Bringing your online communities offline - connecting the digital world with the 'real world'

Businesses and individuals increasingly exist online. People live in the digital realm, and many interact with organisations exclusively through the internet.

In this environment, it is easy to forget the advantages of a face-to-face encounter. Businesses are increasingly trying to encourage a convergence of their online and offline communities, and many are reaping the benefits through increased brand awareness and customer loyalty.

So how can you bring your online communities offline?

Create incentives

Everyone’s time is valuable. Offline meet-ups and events will only happen if you give users and customers a reason to attend. You need to create great incentives to encourage them to turn up.

Of course, in some circumstances the opportunity to meet other users might be an incentive in and of itself. If your online community is made up of users with similar or convergent interests, there might well be value in informal ‘networking’ events to help these people get to know each other better.

But this is unlikely to work for, say, a restaurant. Businesses of this sort will have to think of more adventurous ways to encourage attendance. Amongst other things, customers like to feel that they are part of something, and that their input is valued. So, restaurants might invite their Foursquare fans to test a new menu or wine list, and give their feedback.

Open up the community

Online communities are built on word of mouth: Facebook users inviting their friends to groups, Twitter users seeing retweets from interesting tweeters, Foursquare users reading their friends’ tips, and so on.

Offline communities should work in the same way. If you want to increase attendance and participation, you should make sure that your community is as accessible as possible. Make it clear that attendees can bring guests, and try to involve them in the process as much as possible.

It is worth remembering, though, that there is often some value in creating a ‘closed’ community. If yours is a luxury or exclusive brand, introducing some criteria for membership to the community can help to boost desirability and increase the stature of your business.

Use all the tools available

There is a vast range of tools available to help businesses build online communities, and all of these can be used to boost your offline activities.

Location-based services like Foursquare are particularly useful this, simply because they already have an element of offline interaction built into the tool. But you can also use these in combination with other tools, like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, to help spread the word about your offline meet-ups and events.

Depending on the nature of your events, you might also want to advertise them offline. Posters on your premises or adverts in the area can help with this, and can further encourage a sense of online-offline convergence.

Encourage sharing ‘after the event’

Remember that the build-up and the event are only parts of the story. Attendees should be encouraged to share their experiences online after the event.

There is a range of ways that you can do this. You might ask people to post photos of the event on your Facebook page, or blog about it. You may also consider coming up with a hashtag so that people can tweet about the event while they are in attendance.

Finally, you might consider giving attendees something physical to take away with them. This can help to encourage lasting brand awareness, and will be the ‘cherry on top’ of a great event.

Offline community building will continue to become a central element of many firms’ marketing activities. By bringing your online communities offline you can help to boost brand awareness, and create a sense of ‘belonging’ amongst your customers – the value of which cannot be overstated.