As a community manager, my role at many events is to make sure that there are plenty of opportunities for community building: getting people talking and spending time together, with the goal of making it easier for those people to stay in touch and work together online after the event comes to an end. For online communities, like the ones that I manage, having opportunities to get together in person can really help you get to know people and make it easier to work with them at some point in the future.
I’ve been thinking about how community building and events fit together a lot lately, and I wanted to share some suggestions for both attendees and organizers.
As an organizer, always try to make sure that we have some fun and interesting evening activities for attendees. Just in the past year at events, I’ve toured the Guinness Storehouse and attended a football game (that’s soccer for the Americans) in Dublin, gone on a river dinner cruise in Boston, had a casino night at a resort in Oregon and attended more parties than I can count at SXSW. Here are a few tips for event organizers to maximize community building at evening activities:
- Have food and drinks (free if possible). This encourages people to actually attend rather than skipping out to have dinner in small groups.
- Organize group transportation. This removes one more barrier to attend and encourages people to continue talking to people during the trip. I’ve seen this work as a group walking a few blocks to the event, or in waves of buses.
- Encourage mingling. You want to encourage people to move around and not sit in the same place with the same few people all evening. Some standing tables, activities (like casino nights) that encourage people to move around and having multiple rooms with different things to see and do can all encourage people to talk to more people.
- If budgets are tight, this isn’t the place the skimp. In most cases, you can find a company to sponsor the evening activities if you don’t have enough money in the regular event budget.
For attendees, you should resist the urge to skip the evening activities and go back to the hotel to do “real work.” Remember that meeting people is a goal of your event, and may be even more important than attending sessions; don’t short change yourself by going to the conference and then spending all of your time doing work that you could have done at home. Focus on the conference; you can always do your work on the plane. Here are few tips to help you make the most out of the evening activities as an attendee:
- Resist the urge to sit with people you already know well, or sit with one friend and invite a few people that you don’t know very well to join your table.
- Move around and talk to a few people that you don’t already know.
- If there aren’t any evening activities, make your own. Find something fun to do, and invite a group of people to join you.
I’m not talking about those dorky team-building games. Organizers should resist the urge to attempt to force people to play stupid games under the guise of meeting new people. I’m talking about fun games, like Mafia and Werewolf, that can be played by large groups where attendees can meet new people while having a great time. Werewolf is a particularly good game for community building because it gives people something to do and something to talk about while putting everyone on the same level: celebrities, students and executives all play as equals. People who doesn’t know many attendees can play werewolf and meet some new people, and for others, it helps get them out of their little club of friends to meet someone new. I like to make additional decks of Werewolf cards to hand out on the first night to encourage people to play other ad hoc games of Werewolf on future evenings. It’s also a great activity for after some of the more official evening activities.
The beauty of these kinds of games is that anyone can organize a game, since they don’t really require any special equipment and can be easily played with scraps of paper in lieu of printed cards. You don’t need to be a conference organizer, and I encourage conference attendees to organize evening games. If you aren’t a fan of Werewolf, there are plenty of other, similar games.
Shared Spaces and Hacker Lounges
When I organize events, I try to make sure that we have some kind of shared space (or hacker lounge for the tech events) where people can hang out together to talk or collaborate on some projects. If there are a lot of people traveling to the event and staying in a hotel, I try to put this lounge in the hotel and keep it open 24 hours, which encourages late night games and people getting together to be social or work together. All you really need is a room and few tables and chairs at the minimum, but to really encourage people to use it, you can add some free snacks, ping pong tables, video games or other social activities. This is a great place for people to get together for late night games; I’ve played many Werewolf games until the wee hours of the morning in these lounges. For single day events or local conferences, a big room with tables and power strips that is dedicated to attendees (no sessions) can fill this need.
If the organizer hasn’t provided some kind of shared space, attendees should make one. Declare one of the hotel lounge areas, lobby or bar as the informal lounge, and encourage people to meet you there.
Interested in learning more about the intersection of real-world and virtual collaboration? Come to our Net:Work conference in San Francisco on December 9.
What are your favorite tips for encouraging community building at events?