Higher Logic Blog

8 Models for Associations to Segment Their Online Communities and Create Private Groups

Written by Katie Oakes | July 15, 2015 at 12:05 PM

For many associations, creating online communities for their members is a new endeavor. On the surface, it might appear that your community members have a singular interest in your industry, organization, or issues. While that is what makes your association a community, is not enough to keep members engaged? In reality, within your member base are countless more specific interests, goals, and motivations for joining. How do you design ONE online community that makes everyone happy?

In a world where you can create your own custom radio station with a few taps of the thumbs down icon, there is no room for generic content. You may have heard the adage: content is king. However, it is relevancy and context that breed ongoing engagement.

Your members have individual characteristics that inform their perspectives and preferred online community experience. Luckily, thanks to the flexibility of modern online community platforms, you don't have to deliver a singular experience.

Today's online community platforms have the ability to segment members into sub-communities where the content, people, and discussions are hyper-relevant to their specific interests.

In addition to having access to general membership information, members also have access to private groups for specific interests, as well as committees, chapters, or other leadership responsibilities they have within the greater association. This out-of-the-box functionality allows associations to build an online community that provides a custom online experience for everyone.

Along with this great power comes great panic and indecision. Many association executives struggle to create a structure for their community that makes sense for their unique membership. There is no one model fits all solution. However, to help you chart your path, we've gathered the most common online community structures to fuel your team's brainstorming sessions.

You can build your private online member community around one of these models or mix and match depending on your engagement strategy and organization priorities.

8 Ways to Segment Your Association's Private Online Community

#1) Member and Non-Member

This is the most basic type of segmentation, separating your member area from a non-member or "not yet a member" area. Often, this type of segmentation is used in conjunction with another type of delineation, such as chapters. Your community may choose to segment your community in more than one way!  

This model is a great way to position your organization at the center of your industry. Open up certain blogs, discussions, and resource libraries to the public, while keeping a majority of the value in the members-only area of the community. Members will have access to all of the engagement opportunities, while non-members will be able to participate in the public discussions.

Along with giving non-members a peek into the additional value they'll get if they join or upgrade their membership, this method also gives you access to data that is helpful in converting non-members into paying members since non-members will need to register to join the community.

#2) Geographic

Depending on your association and the diversity of your membership, you may want to segment based on country, state, or even smaller regions. There are certain interests and issues that are important to specific geographic areas.

Creating sub-communities or groups around a geographic region enables members to engage around local topics. This can add value to your online community by allowing your members to connect with people in their same general location, which can create more offline connections as well.

For example, let's say a local election is taking place and there is legislation up for debate that could impact members of your association in that locale. People in the affected area would appreciate a private forum to discuss ramifications and ways to mobilize. 

#3) Components or Chapters

Components (often called sections or chapters) within an association are a common segmentation structure. They usually have a defined sub-membership model to them.

This method of segmenting your online community is beneficial when the organizational structure supports it. It provides individual chapters or members of semi-autonomous groups to connect directly in their own private area under the umbrella of the overall online community platform.

#4) Organizational

You can also create sub-groups and private forums based around the organization of your association. These might be work groups, councils, committees, or boards based on how your organization is set up.

With your online community segmented by organizational structure, private sub-groups can be used to get things done, such as collaborating on planning a conference, new programming ideas, or discussing related issues. Regardless of where people are located or how often members can take time to meet in person, your association's various committees and boards can connect and move projects forward on a more regular basis thanks to the available engagement tool and structure of your online member community.

#5) Special Interest Groups

Creating special interest sub-groups gives your members a place to delve deeper into the topics that engage them most.

For instance, if you are an association of lawyers, you might have a special interest group specifically for lawyers who practice real estate law, litigation, or intellectual property law. Segmenting by interests can lead to higher participation and keep them coming back to your community because the information, conversation, and peers in the community are highly relevant to their interests.

#6) Event Attendance

A good draw for event registration is the promise of access to a specific peer group after the event. This not only helps boost event participation in the real world, but also keeps the momentum going after the event. Group participants will be able to share notes, discuss event sessions, and build excitement for the next year's event.

#7) Study Groups

Many associations are stewards of their industry's certifications or accreditation tests. You can segment your online community into small study groups for each semester or period of testing. Group members can then ask questions of each other and get peer support throughout their preparation, which can make the process of achieving advanced certificates or accreditations less overwhelming.

In our experience at Socious, many of the connections formed in these small study groups grow into long-lasting professional relationships.

#8) Career Stage

Often your members will get more value from connecting with peers who are at a similar stage in their careers. Sub-groups of students, executives, and other professionals can help connect individuals who can relate to one another on a more personal level based on where they are in their careers.

Additionally, this also sets up your community as a destination for members seeking industry mentors. This set-up can also increase opportunity for membership by establishing an upgrade path as member advance through the careers – from students and millennial to executives and retired members. 

Association Online Community Takeaway

Your members are busy people, they'll be more likely to take the time to engage and participate in your online community when it is built to address their specific interests. While you don't want to over-structure your association's online community, some degree of structure can increase the value you're offering your members by making their experience more relevant to their particular needs and career goals. But don't worry, you don't need to reinvent the wheel when figuring out how to segment your online community. Instead, start with these eight models when you assess your association's individual qualities and engagement strategy.