Online communities are now better known for their ability to improve member engagement, satisfaction, and retention than they were even a few years ago. It makes sense, then, that more and more associations are considering, or expanding, their online community plans.
With this rise in interest comes an increase in online community software options. Companies that previously focused on database work, such as association management software (AMS) providers, now offer community modules as an add-on to their main product.
But are add-on options right for your association? It’s certainly convenient to nestle your community within the AMS you’re already familiar with. But will it achieve the same results as a dedicated community platform?
The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. Depending on your association’s goals, an AMS community add-on may be everything you need – or it could lack the features and results you’re really looking for.
To determine which type of community platform is right for you, we’ve put together a list of the top four areas where AMS add-on communities and dedicated community software differ. Evaluate your needs in each of these categories to determine which platform is the best fit for your association.
Community Feature Selection and Depth
AMS add-ons typically only contain basic features like discussion forums and member profiles, while dedicated community platforms have more robust features. Top platforms design those features to work together in order to increase member engagement, improve retention rates and add value for users.
While every community differs, the best community platforms offer features and capabilities such as:
- Learning management software
- Online mentoring program tools
- Microsites for chapters, events, and special initiatives
- Volunteer management
- Chapter management
- Automated workflows
Expert Tip: Modules in dedicated online community platforms typically come with additional security settings. Use these to control who can see different communities and content. Put some behind a login as exclusive member benefits, but keep others as open to the public to attract prospects. You can even restrict access to specific activities so members receive different benefits based on their membership tier. Continuing education eCourses may be free to premier members, but come at an extra charge for associate members, for instance.
Vendor Specialty and Focus
AMS providers offer exceptional tools that reach across your association. They often work with event software, the financial backend that tracks your members’ payments, as well as a host of other capabilities. That means their focus is spread across different departments and software needs, which often makes online community add-ons less of a priority.
For associations who are happy with basic features and updates, these AMS companies will likely meet their needs. For those looking forward to future updates – including new feature releases that adapt to changing member expectations – or who need help with online community strategy and engagement, a standalone community platform will offer more support and flexibility.
Standalone platform providers and their staff are focused solely on community building and member engagement. Their development teams are dedicated to enhancing only their community software and keeping it up to date in terms of security and member expectations. Many have online community management experts on staff who can help you build out the right engagement tactics and long-term strategy to meet your association’s needs.
Online Community Goals
Why are you launching an online community? What needs are you trying to fulfill and what goals do you want to accomplish? These are some of the most important questions to ask and answer before choosing the type of community you need.
Organizations using dedicated Higher Logic community platforms achieve better business results.
AMS add-ons are excellent for providing an additional set of tools for members to ask basic questions and connect with one another, but they aren’t as effective at achieving business results.
Due largely to more diverse features and expert help, standalone community platforms are better at increasing member participation. There are more activities for them to choose from and more ways they can receive value. That often leads to improved business results, including higher satisfaction rates and a member base that grows more rapidly than associations using other platforms.
IT Investment and Resources
Business software, especially software that you’ll use daily, can be a big investment. Some of the largest AMS providers offer great platforms, but updating them takes a lot of resources. Because of this, they may ask customers to upgrade periodically to get the latest version.
The best online community software providers, on the other hand, are SaaS (software as a service) companies. SaaS products are constantly evolving and updates are rolled out to all customers for free every week or month, so you always have the latest and greatest system and tools.
SaaS platforms are also managed, updated, and supported in the cloud by the vendor, so there’s no large IT investment needed from your association. You can focus on your mission and delivering value to members instead of dedicating internal resources toward building and managing a software platform.
Best-of-Breed vs Basic Toolsets
Dedicated online community platforms are your best-of-breed solution while AMS add-ons are your slimmed-down option. When making your final decision, evaluate your goals for the community as well as your association’s overall priorities. Ask yourself these four key questions:
- How important is member engagement to your association?
- What type of updates and expert assistance do you expect now and in the future?
- Do you want to impact overarching business goals or just provide a new toolset for members?
- What type of IT resources are you willing to invest in community software?
Based on your answers, move forward with the option that best fulfills your association’s mission and member expectations.