How to Identify and Grow an Online Community

BIF Summit watched an online community grow up around its program — and now sees it as an integral part of ‘the conversation.’

As host of the BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit, an annual global conference dedicated to business innovation, Saul Kaplan became so impressed with the interaction and engagement happening among people who weren’t even there that he recently wrote a column for Harvard Business Review called “You Don’t Have to Go to a Conference to Enjoy It.” We asked Kaplan — the founder and chief catalyst for Providence, Rhode Island–based Business Innovation Factory (BIF) — to talk about identifying and growing an online community.

When did you become aware of the non-attendee community that was collecting around BIF Summit? I’ve been watching it happen over a number of years. People would come to meetings or events and, with the advent of social media, extend the conversation out to their networks. And then I started to see the conversations actually coming back and being a part of the event and helping influence and shape it.

It was something that happened on its own? Yeah, I wouldn’t say we were smart enough to plan for it initially. Everybody on my team here at BIF was on Twitter and other social-media platforms long before I was. I got dragged into it, and then as I watched it, it got very interesting to me. And the truth is, now, after having invested a lot of years personally in the connections between what happens virtually and what happens in physical meetings, not only has it changed the way I think and work, it’s really helped us in enabling people to explore completely different models or ways to deliver value.

How do you cultivate your online community? First of all, we don’t think about [BIF Summit] as an event anymore; we think about it as a community, as a conversation, and the conversation starts way before we have the event and continues way after. The physical environment at the event and what happens at the event are an important part of the experience, but so are the tools that we use to connect with each other outside the event.

What are those tools? We’re pretty heavy Twitter users and so is our community. But any one of the social-media platforms — Facebook, Instagram — we’re utilizing all of them. Also, through our own website, we try to make it easy for people to participate in the event. Not just afterward, when we post videos of all the storytellers, but I think the more interesting thing is that we livestream [the program] while it’s happening, so you can be watching a livestream of the stories and participating on Twitter and be part of the conversation, and that’s where the really interesting dynamic happens.

Do you find that the online conversation creates a demand for the in-person event? I think it’s symbiotic, so I don’t think of it as either/or, I think of it as integrated. It’s about our ability to exchange ideas and be connected. There’s a time where being together in the same place really helps us to cement our relationship and strengthen it, and then there are times when it’s really not necessary.

Innovation Junkies Welcome

The audience at the in-person BIF Summit is limited to about 550 people — a good fit for the venue, Trinity Repertory Company’s Lederer Theater Center in downtown Providence. “If the objective is community and engagement, the last thing you want is a huge hall with 2,000 people there,” said BIF’s Saul Kaplan. “We want a manageable number of people, where what I call the interstitial space — the breaks between the sessions — become the real magic of the conference.”

Attendees are also highly “curated,” according to Kaplan. “The people that come to our conference are there for the right reason,” Kaplan said. “They’re there because they understand what the expectations are and that the onus is going to be on them to engage and participate. They go because they’re going to be surrounded by 500-plus what I call ‘innovation junkies’ — people who are already pre-wired to change stuff, to transform stuff, and they’re not the cynics or skeptics that are looking for 8,000 reasons we can’t change.”


Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.