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Selecting the Right Online Community Management Approach for Your Association

Written by Christina Green | on June 22, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Tips for choosing the best online community management strategy for your association.

A watched pot may never boil, but that's the only way to build a thriving online community. Until your online community is established and has regular contributors, it is your job to prompt members to participate. You need to stir your community's proverbial pot and provide interesting, valuable discussions and content for your members.

After all, no one joins an online community because they like the way groups are set up, or any other feature for that matter. People join because of the members involved, the content, and the value they get from networking. Since joining depends largely on human interaction and content, you must ensure your association's online community has someone (or a team) guiding and coaxing the communication.

You and your online community management team are the guides. Choose the best management strategy for your organization so that you stir the pot effectively, encouraging members to participate, share, and create content on their own.

4 Online Community Management Strategies

Strategy #1) Matrixed Team

If we continue the pot-stirring analogy, you can compare a matrixed online community management team to that of a finely run restaurant kitchen. There are multiple roles carried out by people with different talents.

You need a head chef to coordinate it all. This person probably resides in marketing or membership, and while most of the heavy lifting falls on them, there's a well-coordinated effort with people of all skills, and all departments within your organization. Designers, coders, content creators, volunteer or board members, and many more can all be on the matrixed team.

Pros: Matrixed teams are often the ideal situation. Member engagement responsibility is spread throughout multiple departments in the association, so everyone can focus on the tasks they're best at. This is advantageous because no one group assumes all of the responsibility for content and engagement, plus there's a nice flavor that develops from multiple teams working together. Engagement is approached through a fresh set of eyes and no single department creates all of the value opportunities.

Cons: With so many team members, a matrixed team is the most difficult to coordinate. It requires a delicate balance of skilled project management and excellent communication that encourages peers to come together to discuss content requirements, engagement strategies, and networking opportunities.

Navigating assignments and tracking completion across departments can be challenging. Departments that are generally removed from membership, such as IT or design departments, may feel put-upon by community needs and expectations because member engagement is not a traditional part of their role. 

Requirements: A strong team leader who can coordinate intradepartmental responsibilities is essential. Look for someone who is adept at handling project management as well as someone who possesses expert interpersonal skills.

Strategy #2) Part-Time Community Manager

One of the most common strategies, a part-time community manager, is usually someone already employed by your association. They spend their time on other association management tasks, such as marketing or membership, and community is added on to their responsibilities.

Pros: The benefit to this arrangement is that it's cost effective and eliminates the need to go through another hiring and training process. Your current staff members are the ones who know your association and its members best, so they are also some of the most qualified to encourage growth and provide value in your community. As the community grows, more resources can be added to it.

Cons: The problem with a part-time manager is that it may require one staff member to balance too many important priorities. Processing membership dues and providing value through purchasable products are consistent revenue streams that marketing and membership staff need to attend to.

If a staff member from those departments also needs to dedicate themselves to creating the long-term advantage of a strong online community, it's likely that they'll face time constraints and building community usually falls to the bottom of the priority list. Membership, as well as online community engagement, can suffer as a consequence.

Requirements: If you cannot assign full-time resources to the growth of an online community, be sure to set aside dedicated hours for community growth. You can also consider redistributing responsibilities between team members to ensure that everyone has enough time to complete tasks. Remember, if at any time members feel like your community efforts are only half there, they may lose interest.

Strategy #3) Full-Time, Dedicated

This structure calls for one person whose only responsibilities are online community management and growth. They don't have to share their time with anything else.

Pros: Your full-time community manager can dedicate their time to creating resources, stoking conversation, and analyzing key metrics. Since this is their only role within your association, they can spend all of their energy with your members. They should see and hear all, and can respond quickly to comments and address issues as they happen, not hours or days later. Members can feel this type of dedicated response, and it shows a real investment in your online community.

Cons: It's easy to become dependent on a single, dedicated community manager. Members build a relationship with that person and they become the face and personality of your community. If they are out sick, go on vacation, or if they leave with no back-up plan in place, you will struggle to keep up the relationships members have built with your community manager.

A single community manager also has a higher risk of burnout. Community management is a demanding job.

Requirements: Choose a dedicated community manager with several years of experience building online communities and can articulate their methodology to growing active communities. Encourage them to work with other staff members in your organization, and cross-train team members so that their expertise is not lost if they leave your association.

Strategy #4) Outsourced

For associations without headcount, but a flexible budget, an outsourced situation may be best. There are firms, association management service providers, and consultants who have the skills and experience to manage your online community for you.

Pros: The benefit to this approach is that this person (or agency) is an expert at community growth. Your success is their success, and they will dedicate the contracted amount of time to your community and its development.

Cons: An outsider will require time to get to know your members and their needs. You must spend time getting the group, or professional manager, up to speed to ensure they know the needs of your members.

Remember that, like a full-time in-house community manager, your outsourced manager is the face of your association in the online community. If you change service providers, it may take some time to rebuild and strengthen relationships with your members.

Requirements: When looking for community management as a service, avoid organizations that use cookie-cutter content and generalized engagement opportunities. These methods typically don't work, so make sure you understand how they will generate content and what resources are dedicated to you. Find someone who prioritizes your members with personalized, relevant content.

Online Community Management Takeaway

Your association and its members have unique needs, so choose the community management strategy that best fits your organization. Just remember that your online community is a long-term, valuable strategy. It will flounder if someone in your organization doesn't have the time or interest to help it flourish.

That's why your online community manager is such an essential part of your community's success. Find one or more people who can devote their time to content and engagement opportunities for your members. Ensure that they understand your members' interests and priorities, and have the skills and expertise needed create content and discussions that encourage community growth and interaction.

Nine low-cost member engagement strategies for associations.

Topics: Online Community Management, Associations, Online Community

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