Communities benefit all types of organizations—trade associations are no exception. We’re already pretty vocal about how trade associations can use private online communities to collaborate. Now that we’ve (hopefully) convinced you online communities are important in creating value, let’s talk about how to ensure success in your community.
It’s not as hard as you think!
First, although all associations have similarities, it is important to acknowledge that trade associations and professional associations are different from each other – the main difference being that trade associations members generally are companies and professional associations generally are individuals. This nuance can affect how members interact privately and publicly within your association, but it certainly doesn’t compromise the concept of using a community for your trade association.
Here are a few pointers for how to structure and manage your trade association’s online community, and create value for your members:
Sometimes it’s hard to keep the conversation going online (or even get it started), whether it's a new platform members are unfamiliar with or your organization has privacy issues to consider. For community managers, conversation is a major job and they know how important it is. Since you may be dealing with a variety of member companies for your industry, getting the conversations started can be even more difficult.
That’s why, for each member company, try choosing a couple members you’ve designated as “community champions,” who will spur and continue conversation. Reach out to the members who have already showed interest and enthusiasm; directly communicate and encourage them to be a positive voice in your community. They’ll help drive the action until your community gains momentum and evolves organically.
Two of an online community’s biggest assets for members are opportunities for education and opportunities for networking. Since trade associations can have the unique dilemma that some members may be at odds or at competition with each other, this can be difficult to facilitate – no one wants to show their hand or give a competitor the upper hand. Rather than expecting people to be vocal in large groups, create smaller, topic-based subgroups that can be by invitation only. That way members feel secure (and information is safeguarded for) collaborating, learning and connecting.
One way to measure the success of an online community is to look at the activity of the entire community. The smaller subgroups you created should be thriving since they’re topic-base or thematic. Look on that smaller, micro level and you will see that there are pods of incredible success and value in your community. Measure those and compare those small groups to each other and you’ll get a clearer picture of what’s important, rather than fretting over the large-scale performance of your community across the board.
In your research, you’ve probably come across a lot of good tips for how to manage an online community. We have 8 Kick-Ass Community Management Tips that we frequently recommend. But since your specific industry might have unique issues, general guidelines may need slight tweaks to work. For example, when having people introduce themselves, rather than adding to one, enormous thread, you can have several categories, based on member type, that are more specific. Another example: when facilitating a conversation with an industry leader/expert, find someone who has common ground with the members or helps fight a common foe, such as industry regulations or a new law that is counter-productive to the association’s goals.
These nuances on how to manage both your member companies and your online community may seem small, but they add up. The more your community grows and personalities shine through, the more you’ll learn how to tweak things, like groups and community guidelines, to help your community along.