Ever since my first job out of college, my life has centered around running events and conferences. I started as an events manager for the Online Marketing Institute. I quickly realized I wanted more autonomy over every level of event-planning and started my own event, Growth Marketing Conference, in 2015. I am obsessive about planning out the best tactics to ensure that attendees have “aha” inflection moments, memorable conversations, and interactions that might accelerate their career.
After 5 years of running an actionable, hands-on educational event for growth marketing leaders, COVID-19 brought the events industry to a grounding halt. For me this was an apocalyptic event: I was expecting this to be the end of events for the next 4 to 5 years. I had to figure out what was next.
Building on the Cloud
During the time I ran the Growth Marketing Conference, we often used virtual events as a top of funnel tool to build an audience and drive awareness around our in-person event in San Francisco.
As I ideated around what would be next, I realized that I could flip the previous model to ensure that the inflection moments and the value provided would be delivered virtually. This turned into Growth Blazers, an event-based, online community for modern marketers with a longer-term vision to create an advisory board to help startups scale.
The big vision for Growth Blazers is to connect and empower 1% of modern marketers and growth minded founders from around the world. We also believe that strategies and tactics used by Silicon Valley’s fastest-growing companies should be available to EVERYONE globally, especially to underrepresented folks from diverse backgrounds.
Scaling Growth Blazers
When I had just started Growth Blazers, I learned that On Deck had announced a Fellowship around community building. I saw the Community Builders Fellowship not only as an opportunity to network with and learn the strategies of others, but also to put myself in the shoes of a community member and experience how an online community with best practices operates.
Participating in the On Deck Community Builders Fellowship also highlighted the differences between events and online communities. Events are defined by your ability to curate an experience filled with potential moments where people’s lives are changed (finding a mentor, securing a partnership, getting invited to a mastermind, etc.). Online communities require you to create that aforementioned experience, but also ensure that people remain engaged on a recurring basis. Conferences generally last for a weekend, communities are built with a lifelong partnership in mind.
One fireside chat in particular comes to mind as far as holding the insights I was looking for. Erik Torenberg spoke about how On Deck went from a physical dinner series and retreat to an online fellowship. He emphasized that you really had no idea what would work unless you went out and tested it. He reflected on how it took 4 years to find the model that worked and how transitioning to a cohort based approach made all the difference.
To create a community that people would continuously engage with, you have to be extremely diligent about who you let in. You can’t control and monitor every individual conversation and interaction that happens within a community, so you have to solve it at the core of the problem and trust the people you let in. I had to ensure that our members felt like they had a safe place to share their ups and downs as they built together.
Given that online communities, especially those for marketers, are often filled with get-rich-quick schemes, toxicity and trolling, I created a set of community core values (Giving, Respectful, Empathy, Growth Mindset, Inclusion) that I would vet each new community member against.
The Future of Community Building
I was very incorrect in my initial prediction that the IRL world would be sidelined and impacted for the next 4-5 years. Now, everyone who has built an online community is trying to answer the question, “How are we going to incorporate the return to IRL?”
For Growth Blazers, I realized that all of our members crave 1:1 connection that our success can not only be online. The online community helped us create a model to be on top of member engagement and interaction, making the wins of the community visible to the community curators. Next, Growth Blazers will create high-impact in-person events and the online community will serve as a follow-up engagement platform so members can stay in touch and create alongside one another.
Even though the Fellowship has finished, I still participate in my mastermind group, where I found it incredibly beneficial to hone my leadership skills in helping manage and direct the discussion. I am also continuing to build alongside 8 other ODCB Fellows to are co-create Community Hacked, a community that started as a capstone project within ODCB.
Community Hacked is a collective producing a monthly event series where we bring on community builders and do a live case study with them. The guests answer only one question, “What is one proven community growth or engagement tactic that worked exceptionally well?” Afterwards, attendees discuss key takeaways in small groups.
Being a part of the On Deck Community inspired me to think differently about events, communities, learning, and collaboration.The most successful communities of the future will leverage in-person, virtual, and hybrid models to enable access not only to knowledge, but also to the results enabled through a professional network of like-minded Fellows.