Building Community: The Power of Creative Contrarianism

Written by Arianna Rehak on February 26, 2018

This is a piece about collaboration. I want to share my experience creating our interactive virtual summit, SURGE – an event that was not just designed to inspire and incite collaboration between attendees, but was itself truly a product of collaborative efforts.

We hosted this virtual summit in early November, assembling thousands of association professionals online for three days of exclusive sessions, forum discussions, and speaker-attendee interaction. The positive feedback from the event has been overwhelming, and has in fact prompted the creation of an online course which will soon be available to help others create their own SURGEs (although we’ve exhausted most of the SURGE-related wordplay opportunities so you might want to find your own name!). This article is partly a response to people’s interest in the project, but I have my own agenda too – which will become clear as you read on.

Before SURGE 2017 took any tangible form, I had a collection of ideas. Were I to remain in a bubble with these ideas, and create the summit from inside its iridescent walls, SURGE would absolutely not have been the same.

The community-driven nature of AssociationSuccess.org allowed me to have access to bright, brilliant (and brave!) people, who came together to form the volunteer team behind SURGE’s success.

I say they were brave, because I needed a group that was going to tell me the truth, and that meant that I needed contrarians: people willing to be honest, to be constructive, and to tell me what I needed to hear. And in fact, thanks to my contrarian team, there were two separate times when a group discussion completely transformed the direction of the summit, for the better.

In the first instance, I went to a group (previously established as a Mastermind group who were at that point meeting monthly) when I was first hit by the fledgling notion of a virtual summit.

At the time, AssociationSuccess.org was still fairly green, and I initially saw an event like SURGE as a way of bringing attention to what the organization could accomplish. I shared my enthusiasm and ambitions about a virtual event: there was the potential, I thought, to extend our reach significantly.

In general, virtual summits tend to consist of an event day during which a certain number of recordings will be exclusively available for registrants. There is a sense of urgency, because access is limited to that day – and then after the event, there will usually be an excited announcement about extending the period for a month or so. While conversion might be fairly low, the goal is to build you list – and virtual summits expand your network substantially.

After I dropped my thoughts upon the group, there was silence. Finally, “Nobody is going to show up.” She clarified, “there is so much association content out there; it won’t differentiate you.”

And then out of the silence, a beautiful (beautiful!) thing happened. The group began, organically, workshopping the idea together. Out of the discussion emerged a new concept: an online event in which attendees can communicate with each other in a chat, along with a speaker Q&A to maximize interaction and engagement. Thus was born the beginnings of SURGE 2017.

The second moment of creative contrarianism occurred months later. I was meeting with a team I had asked to advise me on the event, and after hearing my plans they issued me with a warning: with SURGE being free, there was no incentive for people to register immediately. Some would therefore never get around to it, but more importantly, I would be deprived of data on how well the event page was actually converting. My event was not going to inspire the rush of attendees I had anticipated, and I was not going to be able to understand how it was being received.

I was definitely deflated walking away from this conversation, but it forced me to start thinking about possible opportunities to create engagement ahead of time, and to establish SURGE as primarily a collaborative community event. From this, we developed ways in which people could begin participating in the summit before the fact: joining in forum discussions, watching videos from like-minded association professionals, and even contributing directly to the session content.

I can’t say if this directly led to people registering ahead of time, but I can say that people were revisiting the event page to communicate with each other. The conversations sparked in the forum, in fact, were so rich and insightful that they are being compiled into takeaways for our series of SURGE e-books. Having a platform for attendee input was enormously valuable for us, as an organic resource for relevant content that speaks to our community.

This story has two important implications:

1. Break out of your bubble.

Consult your members, confront your contrarians, and be prepared to hear “no.” I might have just been lucky (I know I was very lucky), but the contrarianism I encountered was incredibly constructive.

2. Make your creativity collaborative.

I discovered in this process that the more people involved in creating something, the stronger the bond between with members. Crowdsourcing ideas means that all sorts of people can make their mark on the product. When there is a question to ask, there are individuals within your membership eager to share answers – and problem solving just becomes a question of information gathering.

SURGE began as an experiment in, and ended up being a celebration of, collaborative innovation. The event itself was an offering of collaboration opportunities, but it was also born out of, shaped, and made possible by the assembling of creative contrarians.

Want to learn all the ins and outs of building an interactive virtual summit? I’m putting together an online course! You can learn more here.