Episode 10: Community, Events, And Going Global With Liz King

BIDC 10 | Meeting Planning Industry

When the pandemic hit the world in 2020, the entire meeting planning industry entered a brand new era. What has once focused on face-to-face interactions now transitioned to virtual gatherings. This offers both opportunities and challenges in expanding a business around the world. Megan Martin talks with community and event expert Liz King who discusses how their business underwent several iterations before bringing their content to a global audience. She explains how they create subspaces within their community to touch both lurkers and highly engaged members. Liz also talks about the right ways to leverage technology in managing digital communities and how to experiment with content creation to ensure consistent engagement.


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Community, Events, And Going Global With Liz King

Welcome, everyone, to another wonderful episode. We are thrilled to have another community and event expert with us, Liz King Caruso. Welcome, Liz.

Thank you for having me.

We're so excited. Tell us a little bit about you and your company. Where are you based in the US? Tell us about Liz.

I live in New York, about an hour North of New York City. I do two main things. One is event planning for our clients. We mostly work with thought leaders and people who have communities of their own to host events for them and plan their events. It was mostly conferences, networking events, and things like that. We have also been building a community of our own since 2010 when we started the company. It's designed for event planners.

We host an annual conference called techsytalk GLOBAL. That is a space for event planners to learn about technology and more forward-thinking ideas. We do have an ongoing community where we share resources. We have a larger community that's open to the whole industry and a smaller one that's specific only to event planners, which is our more niche group. We do both of those things and love the work that we get to do every day. It's a fast-paced moving beast that we're trying to tame all the time, but it's fun.

That's awesome. You've been building a community since 2010. You were one of the first to build your community for your clients and the meeting planning industry as a whole. One of the things we talked about in our prep call was the many iterations of your community. Start from the beginning. In 2010 when you were thinking about a community, what did that look like? What does it look like now? What have the last few years of your community-building looked like?

If you remember, in 2010, what was popular back then was Meetup.com and things like that. That's how our community started. It was in New York. It's very local and all in person. It was designed around building relationships. For me, it started because I was new to the industry and everything events. I wanted to get to know people in New York. I was young and single. I didn't care. I was out every night. I was like, "Let's meet some people and figure out what's going on." We were doing these monthly events at a venue or a different location, and we would bring planners together.

It became that Meetup format where we were building a list of people who had come to our events and them know about the next one. We were making great relationships. There was even back then a digital component because when we did our first conference, which was in 2010, we did livestream it because there were people who were part of our community, even in the New York area, who couldn't come. There would be people in Connecticut and New Jersey. It was still fairly local. Over the years, we have tried to go to all these different places.

We have built our newsletter, which is the mailing list of the people who have come over time. That evolved. We have a Facebook group. We have done a LinkedIn group and a Slack channel. We now have evolved to a hybrid of a Facebook community and something called Circle. I don't know how familiar people are with that. We're trying to be where people are to some extent, which is why we still have the Facebook community, but over the years, we have realized the challenge of being tied to social networks. There are a lot of challenges. I'm sure you know.

Let's talk about that. I want to dive into that for a second because it's something I hear a lot when talking to our customers or even prospects. They're like, "We have a Facebook group. That's a community." I'm like, "You don't own any of that information. You can moderate it and control the conversation, but at the end of the day, that platform owns that community. It's not your community." Talk to me a little bit about some of the challenges, and then we will dive back into your timeline of building because I'm fascinated by it. This is a hot topic. More people need to talk about why sometimes building on a social platform isn't the best way. It's a great way to start a community, but in long-term strategies, it's not the best.

The first point is exactly what you said, which is that you don't own the community. With Facebook, for example, we have hacked it because there are three questions that you can ask people before they can join. One of them is an email address. Otherwise, you don't even know how to communicate with the people in your community. They're in there, and then you post something. The last statistic I heard, at least, was that when you post something in a community, 8% see it in their newsfeed. Facebook wants you to pay to reach the rest of your audience through ads and promoting your posts, and all these things. They're making their money that way.

You're at the mercy of the algorithm.

The truth is people are opting in. It always made me crazy that Facebook and other social platforms make you pay to reach people who have already opted in. I could see if you want to grow your audience, but that's not even the issue. The other thing is that habits do change. Facebook, for example, has been around for a long time. We are seeing more of our audience who are leaving Facebook. They're going towards other platforms, which are great for communities like TikTok and Instagram, but they're not great from an organizer standpoint and being able to understand who's in it and where are they, and for them to know where your community is. That is a huge challenge.

The other thing is knowing what you want to do from a value standpoint and what you want to provide to your community. Facebook and other platforms don't always make that easy. For example, we have tons of past content. We would love to be able to share the videos, tag them, and let people dive in and find stuff that's relevant. It's a dump on Facebook. It's not organized. There's no great member directory. We can't let people search for another planner in New York who they might be able to partner with. There's a lot of flexibility that we get from a different platform that we don't get from any social platform.

I agree with all of those things. Back to your timeline, we're established now. You have your Facebook group. You're connecting people beyond New York. When did your big global conference start coming into play with the community? How did that fit into the strategy?

It started as PlannerTech. We did it twice a year for two years. That was a small in-person New York event, although we did livestream it. That was back in 2010 and 2011. We decided to turn it into a full-day conference. We changed it into techsytalk. That eventually became the whole company name. Even our event planning runs through that now.

We called it techsytalk GLOBAL when the pandemic hit because then, we did it virtually. We started seeing our community. We already built the community globally because we had these Facebook groups, Slack groups, and stuff from 2016. That's when the conference took on that more global perspective because we didn't do any in-person component. We still, at this point, are not doing it in person.

That's interesting. Talk a little bit about expanding the reach beyond the New York area. I've never lived in New York, but I've been familiar with techsytalk and all of that as you started to expand outside. I've learned about you for a couple of years in your community. When you started thinking about global, how did that inclusive approach still play into your community? The purpose of the show is to talk about inclusivity. That's a lot of what community is.

We want to push the narrative further than, "We invited everyone to the party." That's not so inclusive if I don't feel like I belong at the party. It's nice to be invited but is that my people and place? Am I comfortable going there? That is the heart of inclusivity. When you started thinking globally, how did that play? Were you intentional about who you were inviting? What types of people were coming? You have the whole world, not just the New York Metro area. How did that factor? I can only imagine it was a lot.

We built this community in New York. People kept joining it. It didn't matter if they were from New York or not. It was around 2016 or 2017 when we started looking at the list and saying, "There are people from all over the world in this group. We should take this into consideration." At that point, all of our events were still in person. In 2020, we decided, "This is going to be fully virtual. We're going to do something for this global community." We rebranded as techsytalk GLOBAL.

There are a lot of other things that you think about. Time zones are one. You're trying to offer things at the most optimal time zones as possible and also making the on-demand content instantly available so that if someone was waking up or they were in meetings all day, they were able to quickly tune in and not feel like they have missed a lot that other people in the community have already taken on.

BIDC 10 | Meeting Planning Industry
Meeting Planning Industry: Companies that go global must know how to handle different time zones and make on-demand content instantly available.

We partnered with a company called Wordly in 2021 for our techsytalk GLOBAL conference to translate in real-time. At that time, there were sixteen-plus languages. All of our conference content was in a transcript but then also offered these languages. We had an ASL interpreter. We started spending a lot more attention, "Can everyone participate? Is it in a way that everyone can handle?" We have always done fast-paced short sessions.

We're also thinking through. In 2022, one of the things we're doing, which is another level of inclusivity and not necessarily specific to the global piece, is we're partnering with StoryCraft Lab on their Experience Profiles. We're having everyone take this quiz. It tells you what kind of experience you prefer. We're tagging all of our sessions. We will be delivering to people. It's no surprise. I'm a thinker, "Here are the sessions at techsytalk GLOBAL that will most resonate with you."

We took some time in our agenda planning to weigh, "Is there enough for a creator, a seeker, and a thinker?" We're offering different kinds of networking experiences. Out of the three-day conference coming up in 2022, we have one that's spatial networking, one that's one-to-one speed dating format, and one that's more of an open Zoom type. Everyone can chat so that people can tune in not only at the times that work for them but in the ways they most enjoy receiving the content.

I'm not surprised that you're a thinker. I am a seeker. I'm looking for a StoryCraft Lab experience this summer at EduCon. I still have my little thing right here on my desk that I reference every once in a while. I love that you're thinking not just about making the content accessible and inclusive for everybody to access but also for their learning styles. I did a poll on LinkedIn. I said, "How do you like to consume your thought leadership content?" It was listening, reading, and participating. There were four options. Listening was the highest one, which surprised me a little bit, but that goes to how everybody wants it a little bit differently.

I have some people on our staff that respond well when they get video messages. Instead of sending an email, I'll record a quick video and send it off as opposed to the email. We have other people that have journalism backgrounds. They're like, "Don't send me a video. I'm not going to listen to it." If I write them a five-paragraph email, they will get every nugget out of that email. I love that you are approaching it that way. Are you still focused on event planner-specific for your community and outreach?

Our largest community is the techsytalk community, which is open to anyone in the industry. It's not planner-specific. There's a ton of value in something like that. In our smaller communities or the collaborative, we found, for example, that people are saying, "We want to build our community. What platform should we use in the community? It's every platform. We could do it."

It's not what planners want to know. They want to know what another planner has used and liked. We get more of that conversation in a safer space to say, "This contract is going awry. How can I save it for my clients?" It's important to us to build both. Our focus is continuing to grow both from an engagement standpoint and not necessarily from the number of people.

I love that. The other piece of the community is that a lot of people want to be inclusive, and that means inviting everyone. To truly be inclusive, you have to exclude some people from your community. This is not a target audience for you. You're creating those subgroups. You have your big techsytalk community, but then there's a space for planners to engage. That is at the core of inclusion. The community is like, "We might be part of the bigger ecosystem, but I still have my very individual interests within that." Part of the community is creating those subspaces for people to have those moments. Are there any other subgroups or subcategories within your community that you focus on?

Not specifically.

That is exactly the right approach. It's awesome. When you think about future growth with your community, what does that look like? You hit on how it's not about the number of people but the number of engagements. How do you measure that? What does growth look like? Where do you want this community to go in the future?

Our biggest focus in terms of growth is growing off social media platforms and making sure that as many people as possible know that is a space that happens. Engagement is another big thing that we're focused on. We're thinking about the quantity of content and delivery of the method. We have, up to this point, been doing monthly events. Everyone can tune in.

Can you clarify? Is that in person or digital?

It's all virtual. Even that is a lot for people because there's so much content out there. We're playing with it, "Should it be a little less frequent?" On top of that, we're layering this in. One thing that we do is every call that we have is recorded. We shared the video and the audio, and then we also had a CliffNotes version from someone who was physically there, taking notes of what happened and then the transcript so that people could digest it the way they wanted.

One of our growth tactics is to look at analytics around those four types and see what it is that people are doing, "Are they listening to the podcast for techsytalk GLOBAL?" We're going to release all of the session content as its podcast so that people can binge-listen through twenty sessions and see it. That's the way a lot of people like to consume their content. We're focused on the quality of the interactions. Potentially from that, we're being able to raise the price because we can offer more value with a highly engaged and targeted community.

I love all of that. One of the other things you're doing in talking about the data and putting out the different ways to consume one piece of content is you get very experimental with a lot of the things you do. One thing I love about techsytalk is you try a lot of different things to see. One conversation I have pretty frequently is people get afraid to get experimental with their community.

They think that they have to set a strategy and then stick to it for a long period to even know if it's working. I'm not sure that's the best approach. Where do you find the balance between having consistency? We were talking about your weekly talk show that a group of you do but also getting experimental with doing CliffNotes, microcontent, or different types of content. Where do you find that balance between the two?

I have a hard time with it because I like a lot of new ideas. I like to try a lot of different things.

That's why you're a thinker.

We have always operated our business from a lean startup model. Start small, build it fast, and change all the time. There is some merit, especially in a community, to the consistency of what to expect. Here's what I have found, even with our weekly podcast. I did my podcast weekly for three years. I had to look at the numbers and say that people are not putting this on their calendar and thinking, "Liz is going to be live in three minutes. I have to watch that."

They're listening to the audio. We ended up taking it off and doing it audio only. It's a fine balance between deciding what you think is the best strategy based on all the information that you have, sticking with it for a short term, meaning three months at a minimum, looking intently at the data to see whether or not that's something, and not being afraid a month and a half in to say, "I thought this was the way, but we're getting zero engagements. We need to shift." I don't think there's a right answer. It's a dance or an art of what you think is right.

BIDC 10 | Meeting Planning Industry
Meeting Planning Industry: Some strategies are only good for the short term. If something gets zero engagements, you need to drop it and make a shift.

Even in this Circle community that we have that's of social media, I know as a brand hosting the community that this is where we need to be to offer the value that we want. Convincing people to go there, spend time there, and remember to go there is a whole other piece. That's where our commitment has come in. You know, "This is where we need to be. I'm going to stick with it no matter how much resistance we get," but on the other side, you're being flexible to change when you start to get the vibe that it's not going to work.

Talk to me about some of the stuff you've gotten experimental or maybe one thing that was a huge success that you're still doing and maybe something that like failed miserably that you abandoned quickly.

One of the interesting things that worked well was these open-format discussions. What I would do is assign a topic that was based on a poll that I would do the week before, like, "What's on your mind?" I would choose some topics based on what has been in the feed. People can add topics and vote for them. Whatever one, that was the topic. There was no moderator other than me. I had nothing to talk about. We would say, "You said you wanted to talk about contracts. What are we talking about?"

It was by far the most engaging and successful event type that we have done. We have also tried sponsored content. We have tried content that is important. I bring in speakers to give more structure to the conversation. It never gets the same attendance or engagement. That's something that we tried that worked well. We have tried a lot of things that don't work well at all.

A big fail that we had was knowing how to communicate what's happening to our community because people are signing up on Facebook, LinkedIn, this place, and that place. Behind the scenes, my tiny team and I are like, "This person signed up. Are they in the newsletter? Are they here or there?" We had some success using Google invites to hold the time because people are saying, "I missed it on Facebook that you created an event for this monthly thing. I missed it over here." They're not participating.

For our techsytalk GLOBAL conference, we sent out calendar invites to the people on our list. I don't even know what happened, but it started sending invites twenty at a time in people's inboxes. I was getting all these emails, "I don't know why I'm getting so many invites from you." I'm like, "I don't either." I don't know if it was the technology. I don't know what we were doing because we hadn't touched it. We ended up having to delete it.

I had thousands of emails in my inbox because I started getting all the bounce backs from people getting too many emails. I'm sure my email is blacklisted in the industry or something. It's a huge issue, but that is a challenge for us. It's communicating what's happening with the people who, at some point, have opted in and knowing for them whether they're in or out. We know whether they're in or out. We have not solved that problem for sure.

The main challenge of businesses going global is communicating with the people who have opted into the community to determine if they are still in or already out.

"Do you even want to hear from us? Are you ghosting?" It's this weird dating game that you're playing with your community members.

You have so many workers, which is a good thing. You mentioned that people like to listen. We don't know. The data is not that specific like, "Liz is listening all the time. She just doesn't talk." I'm like, "I don't know if you're listening or you hate us." It's a challenge.

I had this conversation with another community manager about the balance between having super-engaged members and then having also lurkers because it takes both of them to have a vibrant ecosystem. If you even think about the food chain ecosystem, if we're going to get granular about this, not everyone can be a lion going out there and eating everyone. You have to have bunny rabbits too. It takes both lurkers and super-engaged members to have a robust community.

I love that you hit on both of them and still engage those lurkers because they don't want to be forgotten about because they don't participate. There's still value. They maybe don't want to raise their hand. That's okay. Here are the last couple of questions. It's a great transition. One thing you hit on was involving your community in the decision-making process around topics and content. You mentioned that you pool your community for the weekly talks. How else do you leverage them to help drive the direction of where the community is going to go?

A lot of it is harnessing their knowledge. One of the things I'm very conscious about doing is whenever I have a business challenge, an event, or something that I need, I make sure that I'm asking our community first about it and creating opportunities for them to provide their knowledge and value. Other people do it and ask, but as the person who posted, it's important that I'm not always the one giving the answers but that I am constantly saying, "We had this issue. Does anyone have an idea? I'm looking for someone who can work on this project."

That's one thing. It's finding ways for people to get together. For example, when we staff our events, the first request is always in that group, "Who's available at this location or this city?" It's also for natural meetups being able to make sure people are connecting with each other when they go to events or with us when we go to an event. They can meet up with us. The other thing in terms of letting the community drive, and this is something we're focused on a lot for 2023, is having them be a part of driving the content in a more practical sense.

We're hiring a few of them as community managers who can say, "This month, the topic should be this." They can run with it and choose the speaker or decide they don't want a speaker or whatever the format is and be able to set all of that up and run it. It's a key for me in terms of growth, but it's also a big way. It's important to make sure that they see the value and get value for being so engaged in the community. The community will value that, "It's yet another planner who's on this team and giving some content and sharing their insights."

They're becoming your community advisory board. We have those elsewhere. I love that. Here's the last question as we're rounding out. We have talked a lot about different platforms, how to engage your community, different ideas, and how to pool your members in, but how do you leverage technology to accomplish all of this? You are somewhat platform-agnostic. You explore a lot of different ones. In my opinion, a lot of planners lead first like, "Let me find the technology." I've always had the approach of, "This is what I needed to be done. Let me find the technology that achieves that," versus, "This is the platform I like. Let's build around what it's capable of." How do you approach technology in your community to achieve those goals?

It's super complicated because we're constantly changing platforms, trying new things, and doing things. I've been an advocate of what you're saying. Know where you want your community to be and what the non-negotiables are. You want to provide X, Y, and Z. I mentioned things earlier, like the member community or a video library. Whatever it is for your community, know what those things are and then look for the technology that supports that. You want to find something that, first of all, most aligns with what you're looking for and, second of all, has an amazing team that you love working with because there's always going to be some technical glitch. There's always going to be something that doesn't quite fit. You need to build around it.

Businesses with a global audience must always have an amazing team who can address technical glitches in the technology they use.

You're sending thousands of Gmail calendar invites.

I don't have a rep at Google, but I wish I did. You need someone who can call in those panic moments. They can help you work through it. They're going to say, "We can do 95% of what you need, but we're going to have to build around this 5%." You need someone that you can trust and who knows what the heck they're doing when they do that. You are looking for at least an 85% direct fit with what you want. I don't think you're going to get that technology 100% all the time, but you don't want 40% or 50% or those companies that are like, "We don't do that, but we could shift our technology and do it this way. We could build this and that." It usually doesn't work out well, in my experience.

I don't disagree with that. As technology evolves and your community is evolving and moving from platform to platform with your community but still connecting them, what is their response to that? We see that a lot now where they're like, "We started small over here, but I'm worried if we migrate to a new system or platform that I'm going to lose people because they already know where to find me here on the Facebook group, page, or something like that," to then move them into a robust with their platform like your Circle. What is the community response to that as you're evolving with the times and the tech?

You will lose people. What I've learned over the years is that it's more my issue wanting a certain number of people in our community than it is the people's issue as long as we have communicated it and said, "This is what we're going to do. We're going to do it. Here we go. We're doing it. Everyone, come along. Reminder, you've been invited. We're here." If they ignore all of that, or they don't care or get it, they weren't that involved in the first place.

We have almost now used that as a filter. We also communicate with our community to know, "This is what we do. We're going to keep evolving, moving, and taking you where we think is the best. You have to trust us with that." We have done crazy things like unsubscribing people, sending them an email, and saying, "If you don't respond to this, then you will be unsubscribed from the list." We're constantly filtering. To the point earlier of not being so worried about quantity in your group, if you want the core people who are involved, and that's where the value is, then you don't have to drive yourself so crazy about losing whatever percent is not paying any attention to what you're doing.

You likely could have lost them at any point along the way, anyway. I love that you use that as the filter.

You've lost them if they don't see that you're moving. No one is going to say it once and then be done with it. You're sending multiple things and communicating in different ways, and they're not getting the message. You've already lost them. They just happen to be a name on your list.

That makes a lot of sense. Here's the final question. We're wrapping up. What are your final thoughts or advice for someone who wants to start a community or an organization? Someone got voluntold, "We need a community for our organization. Build one for us." Is there any advice for those people just starting into the event and community space?

I love those voluntold scenarios. The biggest thing is to focus on why someone would want to be part of your community. What is the value that you're offering? Sometimes the biggest thing is to push back and say, "It's not a good idea." That does not mean I don't think people should be starting communities, but there are a billion out there. There are a lot of brands trying to push into that space to sell a product. That's not a good reason to start a community, in my opinion. Understand what you are offering that someone would need to the point where they want to see it all the time, 365 days in their inboxes and their social channels. If there's something there, then start small and stay consistent.

The biggest thing about a community is its longevity. You are not going to build 5,000 engaged members overnight. It's going to take you years to get to those numbers. It's constant. Everything from here to ten years from now is an iteration. It's constantly changing, but consistency is the purpose and the value of the group and who's in the group in terms of the target market.

You have to stay consistent with that. It's easy to get discouraged, especially these days in the community game, because there are so many people moving around so much but if you have a conviction as to why what you're creating is a space that people need to be a part of, then you need to keep pushing until you get the right people in the group. If you have to iterate 1,000 times to get the right people in that group, that's fine but don't give up quickly because it's a long game for sure.

I love your advice about starting small and staying consistent. That's the key to success with any organization that wants to start a community. That's great advice for someone starting. Liz, thank you so much. This was an amazing conversation. We have talked about all different kinds of things, starting a community, good things about it, bad things about it, and experimental things. I want to thank you for your time. It was a lovely conversation. I hope to have you on a future episode to catch in and see what's happening with your community.

Thank you so much.

Thanks, everyone, for reading. We will see you in the next episode. Have a great day.

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About Liz King

BIDC 10 | Meeting Planning Industry

Liz King Caruso is an Event Strategist, Consultant and Speaker. As CEO of Liz King Events and techsytalk, Liz is an active event strategist while also educating & building community for other planners. In the past 10+ years of business, she has helped many businesses and thought leaders grow their audience and sell their products through in-person, virtual & hybrid events. She also has worked with thousands of event professionals to help them reskill and embrace technology as a driver of change in our industry.

Liz has been named one of the 25 Most Influential People in the Events Industry, Top 5 Women in Event Tech, 21 Most Influential Women in Events and Top 50 Virtual Meeting and Events Innovators, amongst others.

She is passionate about innovation, collaboration and meaningful work and loves working with Associations, Businesses and Event Planners to support their growth and learning. You can catch her online at @lizkingevents, on her podcast, “The Event Hustler Show”, or in one of her free monthly events through the techsytalk Collaborative.