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Driving In-person Event Attendance via Online Community Building

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Boost event attendance by creating online communities that not only build enthusiasm for upcoming events but keep meaningful conversations going among event stakeholders throughout the event cycle.

Originally published on

In the age of digital proliferation, the lines between virtual connections and in-person interactions have blurred, ushering in new paradigms for how businesses and industries connect with their audiences. The exhibitions and business events sector, a realm traditionally reliant on the tangibility of face-to-face exchanges, is no exception. The key to driving robust in-person event attendance lies in harnessing the power of online communities. By fostering genuine connections and engagement in the digital space, event organizers can create a compelling momentum that translates into increased footfall at physical events.

Online community building has emerged as a cornerstone strategy in an increasingly interconnected world. While virtual and physical events each have their distinct advantages, they are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they can be synergistically intertwined to create a comprehensive attendee experience. By understanding the dynamics of online community building, event organizers can craft strategies that not only boost online engagement but also catalyze enthusiasm for in-person participation.

The Power of Online Communities

Online communities have become potent platforms for fostering connection, collaboration, and shared purpose. They are catalysts for creating value in various forms, transcending geographical and temporal boundaries. There are many benefits to online communities including:

  • Knowledge Exchange & Collaborative Problem-Solving: Platforms like GitHub and Stack Overflow serve as prime examples where developers convene to share solutions and best practices. The collective intelligence within these communities accelerates innovation and facilitates the rapid dissemination of knowledge.
  • Support & Mutual Encouragement: Health and wellness-focused communities provide spaces for individuals to share personal stories, offer guidance, and extend emotional support to those encountering similar life challenges. Such platforms demonstrate the power of collective empathy and encouragement.
  • Organic Brand Advocacy: Brands like Apple and Tesla benefit immensely from their passionate online fan communities. These communities, often self-sustained, function as organic brand ambassadors, driving loyalty and facilitating word-of-mouth marketing, which remains one of the most potent forms of promotion.

Strategies for Leveraging Online Communities

Harnessing the power of online communities to boost in-person event attendance requires an understanding of community dynamics and leveraging this synergy for real-world engagements. By aligning the digital experience with the promise of tangible interactions, one can effectively mobilize online community members to physically attend events. Here are several strategies to amplify your event attendance through online communities.

  • Teasers and Exclusive Previews: Use the online platform to give members sneak peeks of what to expect at the in-person event. Revealing exclusive content, guest speakers, or special sessions can generate buzz and anticipation.
  • Community Discounts or Special Access: Offer community members special discounts or exclusive access areas at the event. This not only makes them feel valued but also provides a tangible incentive to attend.
  • Host Community Meet-Ups: Schedule specific times or zones at the event exclusively for online community members to meet, greet, and network. By promising face-to-face interaction with online peers, you tap into the desire for personal connection.
  • Crowdsourced Event Content: Allow the online community to have a say in the event’s content. This can be in the form of voting for topics, suggesting speakers, or designing workshops. When members feel they’ve played a part in shaping the event, they’re more likely to attend.
  • Leverage Testimonials and Success Stories: Share stories of past attendees from the community who benefited from in-person events. Personal anecdotes and testimonials can motivate members by showcasing real-world benefits and the value of physical attendance.

Real-world Examples: Success in Action

The allure of digital spaces has revolutionized the event industry, with several organizations mastering the art of blending online community engagement to boost in-person event attendance. By tapping into the intrinsic motivations and passions of their online members, these organizations have crafted compelling narratives and incentives that naturally transition virtual enthusiasm into real-world participation.

Here are a few examples of companies that drove event attendance through online communities:

  • Comic-Con International: The buzz for San Diego Comic-Con often starts months in advance on various online fan communities. From discussions about guest panelists to exclusive merchandise reveals, these forums drive anticipation and ensure tickets sell out rapidly each year.
  • Apple’s WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference): Apple’s online developer forums and communities are abuzz with speculation, hopes, and discussions in the lead-up to WWDC. These digital spaces not only help gauge interest in specific sessions but also serve as platforms for attendees to coordinate meet-ups and sessions they’ll attend.
  • SXSW (South by Southwest): The festival uses its online platforms to allow community voting for panel topics, ensuring that attendees have a direct say in the content that will be presented. This inclusiveness drives attendance as participants are eager to experience the sessions they had a hand in selecting.
  • TwitchCon: Originating from the digital community of Twitch, the event leverages its online presence to engage with its user base, revealing special guests, sessions, and perks. Streamers and fans, after bonding online, are eager to meet their communities in person, driving ticket sales.
  • Salesforce’s Dreamforce: Through their online community, Trailblazer, Salesforce engages its users by offering previews, exclusive sessions, and even challenges leading up to Dreamforce. The community, active year-round, serves as a buildup to the main event, ensuring that members are keen to translate online interactions into in-person networking and learning experiences.

Overcoming Challenges: Navigating the Blend of Online and Offline

Melding the spirited engagements of online communities with the tangible experience of in-person events presents its unique set of challenges. The essence is to ensure that the exhilaration of online discourse doesn’t overshadow or diminish when translated into a physical setting. For many organizers, the task lies in bridging the expectations set online with the realities of offline execution. Ensuring attendees experience the same level of excitement, connectivity, and value in both realms becomes pivotal. Recognizing and addressing potential roadblocks early on, while keeping a keen eye on maintaining the event’s integrity, ensures that the virtual community’s momentum is captured and amplified in the in-person event. Here are three challenges and a solution to overcome that challenge:

  1. Maintaining Engagement Levels
  • Challenge: The immediacy and continuous engagement online may not always find its counterpart at a physical event, leading to a potential engagement drop-off.
  • Solution: Incorporate interactive sessions, live polls, and real-time feedback mechanisms at the event. Engage attendees with hands-on workshops or immersive experiences that replicate the interactivity of online platforms.
  1. Logistical Hurdles
  • Challenge: Members of online communities can hail from various geographic locations, making travel and accommodation for an in-person event challenging.
  • Solution: Offer virtual attendance options, transportation deals, or partnerships with local hotels. Providing travel and stay suggestions, or even organizing group travels can mitigate these concerns.
  1. Aligning Online Hype with Offline Reality
  • Challenge: The buzz created online might set sky-high expectations for the in-person event.
  • Solution: Offer sneak peeks, behind-the-scenes looks, or taster sessions prior to the event. This not only maintains excitement but also provides a realistic preview of what attendees can anticipate, ensuring alignment between online hype and offline experience.

The relationship between online communities and in-person events isn’t just complementary; it’s symbiotic. One fuels the other. By cultivating a strong online presence and community, event organizers can ensure a more engaged, prepared, and enthusiastic in-person attendance. In the ever-evolving landscape of exhibitions and business events, it’s those who seamlessly integrate the power of digital with the allure of physical events that will truly stand out.

The views and opinions expressed by blog authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events®. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion. All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. IAEE makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. IAEE will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.

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