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Building online communities for events

Omnichannel B2B audience engagement

Paradoxically, the coronavirus outbreak and self-isolation are bringing us closer together. There’s a high chance, when this is over, we will become a stronger, more compassionate community, used to all sorts of online social interactions.  360 virtual reality sessions, online conferences, and hybrid (think smaller, connected, interactive) events are about to become the norm and with them, come challenges.

How to secure online attendance? How to keep the connected audience engaged? How to create a shared sense of belonging? How to track the results of the virtual engagements? It all comes down to making it personal, relevant, no less unique, and a two-way dialogue – building a community around virtual engagements.

Here are a few tips on how to successfully build and manage a virtual customer ecosystem:

1. Expert hosts and celebrity-guest moderators

For virtual communities to thrive provide expert hosts to seed and moderate discussions that are relevant and informed. Embrace the super-users or more vocal participants but have the expert hosts and community managers engage the more passive observers.

Just as brands sometimes bring in guest-designers or celebrities to produce a custom-product range, use respected, high profile experts or celebrities to moderate a session or be part of a fireside chat with Q&A. No reason Will-I-Am couldn’t be part of a discussion on investing in start-ups in say, a FinTech brand’s community

Expert hosts that communicate directly with the participants via the community or web-based text and video messaging creates a personal connection. The member feels less like a number and hence valued. Knowing their ideas are valued drives continued engagement.

Make it personal. Show your face. Don’t hide behind a corporate logo. For players in the B2B space, the personal connection with the target audience is a key factor leading to success.

2. Gamify participation

In the same way, TripAdvisor rewards contributors to their travel community with expert badges, provide ways to recognise intelligent and regular contributions to discussions. Generally, with B2B audience rewards aren’t necessary, to drive engagement. However, enabling a member of the community to be first to get sight of a new market report or white-paper, can be an incentive to stay engaged. Or, in this age of self-improvement and personal development, maybe the reward is access to one of your company’s consultants or an iVersity module.

3. Embrace complementary content

It’s not all about your brand or category. When choosing topics to discuss in a B2B community think beyond your category. Sure, members sign-up because the brand and category interest them, or they have a passion for the brand or seek peer to peer connection. The core focus of the community will be the category you operate in but to make the community truly sticky include more personal and possibly eclectic content.

For example: imagine a B2B community for an Autonomous Vehicle brand or tech firm involved in the future of smart transport. The community members might be engineers, automotive retailers, insurance actuaries, government policy planners, or digital designers and consultants. Yes, they may be interested in expert discussions on the sharing economy, battery and charging tech, risk management and consumer psychology and new concept adoption. However, the members could also find value in discussions or online tutorials and TED-style talks on building your personal brand through Twitter, or understanding Formula E, or an invitation to play Fantasy Formula E with other members, or what to look for when buying a Hybrid car? Or provide a category acronym quiz. Or, ways to interview for the best jobs in the emerging autonomous vehicle industry.

4. Active social listening and surveys

Ask questions, suggest ideas, follow trends. Use social listening platforms to identify hot topics, sentiment, the language to use to connect emotionally or identify the protagonists and antagonists in your industry category. The best way to engage an expert audience is to be aware of what keeps them awake at night. Create a quiz or survey to get first-hand intel.  Track interactions and conversations on Twitter or LinkedIn, run a daily check of the most popular hashtags and topics covered by the sector media. Know the key opinion leaders.  Then use that knowledge to create engaging, relevant discussions for each audience.

 5. Use multiple channels

Omnichannel isn’t only reserved for e-commerce. It’s a schema that you should include in your virtual or hybrid event strategy, as audiences want to interact with the brand and peers, on their terms, anytime, anywhere. Using a custom-online community, integrate social media, industry media, e-mail campaigns, and mobile messaging, keeping the customer journey personalised and content-rich.

Give your audience some freedom, too. If they can’t take part in a virtual panel discussion or live online chat or qual group, allow access to full video materials and ways to maintain the discussion. It won’t undermine attendance but will amplify the effect and help the return-on-investment.

6. Encourage co-creation 

One of the most powerful incentives for joining a B2B community is the knowledge that participation can shape the wider-industry agenda. Enable the community to facilitate co-creation of the strategy for the industry. When building a digitally-enabled ecosystem, try to position yourself (or your team members) as the industry vanguard.

7. Link to virtual or smaller, localised events

The ultimate sense of belonging is galvanised with virtual events, and once it’s safe to venture out of the home (in this COVID-times) the smaller, connected, localised event can validate a sense of belonging to something bigger. The tech exists to make the virtual or connected events an extension of the virtual community discussions. If members have access to Google cardboard VR goggles or a VR headset, some virtual sessions can be hosted in 360 VR, placing you in the space. Or electronic whiteboards and collaboration tools in virtual conference setting can create a stimulating engagement and strengthen bonds.

To make the remote attendance more meaningful, consider sending the members signed up to a virtual conference a party-pack with event-themed mug, note pad, sweet-popcorn or mints. Have the moderators, guest speakers, and discussion panels, in the virtual conference, visibly using the same mugs and pads and enjoying the same popcorn. Make it the shared experience that creates deeper, lasting relationships.

The blend of virtual communities which develop a rapport and bond over time, combined with virtual seminars and smaller localised events can be the foundation for a customer ecosystem that thrives and shapes the business and an industry’s future.

Andrew Reid

Andrew Reid

Author: Andrew Reid, Board Director, Corporate Strategy and Digital Solutions at Shelton Fleming, shares his experience from the world of brand engagement and custom online communities.

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