How Social Distancing Improved User Community Engagement

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Social distancing has helped our user communities thrive this year. It sounds counterintuitive, but when the world separated and people closed off from one another physically, Innovatis Group accepted the challenge to bring people even closer together.  

Through a series of well-orchestrated planning meetings and resilient execution in February and March, our team shifted fifty in-person events to virtual platforms in less than 60 days without cancellation fees or penalties. Instead of physical chapter meetings, our volunteer leaders across all of our communities held virtual hangouts and happy hour online gatherings. Members began fostering relationships with others across the globe. New chapters formed around interests and technical skills instead of only geographical location. Innovatis Group helped our client communities take COVID-19 restrictions and turn them into opportunities.  

At Innovatis Group, community is what drives us. We’re thrilled to see the shift where user groups have changed to become more known as user communities. Every user community is unique and our team tailors programs to the personality of each user community. Now, several months into virtual community-building, we helped our clients adopt a virtual-first strategy. This has allowed them to get and stay ahead in this unprecedented year. They’ve rolled out online engagement strategies for all members to stay connected from the comfort and safety of their own homes.  

3 Ways to Help Members Feel Connected to Their User Community  

When COVID-19 required events, programs, and connections to go virtual, we pivoted to meet the needs of our community members. We tried new initiatives and tested new programs throughout this year in order to drive a community forward and bring people together. We’ve found three ways to help members engage with their community, especially while virtual:  

1. Knowledge Exchange 

Find ways for members to share their expertise and connect with others online. Forums, discussion threads, and community pages are outlets to have online for members to share their thoughts with the community. Have a “rules of engagement” outline and a moderator as needed, but let members drive the conversations. Our communities have seen members solve problems, answer technical questions, share personal and professional milestones, and more by instilling places for members to engage with the community.  

Since the onset of the pandemic, members have been consuming more and more content online. Several of our communities have opened a “Call for Content” submission portal for members to submit content pieces across a variety of channels from blogs to video to webinars to event sessions. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, most of our communities had a set “Call for Content” around their large annual conference for content sessions. Now, we’ve been able to highlight the voice of the member through publishing member-driven content throughout the year.  

Following a series of surveys around working from home and job security or job loss, we launched a job board across a few of our clients’ community pages. This relevant and valuable addition to these communities is a powerful way to listen to member feedback and pivot to provide members what they need when they need it. Members shared job postings, encouraged others during job losses or changes, and made professional connections that helped their careers in the middle of a pandemic.  

2. Meaningful Events 

All of our clients faced the tough decisions to forgo in-person events and find virtual event platforms to host chapter meetings, regional sessions, and even their much-anticipated annual conferences. Within two weeks, Innovatis Group had virtual platforms lined up and on-schedule to ensure a smooth transition for virtual event attendance for all members.  

Virtual events have been a great way for members to engage with their community. There have been members who had never attended a single in-person event who are now consistently showing up for virtual events. Free registration, thoughtfully curated speakers that resonate with the community’s interests, and opportunities to network during the event are just a few ways to help drive member engagement through virtual events.  

It is also important to keep the local flair of a formerly in-person event. Find ways to add a “local feel” to a virtual event platform such as setting the city’s skyline as the platform background, adding local sports team banners, or naming virtual meetings rooms after a city’s popular buildings or tourist locations. Getting local community leaders to promote their now virtual event has added to the success of a local feel for a now globally accessible event.  

Despite virtual event fatigue, offering diverse opportunities will continue to foster engagement. One of the most popular event structures has been a lack of structure altogether. This gives an opportunity for members to still foster relationships and ‘hang-out’ as they once would at in-person events. Recurring coffee hours, virtual lounges, trivia time, and happy hours have allowed for members to continue to drive and develop personal relationships. Members consistently rank these more casual events as the most valuable events for community engagement in our post-event surveys.   

3. Engagement Rewards 

Our communities have asked a lot of members this year and we’ve found that members value being rewarded for their time, effort, and feedback. By rewarding members for sharing their feedback, participating in surveys, and contributing to other community activities, we’ve discovered that members feel a heightened sense of belonging to their community. Community advocates are essential to the success of a community and rewards (small or large) can help engage members.  

Rewarding members doesn’t always have to be monetary. Our communities have also launched badge programs where members can earn badges to display on their member profiles. Highlighting members in newsletters or in social media callouts also rewards members for their community contributions. These shoutouts serve as a reminder that they’re all a part of something bigger. 

During a year when people can’t be physically together, Innovatis Group has brought members closer together, virtually. Innovatis Group is proud to know that our user groups are truly engaged user communities. It’s evident to our team that community is one of the largest benefits of being in a user group.  

Member engagement is our specialty—no matter where they’re engaging from!

Rebecca Ruhlman

Rebecca is a Client Experience Senior Coordinator at Innovatis Group. She spends her days focusing on volunteer management strategy and community engagement. She gets to empower volunteer Leaders so they can then empower the community they lead. (Fun fact: hot dogs are her favorite food and in her free time she travels to college campuses to facilitate risk-management and team building education for collegiate women.)