One of the most important elements of a user group is their private online community. However, there are numerous social features in online community software and many companies don't know which features they should include in their user group community to create value for customers and keep members engaged.
In a recent interview with veteran user group executive, Lew Conner, we discussed the four must-have features that every user group needs to engage and group their online community:
I am often asked by business people, user group leaders, and association executives, "What is the area that gets the most use in your customer's communities" The answer is always the discussion forums. Members want to ask questions and get answers from their peers. Customers also want to help other customers. These are main reasons people state for joining professional online communities.
The key to fostering active discussions in your online user community is ease of access. We recommend using an online community platform that integrates a listserv with your online forums.
The listservs will enable members to participate 100% from their email. (We see discussion area participation increase by 10% by simply turning on the listserv.) The forums will give your members an easy way to search across past discussions. Having the listservs and forums integrated together makes your discussion area a very valuable benefit to members.
Your users are busy. They don't have time to dig through your online community to find relevant information. Online community software knows which groups and product categories that interest specific user group members. When a user logs in, the user experience is personalized to highlight discussions, document libraries, and sub-communities that are relevant to that user.
Secondly, most user groups have committees, boards and other product sub-groups. Successful online communities enable a member to go to one site, with one login, and see all of their general user group information as well as access their group information as well.
Your online community also has built-in security to control the group access so that boards and committees can have all of the features of your full online community (Forums, File Library, Polls, Surveys, blogs, Announcement lists) available only to the members of that particular group. Having the group areas housed within your online community enables members to be more efficient in going to one place for all communications and eases the level of support for site admins.
Your users group members are not all the same. They have diverse interests, use different product features, and participate in different online activities. Getting get the word out to specific customer segments about all of the announcements, engagement opportunities, and meetings they can take advantage of can be a challenge.
The problem with Constant Contact or other third-party email tool is that you have to generate the lists of members for the email communication, then import than list into your email tool. This means that before every communication, you need to run a query of your user group member database to be sure all the appropriate people are being included in the email.
Running email campaigns, event promotions, and basic membership communications based on demographic profile information (e.g. geographic info) or behavioral data (e.g. which discussions they participated in), can be challenging when we have to shuttle data from one system to another each time you send a group email.
When your targeted email engine is already integrated with your online community, the lists for emails are always kept up to date by the system. This enasures the right information is being sent to the right people at the lowest costs and in the most efficient manner. Members only getting relevant information and management of emails a breeze.
Offline, face-to-face events are a big part of a user group's success. It is great for members to finally meet the people you have been chatting with online, create new friendships, and learn a few tricks of the trade. By having an event management system fully integrated within your online community it is easy for your staff to put on webinars, seminars and annual conferences.
Automatically creating customized registration forms and pricing based on registrants' membership type, committee or past event participation enhances the registrants' conference experience. Enabling community features for an event such as blogs, discussions, file downloads reduce your costs for printed materials at the conference and help the registrant get the most value from the conference.
Then, after the conference is over, carrying through the themes, discussions and networking in the online community creates a year round benefit that will keep your members coming back year after year.
All online community features don't hold the same value to your customers or user group management process. Focusing on the four features above will help you launch your community, consistently engage different areas of your membership, and give you a great base for growth. You can always add additional features as your online community matures.