Several years ago Ducati Motor Holdings, manufacturer of luxury motorcycles now owned by Audi, made a decision. They wanted to start an online community for fans of their brand. Sounds like a good idea doesn't it? Except for one tiny thing. A vibrant, online Ducati fan community already existed and it didn't belong to them.
This meant they had no control over the messaging, weren't part of the discussions, and lost a critical opportunity to engage their customers. They were late to the party and getting an invitation to it would now prove to be difficult. Should they "beg" people to join them on their online community? Should they give up trying to compete with their own fans?
No one wins in this situation.
Your association could easily find itself in the same predicament if you put off creating an online community. Here are five common problems your association may run into if you wait too long to start an online member community.
5 Problems with Delaying Your Association's Online Community
Problem #1) They're Building Without You
Some association leaders would argue that Ducati is an exciting lifestyle brand and can't be compared with their organization. People just don't get that excited about a trade or advocacy association.
This is simply not true, especially when someone's livelihood and paycheck are involved. Take professional copywriters, for example. There are extremely successful online niche communities that charge writers a monthly fee to gain access to job listings, increase their professional knowledge, and network with one another. If membership is priced right and the community contains valuable content, it doesn't take long for it to overshadow whatever association serves that industry if they don't have an online community.
One of the latest trends in online marketing is creating a community geared towards a specific industry, such as copywriting. Companies can either monetize the community or leverage the eyeballs that it attracts to generate brand awareness and leads. The bottom line is that if you're not accommodating your members' natural interest in connecting and sharing idea with each other, you can be sure someone else is, especially if there is a money-making opportunity around.
Problem #2) There Are Discussions You're Not a Part Of
In addition to building a community without you, if others take advantage of your opportunity to serve your members through an online community before you do, you will not be part of the conversation. Nor will you be privy to their exchanges.
If someone says something about your association on Twitter, for instance, there are a variety of ways you can hear about it and respond to it. With a private online community that's created outside of your association, you have no idea what's being said. That means you are also missing opportunities to serve your members or potential members by replying to messages.
Remember, the internet is a construct of habit. People get used to visiting sites every day, leading them to visit them without thinking. There are probably pages you always keep open or tabs you have pinned to the top of your browser. Your members have the same, and those are the pages they visit by habit. If you don't become part of your members' and potential members' habits of discussion, you will find it very difficult to market to them once you create an online community.
They earlier you get out there, the easier it is to reach your ideal audience member.
Problem #3) Companies Can "Own" Your Members
If an individual started an online community targeting your member base, they may not have the money or resources to launch as quickly as you would. They'd have to market to a group where they are an unknown and they would have to prove they have something to offer the audience, such as valuable content. Your association's well-known expertise would have the advantage.
However, if a company with plenty of brand recognition and funding started an online community, they might be able to ramp up quicker than you could. For example, what if Domino's Pizza decided to create a marketing campaign around pizza and beer? If they launched an online craft beer lover portal for those who brew, they have an astronomical amount of resources they could assign to the project. Associations focusing on craft brewers may not be able to complete.
Problem #4) Your Reputation May Be Damaged
Associations have long been lauded for their reputations as the centers of their industries. When you delay creating an online community for your members, you are handing that reputation over to someone else. It could be a member, an entrepreneur who recognizes a money-making opportunity, or a corporation who shares interests with your members.
When anyone else creates an online community for your members, they start building their own reputation. They're the ones with the active users. They're the ones with the community platform that showcases expert content and discussions. By building a thriving community that people want to be part of, these organizations are shifting the center of the industry.
Content, especially, is important and is an indicator of your association's reputation as a thought leader. Without an online community, you are losing one of the easiest (association-owned) ways to create and share content.
Problem #5) Committees and Boards Aren't as Efficient
Where are your committee and board members located? Are they all in the same city? For most associations, committees and boards are spread out across the country or even the world. They're also extremely busy, with full schedules and not a lot of time to collaborate on your association. That often drives them to virtual communication tools like email.
If you've ever tried to work with a virtual group, then you know things can be disjointed if the only communication tool you have at your disposal is email. You'll find people saying "I didn't see that" and "what email was that in again?"
With an online community, your organization has a central place for group work. Private groups, wiki pages, and other collaboration tools at the fingertips of staff and volunteer leaders. Committees and boards can easily reacquaint themselves by skimming past conversations, files can be shared in file libraries instead of trying to pick through attachments in emails, and exchanges are more efficient.
Association Online Community Takeaway
Your association can choose whether you will offer an online community or not. However, you cannot choose whether your members are a part of one.
Affiliations crop up, entrepreneurs monetize interactions, and enthusiastic members jumpstart their own communities around your industry. Once they become part of your members' internet habits, it will be very difficult for your association to break in.
Lead the charge of innovation by embracing online communities. Recognize online community platforms for the connection and engagement tools they are. If you don't, someone else, will.