Home » Membership » Looking to the future: How online community can boost association membership in a digital age

Looking to the future: How online community can boost association membership in a digital age

By Heather McNair

What is your association’s top priority these days? Perhaps it is increasing event attendance, or maybe you’re focused on updating your association management system (AMS). These are important priorities, but what are you focusing on for the long term? A lack of engagement is the top reason members don’t renew in membership organizations (2017 MGI Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report). Does your organizational strategy focus on engagement this year?

Before you get too worried about your engagement performance, here are some more encouraging statistics: the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) surveyed its members and found they were 30 per cent more likely to renew membership due to the online community (ASAE NPS Survey/Study, 2016). ASAE also found their members who renewed had over 50 per cent more community activities than members who did not renew (Higher Logic, 2018).

So, what is it about having an online community that is so special it can convince 30 per cent of your members to renew? The secret is an improved member experience.

Your community can exponentially improve your member experience, which leads to larger benefits like higher retention and renewal rates, improved event attendance and event satisfaction, an increase in non-dues revenue and more – ultimately improving your association’s ROI.

The end goal of an association’s community is an engaged member base, found not only in discussion threads, but also across volunteering, involvement in programs and networks formed. Best of all, you can generate and track data on all these interactions in the community, allowing you greater insight into your member behaviour, which can help drive further engagement.

Community: Where Your Members Belong

Making real, human connections with the people around us seems to get both easier and harder every day. We have hundreds of social networking apps at our fingertips that promise to help us find community, but increasingly we sign off feeling even more disconnected from a real relationship than before.

People are looking for connection. As people feel more jaded with social networks, the desire to connect still remains, and is perhaps intensified.

Your members are no different. The original reason they joined your association was because they cared about your cause, trade or passion, and they wanted to connect with and learn from likeminded people. It’s the very definition of association: to be connected to, to be associated with.

Connecting for members used to mean getting together at an annual event. Now, in the digital world, your association has the power to give members an online space to connect on their own time without travel costs, organizational approval or justification letters. Your association can make membership mean something every day of the year with a community.

Online communities provide the connection your members want. They’re so much more than a social network or a forum. They’re a place where members can contribute, belong and learn. They’re ecosystems of their own that can grow at a faster rate than at annual, in-person events. They contain features and tools that make many members call the community the top member benefit of their association.

Community: A Consolidated Platform for Member

Data and Engagement

Creating engagement for your members can take a lot of staff time and effort if you’re working on it manually. Thankfully, with online community, you’ve got a natural place for members to facilitate engagement with access to built-in tools to improve said engagement.

Community Tools

Several built-in online community tools can make engaging your members easier.

  • Security groups: If you use an AMS, you can integrate it with your community platform and segment your members into security groups based on their profiles. Then they’re automatically placed into subcommunities that apply to them (for example, committee members and event attendees can have access to separate, private subcommunities), making your community manager’s job easier.
  • Automation rules: Using logic-based rules, you can automate messages to members. For example, you could establish an automation rule that sends a “We miss you” message to members who haven’t engaged in the community recently. Why is this helpful? With automation rules, you’re able to reach out to members personally, at scale.
  • Gamification: Here’s another way to encourage friendly competition among your members to spur involvement. Award badges, set up a leaderboard, or use prizes. These types of motivators reward dedicated members and make them feel appreciated for their participation. It can also help members get into the habit of participating.

Networking and Professional Growth

One of the greatest benefits for members, and one that leads to long-term engagement, is the connections they’ll create with each other. You’re creating a secure, private environment where they can share their thoughts, fears, questions or even things as simple as pictures of their pets. They’ll create connections that will lead to professional growth and friendship. These relationships will make their experience of your association richer, and you’ll get much of the credit for bringing those relationships together. Events will even become more meaningful for members because they’ve created relationships with other members online prior to meeting in person.

Data Collection for Improved Responses

As I mentioned earlier, community creates a large source of data you didn’t have access to before. You can use this data within the community to increase participation. For example, if you know most members access the community through their mobile phones, you know your community website needs to be accessible and mobile-friendly. But you can also use the data you gather to increase engagement in your association overall. See what topics members engage with the most. Use these insights to create more educational content around those topics, such as webinars, trainings and conference sessions.

Improving your association’s ROI in 2019 is going to be dependent on how you can improve retention and attract new members.

In general, community is a resource to make your job (i.e., member engagement) easier.

Community: Improve Your Member Programs

Members pay dues to join your association for many reasons: professional growth, access to new resources, staying up-to-date in their field, finding networking opportunities and holding leadership roles, among others. The programs you provide to members can be instrumental in helping them meet and exceed their goals.

  • Resource Library: Your community is a place where every resource can live all in one place behind a secured login, so the library becomes an exclusive member benefit. Build it out with anything from videos and blog posts to trainings and archived webinars.
  • Volunteering Opportunities: Often, associations think of volunteering on a large scale, such as joining a committee for a year or organizing part of the annual conference. Forget organizing through a spreadsheet or other manual method, and let your community pick up some slack for opportunities, big and small. Split these up into micro-opportunities – writing a blog post, serving for one-hour shifts at a conference booth, or answering new members questions – and manage them through your community. Members can see the level of involvement needed and sign up themselves.
  • Mentorship Program: Members may be interested in finding or being mentors through your association. When they only see other members once or twice a year or don’t live near a local chapter, getting started can be difficult. Create mentorship opportunities for them using your community. No matter where members are located, they can join to find someone to help them along in their career.

Make Community Part of Your Organization’s Strategy for 2019

Improving your association’s ROI in 2019 is going to be dependent on how you can improve retention and attract new members. And that, as you might guess, is dependent on how well you’re engaging with your current members. Your members want your association to be a place they can make connections for a plethora of reasons. But most of all, it comes down to wanting to be part of a community.