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Private Member Communities: Your Running Shoes in the Race for Relevance

Written by Joshua Paul | on May 12, 2011 at 10:12 AM

Do you think most nonprofit membership organizations have to make radical changes in order to survive and thrive? Based on my experience with hundreds of associations, I'd say you that many do. Luckily, there are very smart, passionate people who have committed their careers to bringing tangible solutions to the association community.

How Private Member Communities Help in the Race for RelevanceYesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation by one such person. At the ASAE Idea Swap in Columbia, Maryland, Mary Byers spoke about the book she co-authored with Harrison Coerver, The Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations. The longer I listened to Mary the more excited I got for two reasons:

  1. She was addressing the major strategy issues that many associations don't have the product management experience to work through.
  2. She validated how private member communities can play a big part in helping associations overcome their significant challenges.

The following is a preview of the 6 pressures outlined in The Race for Relevance and how a private online member community can help.

1) Your Members Have No Time

By keeping members engaged on your online community website, email listservs, and mobile devices, members are able to access the support and information you are providing on their schedule using the format that they are most comfortable with. In addition, the engagement technology built into your member community alerts members when relevant content is added to the community. This proactively brings information that is important to individual members to their attention quickly, so they don't have to schedule time to remember to login and dig through everyone else's content to find information they think is valuable.

2) Your Members Are Increasingly Unclear of the ROI of Their Dues Payment

Done correctly, your private member community can be one of the strongest and most visible benefits to being a part of your organization. If you are not thinking about it that way, it is most likely not worth the investment. Imagine providing a virtual space where thousands of members turn for answers to their questions and solutions to their problems to help them do their jobs better. Without it, they would be at a disadvantage and be cut off from access to the resources and network they need to be successful. What is the ROI on getting the help you need daily in your career or business?

3) Specialization and Consolidation Results in a Smaller Number of Potential Members

An online community platforms allow organizations to create very targeted groups within their membership to focus on, and provide value to, members with specific specialties. Even when you provide value by segmenting your community, the reality is that your pool of potential members may be shrinking. A private online community also provides tools to generate large amounts of non-dues revenue though advertising, events, and partner programs.

4) Differences in Generational Values and Perceptions of Membership

In addition to addressing generational preferences by synchronizing information and discussions across your website, email lists, and mobile apps, online community platforms allow associations to segment members' experiences by generation. Your 60+ year old member with 30 years of experience in the industry can have a different experience and be presented with different resources than a your young professionals who are just out of college and unsure if this is a career they want to stick with.

5) Your Members Have Alternatives from Competitive For-Profit Organizations

When looking at competition strategically, associations must ask themselves, "How is the way we help our members solve their problems different and better than our members' alternatives?" While many conferences have corporate competition and search engines make access to certain types information plentiful, associations have an opportunity to provide a "product" that for-profit competitors don't usually provide "“ access to a community facilitated to make community members more successful.

With a successful online member community, where hundreds of answers and ideas are shared each week, associations differentiate their "product" by providing a network of professionals ready to help each other. In contrast to for-profit competition, associations often have large numbers of people to get the community off to the right start, a culture of cooperation and self-policing, and a staff to ensure questions get answered so that members continue to see your organization and its online member community as a resource.

6) How to Best Utilize Technology

In the presentation, Mary highlighted that the average association spends more on food for members at meetings than on technology. The selection and use of technology is often left to the "IT guy." It is often the case that both association staff with industry backgrounds and staff with association management expertise do not have strong enough backgrounds in technology to authoritatively own online initiatives inside the organization. For this reason, among other reasons, many associations misalign their use of technology with their core organizational goals.

Due to its broad impact and flexible features, online community software is one of the only association technologies to help overcome all of the challenges listed above. Using technology to get better member data and analyze that data, keep members engaged so they remain members, and generate significant revenue are some of the ways that private member communities help associations thrive.

While private online member communities are only a piece of the solution, a centrally positioned and well-planned online community platform can play a major role in overcoming each of the pressures that associations encounter today. For more ideas on tackling these strategic issues, read The Race for Relevance.

Use this guide to evaluate, select, and plan a successful online community for your association.

Topics: Member Communities, Associations, Member Experience

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