twofold: 1) To generate awareness about the conference and the community site to people just outside our primary circle. 2) To shed light on the content being posted to the community site during the conference to people who weren’t able to attend.

Conclusion

Tying the real world conference to our online community worked extremely well. It built up a stronger sense of community, reinforced our community goals, and perhaps most importantly it fostered a deeper sense of connection between individual community members. Deepening those online ties using real world meetings (or vice versa- deepening real world ties through online engagement?) is, I would argue, the best way to enhance participation and engagement. Giving members an exciting shared experience goes a long way in building solidarity around your community goals.

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