(and why most conferences/meet-ups are not actual communities)
I come across a lot of monthly or yearly recurring gatherings that describe themselves as communities: The Web Summit community, the TEDx community, the SxSW community, The NY Tech Meetup community. As someone who studies communities and has been to many of these events as a participant, I have been asking myself: are these events actually communities? And where is the line between a regularly happening gathering/conference/meet up and a community?
Part I — The difference between a series of events and a community
Let’s start by defining “community”: for me, a community is a group of people that take care of each other and feel they belong together. A community has two unique elements: relationships and shared identity.
Do recurring events by default create trusted relationships and a shared identity among participants? I don’t think so.
The big difference is that events can be great for people to build individual, 1:1 relationships. And potentially a lot of them. The power of community, on the other hand, lies in the collective identity: we think of ourselves as a group that belongs together and we trust each other more than the average (even the people we have never met before).
Another way of looking at this is to use the Community Test: how likely am I to help someone that contacts me a) after we have attended the same event b) because we are part of the same community? I would argue that option b) is much more likely to create a valuable response.
Part II — 9 elements to turn an event into a community
1) Boundaries and curation
Communities need boundaries to differentiate who is part of the community and who is not. How can you create a shared identity with a group that has no clear beginning or end?
I prefer events that are accessible to anyone, but unfortunately they don’t help create a sense of community. Some events create boundaries through charging high ticket prices, but from a community point of view, money isn’t what matters, it is curation. Knowing that everyone was carefully selected to be part of this event makes me more likely to trust strangers at the event and through that create a sense of community. While the level of trust among random meet-up visitors is limited, the trust among the yearly gathering of a fellowship is probably pretty high.
2) Rhythm, retention and size
Communities need a balanced mixture of rhythm, retention and size to build trust and a shared identity over time. Meeting someone for the first time lays a foundation, but usually only when I keep bumping into that same person a few more times I build an actual relationship. For that to happen, the events need to happen at a somewhat regular interval (how do you relate to a group that meets sporadically?), and the community needs retention: a percentage of people that keeps coming back as regulars. The third variable in this equation is size: imagine a conference that happens regularly with a lot of people coming back, but 5000 participants, what are the chances of deepening relationships over time?
3) Conscious onboarding and language
People ‘attend’ events, but they ‘join’ communities. One is a short-term, low-risk commitment with a clear beginning and a clear end. The other is an open-ended invitation to join a club, potentially with the expectation to become an active part of it for years or decades to come. That’s a huge difference. We can’t assume that by RSVPing to an event, participants have also said yes to joining the community. That needs to be made explicit and is ideally part of a careful onboarding process, where new members are introduced to the group, its values, rules and norms. Otherwise these “community members” are really just dead weight.
4) Where do we connect in-between events?
I find it surprising when conferences describe themselves as communities, yet don’t offer any dedicated place to continue the conversations in-between gatherings. Many events offer technical solutions that are event-centric, instead of community-centric, often continuing the same technical platforms they used for the actual event. Usually, activity levels on those platforms drop to almost zero in the weeks after the event. Facebook groups seem — for better and worse — to be the simplest and strongest solution I have come across.
Not only do events need to provide a platform, they need to promote them consistently over a longer period of time so that participants take them seriously. People are invited to so many platforms and tools, if you want me to use anything, you have to convince me that it’s worth my time.
5) Communities need active care
Communities need someone that manages the community, that feels responsible for the collective wellbeing of its members and creates ongoing opportunities for people to connect even when the event has ended. Many gatherings have event producers but lack dedicated community managers. Unless someone will nurture the group in-between events, it will likely die.
6) Consumer vs co-creation behavior
There are two ways to show up to an event: either as a consumer, expecting that everything will be provided and you just have to listen and receive, or as a co-creator who will actively shape the collective experience. Most events in the world are designed to treat the attendees as passive consumers, with most of the program being taken up by one-way keynotes and panels. From an event point of view, that is easier to organizer and has less complexity to manage. However, interactive formats create often more value for the participants and change their overall mindset.
I think Burning Man’ gifting economy is a great example how much the willingness to contribute to an event makes a difference in terms of spirit (and allows a community feeling even at such a large number of participants). While the Coachella festival experience is something I might share with many others, in the end we’re all there to consume. At Burning Man, on the other hand, we’re all co-creators and that binds us together. That creates a shared identity.
7) If this is a community, what does it stand for?
Many events describe in great detail what value they are offering to participants. But many events aspiring to be communities do not have an explicit strategic direction for their community. To address this, we have developed this 1 page Minimum Viable Community framework to help communities summarize and communicate what it is that they stand for.
8) The power of storytelling in-between events
Some recurring events have found the power of storytelling to keep the conversations going in-between events and increase the sense of rhythm and consistency. Creative Mornings (a monthly breakfast lecture series in 170+ cities across the globe) does a beautiful job by sharing high quality videos of their presentations (and listing inspiring quotes from those talks), interviewing their speakers on their podcast and writing a blog and weekly newsletter.
9) Community of organizers
Another way of thinking about community for recurring events (especially for the ones that have scaled to different cities) is to build a community among the organizers of these events. With events like TEDx, 1 Million Cups or Creative Mornings, the sense of community among participants probably very much depends on each city. However, the organizers across the different cities seem to have a strong community among themselves. As most of these organizers are unpaid volunteers, a carefully curated (and ideally nurtured) community of organizers creates a huge added value and provides a place of support and learning.
What other ways have you found that help turn events into communities?