Attendee engagement may be the single most important component of any event—and those efforts shouldn't end when people walk out the door. And in the expanded world of virtual and hybrid events, the possibilities for year-round engagement are even greater. When attendees aren't limited by location, the door opens to new options for content sharing, ongoing mini events and podcasts, creative networking opportunities and much more.
Read on for some creative ideas to turn your virtual-event attendee list into an engaged and enthusiastic community—365 days a year.
1. Share recordings and other content from the event piecemeal.One of the unique aspects of virtual events is that content can be easily recorded and made available on-demand after an event wraps, either for free or with a ticketing model. But that doesn’t mean it all needs to be shared at once. Consider spacing out when you share the content to remind people of the value of the event—and keep them talking long after it wraps.
The popular C2 Montréal business conference utilized this strategy last fall: After its virtual edition wrapped, session content was available on demand for a month. The team also strategically unleashed content on social media platforms, such as in a dedicated Facebook show, for weeks afterward. "You might perceive us as an event producer, but our real job is to be a convener of community," said Jacques-André Dupont, president and CEO of C2 International, in an interview with BizBash last November. "And the event itself is the peak engagement of that community—but there's a lot going on before and more going on after to make sure that we deliver value to our community, our partners and so on.”
IMEX Group, meanwhile, kept its attendees engaged after the virtual edition of IMEX America wrapped by sending weekly emails to past attendees. The newsletters highlighted a curated selection of recordings, both to ensure attendees didn’t miss any of the most popular sessions—and to encourage them to stay invested in future events, of course. The same idea can apply to finding new attendees; share highlights of your best content on social media, and be sure to include a call to action where they can preregister for next year’s event or subscribe to an email list.
2. Host a series of mini virtual events throughout the year.From VidCon, which turned its annual in-person convention into a series of year-round virtual events, to the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which launched a podcast and webinar to keep attendees engaged, many gatherings are using the extended reach of virtual to generate excitement through smaller events throughout the year.
One nonprofit utilizing the strategy is the Bethesda Hospital Foundation, a division of Baptist Health South Florida in Boynton Beach, Fla. Executive director Barbara James says that 2020 was the foundation’s largest fundraising year to date, in part because of its quick adoption of year-round virtual events. James says she’s utilizing the same strategy she was prepandemic: In addition to major fundraising galas, the foundation has long hosted a doctor speaking series with local country clubs. “This gave our donors and community access to subject matter experts and the opportunity to socialize,” she explains. “We’ve taken this concept virtual now by hosting a bimonthly webinar series. We give attendees who register the opportunity to submit questions ahead of time, so the guest speaker can answer them during the webinar." The events are livestreamed on the foundation’s YouTube channel and Instagram account, and James calls the strategy a “resounding success.”
Heather Odendaal, the CEO and co-founder of Canadian event firm Bluebird Strategy as well as women’s conference WNORTH, pivoted to virtual after her annual in-person conference was canceled last April. Odendaal and her team decided to host a virtual event series—with speakers from the likes of Indeed, Lululemon, Cisco and more—that led up a main virtual conference in October. While hosting monthly workshops has always been a part of WNORTH’s strategy, Odendaal says that going virtual has allowed the community to expand its membership and host much more programming than in a typical year. “Our online programming has tripled during the pandemic, but the key to successful execution is to keep evolving and tweaking the format to meet the changing needs of your customers,” she notes.
WNORTH also recently relaunched its membership hub, making it more interactive with opportunities for members to chat one-on-one or in targeted groups. Odendaal notes that WNORTH’s members have really responded to these smaller events and networking opportunities. “Our community is craving personal connection (even if only virtually) now more than ever,” she explains. “It was important to keep up the cadence of our networking events and a beautiful thing happened—we were suddenly able to make an impact in many more people's lives through our virtual programming.”
3. Create a social media group.One of the most popular options for building a year-round community? Social media, of course. The annual Content Marketing World conference, for example, hosts weekly Twitter chats using the hashtag #cmworld, while customer service company Stella Connect has leaned on Slack to build an ongoing community and create buzz for future events.
Krista Miller, the Wisconsin-based owner of virtual planning company Summit a Box, prefers to keep attendees engaged through Facebook. “We have weekly discussion prompts, live video trainings and even five-day challenges a couple times per year to keep excitement and engagement up,” she explains. “It's a great marketing channel for my business, an incredible way for [attendees] to continue making progress and stay connected with each other—and it's one of my top drivers for attendees' sequential events.”
Another planner using Facebook is Texas-based consultant Natalie Luneva, the host of the SaaS Boss podcast and the founder of the SaaS Boss community; she was recently the organizer of User.com’s virtual Saas Growth Summit, which took place Feb. 11-12. The team decided to create a post-event Facebook group to keep the conversation going between the event's 2,000 worldwide attendees.
Luneva advises that for building a post-event community on a platform like Facebook, getting the first 50 to 100 people to join is typically the biggest challenge. “When you have at least 200 people, everything gets easier. It's the 80-20 rule—80% of efforts are spent to get the first 200 members,” she says. Hosts were sure to direct people to the Facebook group during the summit, and at first, Luneva would livestream sessions and create other posts to get the conversation going; now, members use it to initiate their own discussions, she says.
An added bonus? “Once you have the group, this is a chance to continue interacting and asking questions—what kind of event the members want to have in the future, what they want to learn about, which speakers they want to listen to,” Luneva notes. She suggests posting open-ended questions that allow group members to share their knowledge. “Another thing we do is host weekly sessions about marketing automation; if you keep hosting regular sessions you will learn so much about the group members, their problems and their thoughts [to help you] create future events.”
4. Consider emerging options like Clubhouse.In addition to the standard social media channels, keep an eye on newer options like Clubhouse, the voice chat-based social media platform that has been exploding in popularity lately. (Click here to read BizBash’s comprehensive guide to the iPhone-only app.)
Odendaal has become an enthusiastic adopter of Clubhouse, hosting a weekly “Women’s Leadership Lunch” chat for the WNORTH community. “I love that everyone can become a speaker at your event by the click of a button,” she explains. “I have always been an event programmer who values the untold stories and the underdog speakers, and Clubhouse is the perfect place to find new voices and perspectives.”
For Odendaal, staying on top of new trends like Clubhouse is crucial for keeping attendees engaged year-round. “Keep switching up your programming,” she advises. “We create a new event series every quarter because things are changing fast. Sometimes you will have a strong start to a program, but it sizzles out. Zoom fatigue led to the rise of Clubhouse, for example—so stay fresh and current and don't be afraid to shake things up."
5. Host a contest or giveaway.Another effective way to keep people engaged in the off-season is through social media-based contests or giveaways. This can look different depending on the type of event; maybe it’s about giving away event tickets to people who follow a certain account or share a certain post. Or maybe it’s about collecting email addresses to grow an invite list. It’s all a natural way to generate buzz and get people talking, even if the event is still several months away.
One person utilizing this strategy is Jenny Beres, the co-founder of Los Angeles-based Pink Shark PR, who hosted a virtual summit series last spring. "We've created a Facebook group to build our community around the event, and implemented a sharing-rewards program,” Beres told BizBash last May. “If attendees share our social posts about the event, snippets of the interviews, quotes, etcetera, they get the opportunity to pick from some of our exciting digital courses, mini courses and other goodies from our website."
6. See what capabilities your virtual platform already offers for year-round community-building. Some event technology platforms, like Showcare, actually specialize in year-round engagement opportunities. The event management services and software company, which has employees around the world, designed its virtual platform to serve as a 365-day community hub for attendees.
“Our goal is to blend the event experience with a year-round virtual strategy to optimize engagement,” says Showcare president Amilie Parent, CPA, CA, explaining that the company helps clients evaluate content and recommends monetization strategies. “By having a 360-degree view of their audience behaviors and preferences, we provide valuable insights to our customers to improve future event planning, content and marketing strategies, and sponsorship opportunities.”
Jacob Lilly, Showcare’s chief technology and innovation officer, adds that “consistent engagement and novel content throughout the entire year, delivered both digitally and in-person, will become not just a nice-to-have but a must-have as attendees further explore the freedom to interact on their own terms. … A year-round platform opens the door not only to audiences from halfway around the world but also to higher attendance rates, more consistent networking, better engagement and higher revenues.”