Making Magic: Connection and Belonging at Online Events

Community building ideas for your next event

If you’ve been reading my newsletter for the past few months, I’m sure you already know how I feel about communities that are held together by strong bonds between members. (Just in case you weren’t sure, I feel great about them!)

Having attended a ton of online events over the past few months – and, to be honest, hosted a bunch of workshops that followed the “1-to-Many” approach – I see many of us are missing opportunities to build connections time and time again.

The fact is, when done right events can be an extremely effective way to boost membership, engagement, and connection.

Remember in-person workshops? Well, imagine holding one where, instead of allowing these curious, complicated humans to sit together where they can chat, wave, and share thoughts about the content with each other, you sat them all in private cubicles where none of that interaction could take place. The fact is, it’s magical when thoughtful, curious, and complicated humans show up in the same space at the same time, with the same interest and perhaps even shared values. Denying these participants the opportunity to engage wouldn’t make sense! So why do we do that online? 

Read on for my tips to help form strong community bonds between the attendees of online events, and learn to use that magic to your advantage!

First, it’s helpful to understand that many of us bring a certain “self” to an online event, and it might not be our whole self. Strong bonds are formed between community members only when we show up as truer versions of ourselves. If you show up as your whole self repeatedly, you will continue to feel like you belong, and bonds will be strengthened within your community.

And yet when we attend an event, we often aren’t given the opportunity to show up at all, let alone take the risk of showing up fully.

As a community-minded event organizer, here’s what you can do to start to unlock connection, making sure your members bring their whole selves, recognize what experiences and values they share with other members, and feel belonging because of this.

Planning and Pre-Event Stage

  • Remember to start with the why before the what. Gather input into the event content and activities through a survey, or by hopping on a call with a few community members.

  • Ask yourself (or your community): what common goal does my audience share, and how can this event help them transform?

  • Why are we bringing people together in real time? Why is this an event and not content?

  • What can the community unlock together that they couldn’t unlock doing this work alone?

  • Consider planning an event series that brings people together repeatedly. This is a great way to not only make sure your members are practicing key lessons, but when meet each other repeatedly in a sacred space lasting bonds are formed.

  • Stories are an important part of community building; they help exemplify the values we share. When sending out invites and reminders, can you include some stories of how this type of event has supported a member in the past? If not, can you tell inspiring stories of other attendees?

  • Extra credit: Send attendees something in advance that they can use at the online event, like this miniature s’mores kit (see below) or handheld signs to signal reactions.

Event Community Magic

OK, we’re ready to go live! Here are some ways to get your community involved in the magic.

Carrie Melissa Jones starts all her workshops with a group meditation, so I’m sure she planted this seed with me. Kick things off with a grounding moment. Your members may have multiple windows open, or perhaps just showed up from another call or tough task. Create a moment where everyone becomes present. Remind them that this is incredible – we are sharing this space in time together!



Kick-off

  • Hold space for a short meditation (Ex. Ask the group to notice their breath during a minute of silence.)

  • Ask everyone to turn-off their video feeds, and close their eyes, and think of three things they are grateful for in this moment.

  • Have members read your community values or a conversation agreement together.

  • Share the event agenda and let the audience know, up front, how they will be asked to participate. Let them know if they will need their video turned on, if they will be put into breakout groups, how to use reactions, chat, or shared docs.

  • Make sure you are doing what you can to make this space safe for all members. For example, ask everyone to put their pronouns after their name in parentheses ex: Jane Doe (she/her).

Icebreakers

Start bonding early with an icebreaker! Here are a few I like to use, in order of vulnerability:

  • What did you do in the 30 minutes before you landed in this event?

  • What’s something about you that people often find surprising?

  • If you were a fruit, what fruit would you be and why?

  • For large groups: Everyone type into the chat their names, where they are located, and what is their most used emojis are.

  • If you have more time: Ask everyone to review this list of core values and pick their top 3, and then share with the group.

Activities

Break up long lectures with activities. Here are a few from my bag of tricks.

  • Polls and breakout groups are great for giving your audience more ways to participate.

  • Create a Give & Take shared doc. This might have two columns, one where attendees can jot down something they need from the group, and one where they offer up something. Once everyone has entered a ‘give’ and ‘take’ item, ask them to comment where they can give help, and on the entries that they want to take advantage of.

  • Take a screenshot of the group and surprise them with a digital photo booth (see below).

Closers

Try to end with something other than a sad group wave.

  • End with another grounding moment. Play chill music, put a reflective prompt on the screen and ask people to think about any insights that came up for them over the past hour. Ask for a few members to share before you log off.

  • Create a form where attendees can enter an idea they want to work on -- from there, group members can offer or seek support and assistance from group members in implementing their ideas. It can also be used to pair up participants with accountability partners.

  • Have attendees share their social handles, so they get a little hit of dopamine from new followers while sharing their vision with a broader community

  • Have attendees turn off their webcams and complete an event survey while still in the room. Celebrate each submission with a shout out, special effect or sound.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found some fun ways to increase connection and belonging during your events. Please let me know if any of these tips work for you, or if you’ve come up with your own ways to harness the magic of community connection!

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Are you a community builder looking for support? Want to attend an event series I’m hosting? Join me (and some guest experts I’ll wrangle for us) for a 4-week community working group! January ‘21 sessions and February ‘21 sessions are now live.