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One day, Larry Harvey and Jerry James dragged a wooden man onto Baker Beach in San Francisco, and burned it amongst a small group of friends. Burning Man was born.

What started out as a small gathering turned into an annual gathering, and global community bringing together 70,000 people every year at the annual Burning Man festival, and thousands more at events hosted in dozens of countries around the world.

It’s incredible to see how Burning Man could spread so far around the world, and reach so many people, with such a small team. Of course, it’s only possible because of the hundreds of regional organizers who took on the core values of Burning Man, and built their own events.

This is how you scale community. You distribute control to your community members.

The concept of distributing control to local community organizers certainly isn’t new. It’s been used by religions and governments for thousands of years. And in the digital age, this format has fueled well-known communities like TedX, Startup Grind, Creative Mornings, Daybreaker, Startup Weekend, and The Dinner Party.

Now the same playbook that has worked for so many communities throughout history is being successfully implemented by brands.

Duolingo, the language learning app that offers 68 different language courses across 28 languages and has about 200 million registered users, is a great example. Today Duolingo hosts 14,000 events every year, and they do all of this with a community team of just 3 people. They do it by distributing control to their community members, who self organize events and experiences that remain true to Duolingo’s brand and values. That’s incredible… hundreds of thousands of passionate users are engaging, in person, around Duolingo’s brand.

By democratizing your brand, and distributing power to your most loyal community members, you unlock incredible growth potential, for you are no longer limited by the bandwidth of your core team. You can spark a movement and build in-person brand engagement at scale.

These programs are often called Customer-to-Customer (C2C) marketing programs. They’ve become a critical part of community strategies at companies like Salesforce, reddit, Asana, Atlassian, Facebook, and Docker. More of these programs are launching up every day.

It’s been universal knowledge in business that the most powerful form of marketing is word-of-mouth. 92% of consumers say they trust recommendations from friends and family over any other form of advertising. With in-person community programs, these companies are building valuable trust networks, and spending much less than they do on other channels to reach the same amount of people.

There’s never been a better time for brands to focus on building community. People are seeking connection and belonging at increasing rates as loneliness is on the rise. And community is absolutely critical for human health and happiness. A recent paper showed that people who focused on social interaction had a more positive effect on life satisfaction than losing weight, and exercising more. Research consistently shows conversing in person makes us happier—we speak longer, and laugh more.

Social media was meant to connect the world, but somehow left us feeling more isolated and alone. reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian recently said, “We’ve hit peak social. What people seem to be clamoring for more and more now is community.”

That’s why brands have an unprecedented opportunity to build real meaningful community that gives people a true sense of belonging, and drives meaningful impact for the business.

The value of community to a business is so much more than just loyalty. Loyalty and retention are the table stakes. The real opportunity is in empowering those loyal customers to take action and contribute to the brand mission. They can do that by creating gatherings, online and in-person.

A number of new platforms have cropped up to help businesses run these programs at scale. Bevy (CMX was recently acquired by Bevy), Meetup Pro, Eventbrite Communities, and Splash are a few of the most popular options.

The power of these tools are that you can give your local chapter leaders control over their own events, while keeping your brand consistent. Perhaps most importantly, you can access, organize, and control permissions for attendee data, to make sure it’s secure, and to give your organizations insights into how your community members are engaging with your brand and with each other around the world.

How can you launch a C2C program for your business?

C2C Programs generally require a few key assets:

  1. Ready and motivated community members who are excited to host local events
  2. A platform for your members to launch and grow their local communities
  3. An application and interview process for vetting hosts to ensure value alignment
  4. A playbook and onboarding process to guide your hosts on how to successfully run events
  5. A dedicated community team focused on activating and supporting local hosts

Most brands start with just a few chapters to get the model right, and then scale up from there. It’s important to figure out the right recommended format for your events. You can recommend fireside chats, presentations, roundtables, panels, drinkups, breakfasts, or any other event format that aligns with the goals and culture of your community.
Brands will often provide their local hosts with a basic package of swag and signage to use for their events as well. Hosts are often rewarded for their continued commitment with perks, access to unique experiences, early access to new products and features, and sometimes compensation. Many brands also organize larger gatherings to bring their hosts together, like Google does with their Google Developer organizers at the annual GDG Summit, and Facebook does with the annual Facebook Communities Summit.

The motivation for these volunteers is rarely monetary, if ever. They love the brand, and are craving an opportunity to connect with others. They want to learn together, and support each other. They want real community.

I expect we’re going to see C2C programs become a staple amongst community teams, which has me really excited. These programs are clear, measurable examples of the true value of community.

Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

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