Associations and other nonprofit membership organizations are already natural communities. This makes building a community online a common sense decision for most association executives.
However, there is more than one way to leverage a private online community. Since every association's mission, priorities, and capacity are different, their abilities to capture the opportunities that building communities presents are also unique.
How associations leverage their online communities depend on the overall purpose of their community, which are based on the organization's overall goals. This may include:
While there are certainly more than five types of private online community strategies for associations, here are five proven successes.
WHO: Designed solely for members of the association to connect with one another in a secure, private, and collaborative environment.
WHAT: Online member communities are the most traditional and straightforward online communities. Members get access to discussions, content, and other online collaboration tools depending on their member level, volunteer involvement (e.g. committees), chapter affiliation, and general interests.
WHY: Member communities are a valuable member benefit for many associations and their members. By having a space to connect with other members and share ideas, membership in an association becomes more important to members. When people value their membership, they're more likely to renew and remain invested in the association. The member community also helps keep people engaged in the organization. This engagement can then be leveraged for a variety of other asks down the line, such as conversion of product, education, or event registration offers, mentorship, volunteer opportunities, and legislative advocacy.
WHO: Open to both members and non-members. Non-members often include media personnel, regulators, and legislatures who have an interest in the industry.
WHAT: These communities are meant to position the association at the center of their industry. By creating an online community for a specific industry, the association is effectively saying, "I want to host the discussion." While the association can't entirely control the conversation and content being put into the community, they can have a big influence over the audience, simply by hosting the platform, providing educational content to members, and exhibiting leadership in the community
WHY: Creating an industry community is a position play. It places the association at the center of what's going on in the industry and gives them some ability to shape the conversation.
WHO: Members and non-members; anyone interested in the issue your association is advocating.
WHAT: These communities exist to raise awareness around a particular issue. By positioning themselves at the center of an issue, associations can use the community as an open forum to educate people and field questions about their specific issue. The community can serve as a platform that gives your organization the opportunity to participate directly in the discussion, as well as produce content around your position.
WHY: Awareness and advocacy online community strategies are also a position play. However, it positions your organization at the center of a specific issue or set of issues, rather than an entire industry. By creating an active awareness and advocacy community, your associations will be seen as the place to discuss the issue, get questions answered, and get educated on the topic. Though vibrant discussion and strategic use of helpful content, your organization can more easily promote your specific position.
WHO: Registrants, attendees, speakers, and organizers of an event. This sometimes includes previous and past attendees.
WHAT: Event communities are created to act as a "home base" for an event or conference. Attendees are able to connect with other registrants, ask questions, and access content from presenters leading up to, during, and after the event.
WHY: Though these communities are often created only for the brief period of time during which the event takes place, we don't advocate this model. Communities take time to build and even more time to leverage working within the small frame of time that an event takes place won't allow you to get the most out of your community. Instead, it's best to create a segmented event group in your year round association online community for better efficiency in community management, member experience, and cross marketing. That way, attendees of your event can enjoy the camaraderie of an event community, but also belong to an active year round online member community.
WHO: Members who are currently enrolled in an educational program or course.
WHAT: Education communities exist as a place of support and collaboration for people currently going through an educational program. These communities can act as virtual study groups for short courses and certification programs. While membership in these communities is typically short-term (less than one year), organization will often move people into an online alumni community once the program has finished to maintain engagement.
WHY: Education program-based online communities enable participants to go beyond traditional engagement with instructor and content and engage each other. Just like event communities, education communities have the potential to thrive beyond just the calendar period of the course if people stick around after their course is finished. This would likely work best if the community is part of a larger year-round member community, but could have benefits for the association hosting the program past the duration of the course.
Associations don't have to select only one of these private online community strategies. Many organizations start with one audience or approach and then expand their community to include other strategies.
For instance, associations can create a hybrid member community and industry community simply by leveraging the settings in their professional social networking platform. Everyone can have access to general industry content and discussions. However, when members log into the community, the software knows that they are members and also gives them access to members-only resources for private discussions, exclusive content, and other private collaboration features.
With their natural propensity for community, associations are almost hard-wired for the inclusion of a private online community in their member benefits and member engagement strategy.
The different types of communities that associations can create depend on the needs of the members and the goals of the membership. However, private online communities function best when they aren't limited to a certain period of time, instead spanning year-round with time to grow, develop, and be optimized.