Over the last month since leaving Salesforce I’ve talked to about 10 different companies about their present or future Community Strategy. Each one has been a fascinating discussion with unique business models, industries, and community audiences, but one thing has been a common thread. There is a desire to launch or scale their offline community. What does that mean exactly? This is a desire to create face-to-face community gatherings that often form by geographical location of the members. This is definitely not a new idea, but one that is coming much more into fashion lately.
Typically when you think of “community” you think of online. You likely know these well — ones with online profiles, posts, comments, discussion forums, ideation, online groups and more! It’s becoming more common for organizations to start with an offline community approach then move their way to an online community. Offline community is something I’m deeply connected to and I attribute a lot of the success of the Salesforce Community to this concept. It was really the combination of both offline and online that created something very powerful. A truly magical thing happens when you invest in both and here’s why.
Offline community gives your members a chance to build deeper and more trusted relationships. Online community allows people to engage and collaborate, but meeting in person puts an actual face to profile. It’s harder to get the nuances of people’s personalities when only engaging online. You can’t experience their funky sense of humor, their sarcastic wit, or their vulnerabilities online. This doesn’t come out in typed words. How often have you misinterpreted a text message that had a totally different meaning once you talked to the person live? The way they left out a punctuation or the usage of a certain word can change the whole meaning of the text. It’s left up to interpretation. We don’t often build the niceties into our typed words. We can’t see the facial expressions that go with the words, the smile, the shyness, or the passion. Once the connection is made offline, the way people engage online changes. There’s a new level of respect and they can picture the person behind the words or the profile.
Popular offline community models can be referred to as chapters, user groups, franchises, or meetups. Often these are run by volunteer leaders who end up being some of your most valuable advocates. Ensuring you provide these amazing advocates with all the tools and resources needed to sign on a leader is critical to the success of the offline community strategy. Making it ridiculously easy with the lowest barrier to entry allows your program to scale and encourages volunteers to get on board with you. Providing clear and easy onboarding materials, simple to use event management tools, access to swag for meetings, and a smooth reimbursement policy are some critical elements.
It’s important to provide some guidelines to the program, like bumpers on a bowling alley, but don’t overcomplicate or over govern which can stifle empowerment. The power comes from building offline programs BY the community, FOR the community. Take your hands off the wheel so the community can step up and lead the way. Then it feels like you’re part of something larger than yourself.
The blending of offline programs with online programs can supercharge engagement and customer success. An example of this is the Salesforce’s IdeaExchange Strategy (aka — gathering and processing product feedback from your customer). It takes a great online tool for collecting and channeling feedback, a solid Community team to engage with the feedback, and alignment with Product Management to actually implement the feedback. Then you couple all that with your offline groups to incorporate in-person listening sessions. You take the online process and bring it offline. Inviting Product Managers to these groups to hear directly from customers and customers getting a chance to talk directly to Product Managers makes mutually beneficial community magic.
What I love about offline community programs more than anything is that it creates a safe and trusted place to create a sense of belonging and family no matter what industry, product or service!
“In a world of algorithms, hashtags, and followers, know the importance of human connection”