The New Normal: How COVID-19 Will Impact Your Community Strategy

David Spinks
April 20, 2024

Editor’s note: This post was updated in April of 2021.

Every company I’ve spoken to this past month has asked the same question: What will the new normal be after COVID-19?

It’s the right question to be asking. Companies that over-rotate on adapting their community strategy to the current state will lose out in the long run. Don’t cancel all your events forever like O’Reilly. Instead, adapt in the short run AND start planning for the future.

In the short run, the move is straightforward. Go virtual. We put together a comprehensive guide to pivoting your event strategy that’s been viewed over 30,000 times this month, and I shared some practical advice on moving beyond webinars for the First Round Review. We also quickly launched new features on Bevy to help companies scale up their virtual event programs.

Now for the long run…

Yes, today’s reality looks a lot different than the reality just a year ago. Hundreds of conferences have been canceled and there’s been a massive boom in interest for online communities and virtual events. But will this last? Will virtual events still be a thing as the vaccine rolls out? Will people ever feel comfortable meeting up in person again? What will the new “normal” for community be when the dust settles?

These are my predictions for the next 6-12 months. Skate to where the puck is going. I’ll see you on the other side.

1. In-person events will return with a boom (after some initial hesitancy)

There are some things you just can’t replace virtually. The most valuable relationships are the ones that happen serendipitously, and in-person events are chock-full of serendipity; you won’t have those after-hour drinks on Zoom, you won’t spontaneously pass someone in the hallway and strike up a conversation, you won’t get to see someone’s face up close, read their body language, and feel the energy of a room full of passionate people. People were already craving in-person community before this pandemic as we tired of social media as an inadequate replacement for meaningful connection. On the other side of this thing, people will be craving in-person connection more than ever before.

Yes, there will be hesitancy at first. There will be some scar tissue. I find myself cringing a little bit every time I see someone hug or shake hands in a tv show right now. Our brains are quickly getting trained for physical distancing. But as quickly as we were able to adopt this new behavior, people will adapt to connecting again over time.

There will be new measures in place to make sure people can stay safe and healthy as we navigate the battle with COVID-19. These new measures may become as ubiquitous as the TSA is today. We’ll adapt. And we’ll get back to gathering.

2. Smaller local events will return first, conferences will have to wait until 2021 or later

When we start gathering again, it will be in smaller, more local groups.

Even if vaccine rollouts go smoothly, the virus feels more under control, and the economy opens back up around the world, international travel will still feel risky, and gathering in really large groups will be more than people can handle. It may also just still be irresponsible to host large events when an outbreak is still possible.

Even if things do open up this year and people immediately feel comfortable gathering in big groups, it’s unlikely you’ll have enough runway to properly promote your event and sell tickets to fill the room. With businesses coming out of budget cuts, it will be more difficult to sell tickets and get people to pay for flights and hotels.

For all of these reasons, local events that are affordable and don’t require travel will get back up to speed much more quickly and rise in popularity. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Local events are better for the environment (less travel required), better for working parents (less time away), and better for local businesses who can host or cater smaller local events.

My advice: 2021 is a wash for conferences. Too risky. Switch to virtual, and start planning for 2022. With luck, you’ll be able to kick off smaller local events again in the fall, and bring back the big gatherings next year.

3. Virtual events will still be a thing.

The truth is, companies were sleeping on the value of virtual events for years. Now, everyone’s getting a crash course.

If you break down the benefits of in-person events, there’s a lot you can replicate or improve on with virtual events:

  • It’s easier to secure speakers since the commitment of time and energy is much lower for them.
  • Virtual events are more accessible as anyone with a computer can attend from anywhere in the world.
  • Virtual events are much cheaper to run as you don’t need a venue, food, signage, hotels, etc.
  • It’s easy to gather data on who’s attending your virtual events and what sessions they’re attending.
  • Software can be used for small discussion groups using video chats, and offer networking opportunities.
  • Sponsor booths where sponsors show a demo of their product, and people can request demo’s or chat with the sponsor directly.
  • Unlimited stages and content since you aren’t limited by space.

Take our own event. CMX Summit gathered 1,000 people in-person in 2019. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the event and worked on it year-round.

In October 2020, we took CMX Summit virtual. for the first time ever. We had more than 5,000 RSVPs for this free virtual event. We were able to welcome CMX’ers from all over the world, with more than 80 countries in attendance.

From a numbers standpoint, we were able to drive many more leads and grow our audience much more quickly than we did with an in-person conference.

When a company opens it up to their community to host virtual events, they can actually scale up a MASSIVE virtual content program quite fast. Take Startup Grind, for example. In February of 2020, they had never hosted a virtual event. By June, they had over 600 virtual events hosted by chapter leaders all over the world.

That’s all to say, virtual events won’t replace in-person events in the future, but I predict that companies will take a hybrid event approach. They’ll be doing both.

4. Virtual gatherings will move beyond Zoom

This year has taught us that Zoom fatigue is real. The standard Zoom format lost its luster pretty quick, especially after using it for everything from team meetings, to webinars, to virtual happy hours with friends after work.

Expect to see new vendors form, and a whole range of unique virtual experiences for people to connect and collaborate. We’re already seeing new products crop up, and a lot of existing tools pivot to offer “virtual event experiences.”

A few of my favorite creative tools so far are Hopin (able to replicate a “conference” experience in virtual), Bevy (our choice for CMX Summit), Toasty (innovative take on small group networking), Icebreaker (virtual speed networking), Miro (virtual whiteboard tool), and TEOOH (a virtual reality take on online events).

5. The community industry will continue to boom but with increased attention on ROI as the economy recovers

This crisis has shone a BRIGHT light on the value of community. Companies who have been investing in community for more than the last six months were able to weather this storm much more thoughtfully and efficiently than companies with no established space for their community to gather.

If you already built a community, you had a place for disseminating information quickly, for answering questions openly, and for your customers to rally together to support each other, and to contribute to supporting others in need.

Companies who hadn’t invested in community lacked a central space to gather and coordinate. The best they could do was send their customers a mass email, which got mixed in with the “COVID-19 update” from every company they’ve ever done anything with.

Community is a critical asset during crises. And when people can’t gather in-person, virtual community isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s absolutely essential.

In fact, every community software vendor I’ve spoken to in the past couple weeks say that they are getting a huge increase in demand right now. According to our recent survey of more than 500 community professionals, 56% of community teams say they were viewed as more essential during COVID-19, not less.

However, budgets may be tighter into 2021 depending on how the economy rebounds. So while community will be critical to businesses, it will become even more difficult to be successful as a community team if you can’t prove your ROI. Execs will be watching every dollar, and community teams will need to get the numbers to show the value of their work.

6. Remote work will stick, creating increased need for employee-facing virtual community managers

The last month has shown us that the job you were told can’t be done remotely, can be done remotely. The trend with remote work will look a lot like the trend with virtual events. No, it won’t replace offices, but there will be more people working remotely and embroidering that virtual work-life.

With that, we’ll see a growing need for experts in internal community building. They’ll focus on keeping employees engaged virtually, and improving employee communications and knowledge-sharing.

This is an industry that’s been around for a long time, but is about to take on a whole new life and flavor. Slack is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to see many more unicorns come out of the internal community space.

7. Community teams will become a core part of every business

Ok fine, I’ve been saying this for years. But the data doesn’t lie. This trend was already happening, with 80% of startups investing in community and 28% saying it’s their moat, and critical to their success. That was before this epidemic. Now I can’t imagine how any company can turn a blind eye to the opportunity and necessity in building a community program.

Community won’t replace marketing, or support, or product — it accelerates those teams. And it ensures that there are central gathering places for customers, advocates, and employees to connect and collaborate.

Community is a competitive advantage. It might be *the* competitive advantage that separates the winners from the losers in the next five years. In an era when no-code tools are booming, and anyone can copy your product, your marketing, and your brand, the one thing they can’t copy is your community.

Online community (synchronous and asynchronous) is an absolute necessity during this crisis. And when the dust settles, in-person will be back with a force. Where you gather people, however you gather people, just make sure you’re investing fully in community.

That’s where I think we’re headed.

I could be wrong about a lot of these things. But one thing I’m sure of: community always has, and always will be, critical to humans. Whatever the format, online or offline, people will get extremely creative in finding ways to connect with each other.
So keep building community. Keep experimenting. Stay positive for your communities and just keep showing up.

There’s nothing that builds community as strongly as shared struggle. The communities that survive this thing are going to come out stronger than ever before.

Photo by Tyler Callahan on Unsplash

David Spinks
Founder of CMX, VP of Community at Bevy
April 20, 2024

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