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5 Rookie Mistakes Associations Make with Online Communities

Written by Julie Dietz on August 31, 2016 at 8:30 AM

5 common mistakes association make when starting a private online community.

Last month, I got a Facebook friend request from my father. I was surprised, but not because there are posts on my Facebook that my father shouldn't see (there aren't). I was surprised because my father is a 60-something retiree and he's getting into social networks, which are really just online communities. He loves them, and he's already used them to reconnect with numerous colleagues, friends, and organizations that he belongs to.

My dad is a perfect example of how it's not just the younger generations who are online. Baby boomers, grandparents, and everyone in between are getting into the game.

Since everyone from millennials to their grandparents are now online and embracing online communities, member-based organizations, like associations, have wisely started doing the same. Many are setting up private member communities to reach customers, members, and prospects across generations and remain relevant.

That's a great start, but just creating a private member community doesn't guarantee success. Many private online communities flop because organizations make a series of crucial mistakes. If you want your community to succeed, you need to familiarize yourself and your organization with the most common mistakes that kill engagement in online communities. Then, you need to do everything you can to avoid them.

5 Critical Online Community Mistakes Made by Associations

Starting your community off on the wrong foot could quickly put it on life support. Here are five critical mistakes you need to avoid in order to be successful.

Mistake #1) Not "Seeding" Your Community with Content

By now most of us have heard and dismissed the myth "if you build it they will come." We know that you can't just build your community and expect people to come to an empty space with no interaction or material already present. Despite this myth being widely dispelled, however, this remains a mistake that's far too common.

Don't just build your online community, "seed" it with great content right from the start. Include webinars, videos, blog, whitepapers, and forums to give your members material to interact with. Ask your own questions in discussion forums and let members answer them. You may have to reach out to people in your community that you know have expertise in a specific area to posts answers during your community's initial stages.

Your content and questions give members a reason to join your community and something to do when they log in. They can peruse your content, answer your questions, and learn from your webinars, all of which increases member engagement.

Pro Tip: Even if you seed your community with content at the start, don't just set up initial content and let it sit. Building community using content is an ongoing process. You need to keep your community active by jumping into discussions, starting conversations, and posting content for the lifetime of the community. You can do all of this less as members start contributing more, but your organization and its staff should always be noticeable presences in the community.

Mistake #2) Replacing Social Media with a Private Online Community

Let's face the facts. You're never going to replace Facebook, so don't try. And don't cut Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram out of your life once you start an online community. Regardless of how successful your community becomes, you still need public social networks. The same is true in reverse. Conversations on Facebook or LinkedIn won't replace the exclusive value members can from your private online community platform.

The overarching problem with replacing social networking with a private online community is that not everyone is a member of your community. Many more people are on Facebook and if your organization is not, then you lose access to those people. So instead of abandoning social media, use it in conjunction with your online community.

Think of it as a hub and spoke model. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and other public social networks can be used to promote your online community and drive traffic back to your community. For example, share teaser content on public networks and make sure your followers know that they can access the full content by joining your online community. Allow your members to pull posts and information from their public networks into your private community as well. That way they don't have to post twice or choose between you and Twitter.

Mistake #3) Making the Community Organization-Centric

If your community focuses only on how great your association or business is, it won't work. It shouldn't be about you, it should be about your members, so use your online community to solve customer, member, and prospect problems.

To solve your members' problems, focus your online community on your content, benefits, discussion forums, and expert material. Answer your members' questions and provide content including webinars, and processional development courses. Any information that addresses your members' needs should be accessible in your online community.

Your ultimate goal is to help members improve their personal or professional lives. Give them an edge on the competition and they'll see the value in your community without you having to explicitly tell them.

Mistake #4) Unrealistic Timeline and Management Expectations

According to leading community strategy organization, CMX, a lack of internal support and resources is the main reason that online communities fail. Timeline and management go hand-in-hand with these internal support and resource issues, and they can devastate your community project.

Your entire organization needs to understand that your online community won't be built in a day, week, or even a few months. It takes time to build a community, seed it with content, and encourage an ever-increasing amount of engagement.

To set yourself up for success and ensure that everyone is on the same page, get complete internal support and a long-term commitment to see the project through before it even gets started. Make sure your organization sees the community an investment that will take time to mature.

Along with your long-term investment comes long-term management needs. Your association or business needs to provide support in the form of content creation, moderation, executive blogs, and other involvement through all aspects of the community. The more involved your organization is in managing your community over time, including bringing in staff, executives, and volunteers, the more likely your online community is to be successful.

Mistake #5) Choosing the Wrong Online Community Software

Aside from executive buy-in and organization-wide commitment, your online community platform is the most important component in starting your community off right. It's the foundation on which your entire project revolves. Choose a platform that fits your needs and can grow with your organization.

Start your selection process by defining your online community's goals and the tools you need to accomplish them. Here are just a few examples of some of your possible organizational needs and the features that will help you fulfill them.

Networking - Do you want your members to network with one another? You need a platform with member profiles, member directories, and a robust search feature to help members find one another. A platform that allows members to "follow" one another in order to stay updated will also help encourage networking.

Member Support - Should your staff use the online community to answer member questions? You need discussion forums that give members the ability to ask questions and receive responses from your employees. Choose forums over private messaging for this because with forums more than just the individual can see your staff's response. When other members have the same question they can simply browse your discussion forums instead of taking up your staff's time by repeating the question.

Group and Chapter Features - If your organization has groups or chapters, you may want to look for online community software that allows each chapter to have its own separate, private community. Some platforms will even allow chapters to have their own websites for more autonomy.

Other Considerations - Security, ongoing software training from your vendor, integrations, and customer service may also influence your software decision. Integrations and customer service are especially important as they can be some of the biggest pain points for organizations and online community vendors.

Choose a platform that minimizes these issues, such as an all-in-one online community platform that incorporates everything you need, from event management to email, without integrations. Look for excellent customer service that makes it easy for you to get in touch with a real person who can quickly provide the help you need as well.

Avoiding Online Community Mistakes Takeaway

Launching a private online community is a great tactic to include to reach members, customers, and prospects across generations and remain relevant in a digital environment. Just remember that an online community is a long-term investment that won't be built in a day.

Begin your investment on a positive note by avoiding these five mistakes. You'll help your community get off to the best possible start, as well as ensuring that is has the support and care it needs to thrive in the long term.

The most successful membership managers practice these 11 habits.

Topics: Online Community Management, Member Communities, Online Community

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