I speak with a lot of associations that are experimenting with different types of social media tools and strategies to figure out which combination has the most positive impact on their organization, mission, and members. A common question I come across is how "members-only" LinkedIn groups and private online community platforms overlap and can work together. While there are some similarities, for instance both provide threaded discussions; the numerous differences are paramount to an association's member engagement strategy.
Though LinkedIn groups play an important role in marketing and positioning an association as a leader in an industry, most associations avoid using private LinkedIn groups to host their private member community. Based on conversations and interviews with association executives from around the country, here are the top 11 reasons for launching a private member community using an online community platform rather than LinkedIn:
Associations that use LinkedIn private groups to host their private member social network must manually manage access to their group and sub-groups. If a member requests access to the group, does not renew their membership, or switches from one committee or special interest group to another, the association must spend staff time combing through data to identify the changes that need to be made as well as making those adjustment on the LinkedIn site.
While part of the equation to keeping members engaged is the organization's strategy and day-to-day community management plan, higher member engagement is also a result of the ways that an association can provide value to members and keep them engaged. LinkedIn lacks the private file and media libraries, surveys and polling, event management, advocacy tracking, content creation, and online engagement tools that private online community software provides an association and its members.
Since many members are busy, technically timid, or unable to access social networks from their jobs, associations need to provide ways that members can access their resources which fit their members' communication preferences "“ on community websites, via email listservs discussions, and through mobile apps. With a private LinkedIn group, member engagement levels suffer when members must go online to access the LinkedIn group since the LinkedIn only offers email notifications instead of listserv functionality and the LinkedIn mobile app is limited only to discussion threads.
Aside from the data in a LinkedIn group not being covered by most organization's privacy policies, some members may not be comfortable with fully participating in a private group in an arena where others in their professional network outside your association can become aware of their activity.
LinkedIn's limited analytics does not meet the reporting requirements for most membership professionals. Since business intelligence is critical to your membership management strategy, you are going to want to be able to crunch data on all of the activity in your private online community, including analyzing member activity to predict event attendance, which members are strong advocates, potential non-renewals, etc.
In LinkedIn, it is difficult to manage a group with multiple components (chapters) or membership types. These would have to be sub-groups in LinkedIn, whereas association online community software is designed to handle complex committee, chapter, and membership structures.
Aside from making it easier to manage your private online groups (see reason #1), having an online community that is integrated with your membership database, CRM system, or association management software links your membership data with behavioral data about members' activity in your online community. This data can turn your AMS into a social CRM system chocked full of actionable business intelligence.
Unlike most enterprise online community platforms designed for associations, LinkedIn provides limited tools to proactively manage the community. LinkedIn groups don't provide private surveys, content notification (like Google-alerts), or an email engine to send communication to certain segments of your membership or participants in specific discussions.
If your association chooses to start your private member community in a LinkedIn group, then realizes that you are going to need a true member engagement platform to provide a real member benefit to your constituents, you cannot export your data and discussions from your LinkedIn group to populate the new private online community on your domain.
Once your members start to join multiple groups on LinkedIn (e.g. your association, other membership organizations, their college alumni group, past and present employer groups, and other professional interests), they are often receiving several digests and notifications each day. This self-induced bombardment leads to a malaise in which busy professionals ignore most of the groups of which they are members on LinkedIn. If your LinkedIn group is the center of your member engagement program, your members won't clearly see the value that your association is trying to communicate since you are just one group in a crowd of dozens.
In the 2010 Marketing General Association Benchmark Report, the study found that "those organizations who have a private social network are 28% more likely to report growth in membership compared to the average association, while groups that use LinkedIn are 13% more likely to report a decline in membership numbers."
If your goal is to make your online community central to the value you offer your members, LinkedIn plays a critical role. However, it is not designed to support your private member community. LinkedIn is better suited to facilitate discussions among your broader public online community, as is the case with the Member Engagement group on LinkedIn. I highly recommend creating a public or open LinkedIn group to spread your organization's content and position your association as the hub of your industry. Just as you do with other public social media, use your LinkedIn group to drive your target audience back to your website and private online member community.