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Creating an Association Online Community that Members Will Use

Written by Joshua Paul | on September 16, 2013 at 8:30 AM

Tips for making your association's online community valuable to members.

At a recent conference for association executives, I overhead the following conversation between two colleagues:

"We're planning an online community for our members"

"Then, we're going to need to have a social media strategy expert on staff."


"The people who manage our member benefits and keep our community engaged today couldn't possibly do it online". Never mind, I realize how silly that sounds when I say it out loud."

The conversation ended when the gentleman pushing the need for a social media expert realized that member value is member value, regardless of whether it is conveyed traditionally or in a private online community.

Is that a conversation that has occurred or could happen at your organization?

The Things That Members Value Don't Depend On Your Communication Channel

Often times associations and other membership organizations make the mistake of putting too much distance between their organization's value proposition and their online community strategy. They see the terms "social" or "online" and immediately think that some people on their current team are not socially savvy or technical enough.

While developing an online community strategy does follow a specific process and community management is a discipline that takes dedication and focus, the building blocks for why your members will visit and participate in your online community are the expertise of the people who are closest to your members, not necessarily the people with the most Twitter influence.

The most successful and sustainable online member communities prominently feature the primary reasons that members join their organization. These are things that your staff already knows.

You could hire the best community manager in your industry, select the top online community software platform, and put dozens of hours into the community's design and content. However, if you online community does not align with your members' priorities, it will be likely be dead on arrival.

What Do Members Want?

Recent surveys of nonprofit membership organizations in the US and Canada suggest that networking opportunities is the top reason that people join associations "“ followed by access to specialized information and advocacy.

How to Create an Association Online Community That Members Will UseSource: Greenfield Services

If those are the top reasons that members join and remain members of your organization, why wouldn't you make access to those things a central part of what your private online community offers members?

Making Your Online Community the Center of Your Value Proposition

Investing in programs that address networking, exclusive information, and advocacy can quickly spread an organization's budget and personnel thin. However, many associations are implementing online community strategies to scale their ability to provide significant value in these three areas.

The innate strengths of online community software lines up very well with networking, exclusive information, and advocacy.

While online member communities include built-in private social networks for members to find experts, connect with people in their industry, and build their personal brands, they also come with a security model to provide relevant members-only content.

Along with giving tangible value to your members, keeping members engaged is critical to your ongoing community strategy. Advocacy professionals will tell you that member engagement is a major driver of awareness, mobilization, and legislative action.

Your Private Online Community's Role in Solving Members' Problems

Every online community is different. Online community software's flexibility and broad range of social features can serve a wide variety organizational strategies.

While some organizations' members may join a community to expand and engage their networks, the private online community of another organization may focus on enabling members to discussion and take action toward their legislative priorities.

During your online community planning process, it is important to align the features, content, and community management processes with the value that your specific members want to get from your organization.

Just like any product strategy (yes, your online member community is a product), you can find out this information through a variety of channels:

  • Surveys
  • Interviews (formal or informal)
  • Social listening

What Do Members Want From Your Online Community?

Keeping in mind that not all online communities provide the same type and level of value to its members, we've launched a one-question poll in our Member Engagement LinkedIn group:

What Do Your Members Want To Do Most In Your Online Community?

Even if you are not 100% confident that you know the answer, framing this question and asking it openly is an important step toward improving member engagement and increasing the value of your membership.

Where Are you Today?

Your organization can use the following high-level model to assess your ability to both identify your member's biggest problems and solve those challenges using your online community platform.

Are You Creating an Online Community That Your Members Want to Use?

Failure to help members solve their most urgent and pervasive problems represents a structural flaw in your online community strategy. This can lead to a lack of participation and months of slow growth.

Your Turn

What are you doing to:

  1. Find out what your members want from your organization?
  2. Align your online community strategy with that value proposition?

Continue this conversation in the comments section below or in the LinkedIn group discussion.

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

Topics: Member Communities, Associations, Online Community Software, Online Community

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