Scott Heiferman
Scott Heiferman

As the CEO and co-founder of Meetup, Scott Heiferman understands the difference between shallow community and deep community. And he’s full of community engagement tips to help achieve the latter.

Today, over 20 million people create community as members of local Meetups. The communities range from small local parenting groups to large corporate-sponsored communities.

Scott started the company after 9/11, after watching local communities come together in the aftermath of tragedy. Since 2002, he has seen organizations emerge and businesses thrive when community grows.

“It’s hard to imagine some of the best and most successful organizations existing without a real sense of community around them — without people having the intense passion that only comes from when there is that connection and community going on. That’s not just the Apples. It’s all kinds of organizations.”

But people often mix up deep and shallow communities, mistaking one-way marketing communications with deep connection among members.

“In most instances of when people say the word ‘community,’ they’re using it wrong. It comes down to this: if you’re not actually getting people to talk to each other, then it’s not really a community and you’re not really a community builder.”

It’s as simple as that: We must strive to make deep cross-connections between our members at every turn. Today, we give you Scott’s tips for how to deepen community engagement through the eyes of someone who has given community tools to over 20 million people.

How do we strengthen our communities to build unbreakable companies? Try these tips right away.

1. Community is how the story of “me” becomes the story of “we”

Everyone has a story to tell. Bringing people together and letting them tell theirs is the most fundamental act of a deep community builder.

“This basic principle of giving people a chance to tell their story to a group, that’s what is powerful,” says Scott. That way, the story of ‘me’ can become the story of ‘we.’ You need to get out of the way enough for people to create community together.”


2. Don’t think of yourself as just an event organizer

When you’re bringing people together in person for the first time, it’s easy to get bogged down in details. Sure, the details matter: event logistics, venue, food, seating arrangements. These are all important facets of an event experience, but don’t forget the most important question to ask when community-building: Will people talk to each other?

“Event organizers are amazing, but remember that we’re talking about community, not just events. Events aren’t necessarily communities. What is community-building? It’s basic leadership: Lead people to be powerful together around a common purpose or vision.”

It’s not about getting all the details perfect. Instead, “just get people talking.”


3. Create a space for people to be open to others

“I heard Seth Godin say: the person sitting next to you is smarter than you…about something,” says Scott.

He put this idea into action in his inspiring talk at CMX Summit East last year, asking us all to ask our neighbors what they could do better than anyone else.

“Your job as a community builder is to get people to be open enough to realize that these other people around them are not strangers to fear but rather that people’s intentions are probably good, and good things happen when people connect.”


4. Want Meetups in many cities? Think of each city not as independent islands, but as co-leaders in something bigger

“In thinking about building a network of communities around an organization, the key thing to realize is that people can get inspired by what’s going on in other cities. How do people in one city see what another city is doing, take the good of it, evolve it and do something new and better?”

“I see this in Meetup: Vanessa Hurst and Sara Chipps started Girl Develop It in NYC. It has blossomed into 46 cities and they had a summit of all the organizers recently. The women who’ve started the 41st, 42nd, etc. are not alone. It makes it safe. You’re not starting it from scratch. It’s powerful when these communities don’t feel like independent islands but something bigger.

“Just declare that it’s happening. A Meetup doesn’t have to be a big thing. Many of my favorites are the small ones.”


5. To get people to talk, just declare that people are already talking

“It’s not that hard because people are hungry for it. From a practical standpoint, conversations on Facebook pages do work, they do a good thing. It doesn’t work for every brand or prospective community builder.”

But to really take things to the next level, start conversations and tell people that they’re happening. Just declare that they’re already there. You’ll be surprised by the results.


6. Think of people in circles, not rows

When you’re visualizing your community – both offline and online – think of them as sitting in circles, facing one another. They’re not in rows, facing you; they should cross-connect and be open to one another.

“There is a distinction between community being a bunch of people with a shared interest who don’t talk to each other and those who do talk to each other.”

“Most often, people will use the word community to say ‘We have this many followers.’ But they’re not actually talking to  each other online or off. Ask yourself: Are people connecting, collaborating, communicating?” If not, you don’t have a real community on your hands.

“Ultimately, a community is people in a circle as opposed to people in rows.”


7. Space matters. Large companies can benefit from this

“One thing I’ve never shared about Meetup’s start: I remember reading in the NYTimes Mag in 2001 about a club of old men who met up at the Walmart Cafe regularly and they had an affinity for Walmart because it played a critical function in a thing that was so valuable to their lives.”

Companies who are generous about hosting existing communities without putting in any extra work often get the benefit of brand love as a result of their generosity. Take that into consideration and open up the space you have to communities. You might notice that you have made some customers for life.


8. Take cues from communities outside startups

Often, we can get the most inspiration from those outside our own circles. Many of us build tech-focused communities, and it’s easy to look to others within our sphere. But we should maintain open minds about who we draw ideas from.

“Look to religion, for example. I’m a fan of pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. The work that he does to build community around pastors from Christian churches is phenomenal,” he says.

“His community is shares lessons with each other, has gatherings of pastors around the world, bringing pastors together. They have a common purpose. They know what they belong to. Definitely a sense of purpose, mission, and vision.”


9. Look toward developer evangelists for inspiration.

Another great group to look to for inspiration? Developer evangelists. Many developer communities are getting deep community right.

“I’ve been paying attention to the Google Developer Communities a lot. All the Android developers are brought together. It’s exceptionally global.”

Startup Stock Photos

10. Community is everything.

In the business world, community should be a no-brainer. I asked Scott how he would justify spending money on community at a large corporation that had never budgeted for community before. His take on it is that this is almost a reductive question that businesses ask of community hires.

“The most valuable things in life are the serendipity that happens as a result of the connections that you create… It’s hard to imagine some of the best and most successful organizations existing without a real sense of community around them — without people having the intense passion that only comes from when there is that connection and community going on.”

“Community has an incredible value,” he says. No qualifications needed.

kids laughing

Try Scott’s community engagement tips in your own communities, and watch your community relationships deepen! For more tips on community engagement, check out the conversation in the CMX Community.

Image Credit: Hyku

Carrie Melissa Jones

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