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Community is the hot new buzzword in the events industry, and for a good reason. The ROI of building a community is staggeringly high. A thriving and engaged community can grow your revenue by hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s why this #EventIcons podcast has a very special guest, Erica Bishaf.

Erica is the founder and CEO of Campfire Social. She brings 20 years of experience with business strategy, market research & insights, and consulting. She’s an expert in building professional networks for member-based and attendee-driven organizations. Erica has helped organizations generate revenue ranging from half a million to over 6 million dollars. Today, she’ll talk about what community is, how to build it, and how to monetize it. Let’s jump in!

How Erica Got Started

Before they tackle the ROI of building an event community, Will asks Erica to share what got her to where she is today. 

“I spent the first 20 years of my career as a global strategist. Then in 2015, I decided to start consulting. I started consulting for event organizers,” Erica says. “Fast forward to 2020, I was a strategy director. Then covid hit. I was able to face the quick pivot from live to virtual head-on. It was a new challenge and I noticed some issues. The insights I picked up brought me to build up what is now Campfire Social.”

Erica continues: “At this time, community wasn’t the buzzword it is today. One of the biggest problems I saw was involving your exhibitors or sponsors. When exhibitors find they don’t get the value they need, they leave and take their content with them. When you lose exhibitors, you lose attendees and engagement,” she explains. “Community should represent everything from your attendees, members, staff, and students to your exhibitors.”

Trends Affecting Event Communities

Will is curious about what the future looks like for building event communities. “What are the big trends that you see affecting community moving forward?” he asks.

“I would say there are 4 big trends,” Erica responds. 

Integrated community. 

  • “The idea of an integrated community where the community is about a social network for your entire ecosystem to come together to network and share content.”

The Year-Round Membership Model.

  • “When you have an effective community, you can start selling subscriptions so they can access the network every single day of the year.”  

Integrating Community with Events.

  • “It’s not about thinking about engagement and interaction as silos anymore. We should have a hybrid approach that all interweaves together. Let the event content drive community discussion.”

The Community Model. 

  • Right now, there’s a lot of technology in the events world. You have the ecosystem approach or the all-in-one approach to building a community. There are different options for different organizations,” she explains.

The Strategy Behind Building An Event Community

Will leads us to the next topic. “Let’s talk about the larger idea of strategy. What’s the strategy for someone looking to create an annual event and build a year-round community behind it?”

Erica emphasizes the first step: understanding what strategy truly means. “A true strategy balances your organizational goals against your stakeholder needs. The first step is to start asking your organization questions,” says Erica. 

Here are some of the critical questions you should consider, according to Erica:

  • Do you need to attract younger generations?
  • Do you need to address sponsor churn?
  • Do you need to diversify our revenue stream?
  • How do you remain relevant in a virtual world?
  • Is business continuity an issue?

Erica continues: “A lot of organizations put about 60 – 80% of financial risk into one live event. These are real big business issues to think about. If you know what your stakeholders want, then you can begin balancing it against your organizational goals.”

“You talked a lot about engagement,” says Will. “I think the number one issue I hear from planners is, how do I drive engagement. I think a lot of people think they’ll just build a community and it will engage itself.” 

Erica finds it can take years to grow a community. “When we talk to our clients, we tell them they should not plan on building a community for today. You start building today, for 3 to 5 years from now. You also need a good community manager that has the vision and the skillset to get people engaged and excited to participate.” 

Let’s Talk Cost and Revenue 

Will finds that many people only consider building an event community as a software cost. “What costs do you think people need to be thinking about? We have the community manager and the platform; what other things should people think about?” asks Will. 

“Going back to the idea of integrating your exhibitors, they’re incentivized to produce content because they can leverage content to build relationships. You can leverage these exhibitors to help feed your ecosystem.” explains Erica. “If you plan and strategize very thoughtfully, you can monetize your ecosystem so that it won’t actually cost you a dime.”

“Let’s talk about revenue opportunities,” says Will. “We’ve talked about year-long membership fees. What do you think is a good amount for people to explore?

Erica thinks $10 or even $15 is a reasonable amount for users, resulting in significant revenue for a business. ”You don’t have to charge much to be able to generate meaningful money from these year-round membership fees,” she says.  

Will mentions upselling next. “I’m guessing you can upsell the conference in addition to the membership fee?”

“You can drive registration but there’s also organic revenue that comes from proper engagement. Maybe you have members that don’t attend live events but because they’ve enjoyed the networking they become first-time attendees because they want even more.” 

You can also generate revenue by providing exhibitors with valuable data. “Not personal data, but data that will help them understand how to be effective digital marketers on your platform,” explains Erica. “What drives the most clicks? That’s going to teach them what to post more of. Exhibitors pay money outside of your organization to understand what’s trending so monetize this. It’s not about just giving away names and email addresses but rather teaching them how to fish.”

The ROI of Building An Event Community

Finally, Will brings us to Erica’s impressive ROI numbers. “Can you talk through what these ROIs look like for people that are trying to build communities?” he asks.

“Of course, everything depends on the size of the organization, how many exhibitors you have, the size of your audience, that determines how much you can charge,” says Erica. “We’ve modeled anywhere from a half-million dollars a year for medium organizations all the way up to 1.8 and even 6 million dollars for large organizations. But it really depends.” 

Exhibitors Are More Than Just The Bottom Line

Erica leaves listeners with final advice. “Don’t forget the power of your exhibitors, beyond the fact that they help your bottom line. There is so much value that they want to give you. Interview them, ask them. They want to be able to broadcast their content to a wider audience.”

If you want to grow your community, she recommends checking out her very own Campfire Social blog. But above all resources, she recommends networking with your peers. There is strength in community

We hope you enjoyed today’s episode of #EventIcons with Erica Bishaf. Tune in next time for more insightful information from our iconic guests!

Will Curran

Author Will Curran

Information junkie, energetic, and work-a-holic are just some of the words we can use to describe Will Curran. Aside from spending 20 out of 24 hours a day working as the Chief Event Einstein of Endless Events, you can catch Will ordering a chai latte or watching The Flash with his cats. He is also well known for his love of all things pretzels.

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