Online communities are the talk of the town for associations right now. But hearing about it and feeling like you need one is very different from understanding what they actually are, how you can use one and if you even actually need one. In a webinar hosted by Personify, Don Knox, Executive Chair for Civica Associations Conferences and Exhibitions, and Ashly Stewart, Marketing Manager from Personify, dove into those questions to help you better understand the advantages of an online community.  Here’s our highlights from the webinar (but you can check out the recording for the full thing).

Are online communities a nice-to-have or need-to-have?

Starting off the webinar, Ashly and Don discuss the focal question of whether online communities are nice-to-have or a need-to-have. For a long time, the verdict was “nice-to-have”. The biggest contributor to this position? The cost of online communities. However, Don noted that online communities have evolved in recent years to a point where the cost is lower and the quality is higher!

Another concern from team “nice-to-have” is the automatic assumption that when you get an online community, no one actually uses it. Well, using the platform to its full potential often mitigates this concern – everything should be in the community and your members will want to use it! If you’re a member looking for something related to your association, it should be found in your online community. Discussion boards, event promotion, blogs, webinar registration, video recordings, meeting notes – put it in your online community.

The verdict: Online communities are a need-to-have

The biggest reason that online communities are a need-to-have is that members want them. “Our members are asking for it and not only are they asking for it, but if we don’t create a space for them, they will do it themselves,” said Ashly in the webinar. The problem with member-created communities, like a Facebook group, is that you don’t own these spaces, have no control over what is done there and they have low security. An example of low security came in 2021 when Facebook was hacked and millions of individuals’ profiles were affected. Having a dedicated space for members gives members the space they desire with the security they need.

Another key factor in why online communities are transitioning to a “need-to-have” is due to how they’ve changed recently. They are easier to use and more integrated with your current tech. As members become more remote, the need for connection to their community grows, hence the need for an online community.

Looking at some data to support online communities, Ashly referred to a 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmark Report which showed an uptick in visits to the members-only section of associations’ websites from 44% to 56%, clearly showing the growing interest in online communities.

5 reasons associations may need an online community

Aside from members wanting them, there are a few other reasons that an online community can help you.

1. Flexibility

Online communities are perfect for any size association – small, large or somewhere in between. An online community can grow and scale with your association’s goals. The options for managing an online community are plentiful as well. We’ve seen success for each of these management options:

  • You can hire a full-time Community Manager role
  • You can hire a part-time Community Manager role
  • You can make community management a tag-team effort with your existing team
  • You can recruit volunteers to manage your community
  • You can build a board committee that oversees community management

One of the biggest things Don discusses about creating a successful online community is making sure everything members need/want is in the community. Rather than sending out emails or a zoom link to an event – put your information in the online community.

“Everything that you do is in your online community in some form or fashion.”

Don Knox
Executive Chair for Civica Associations Conferences and Exhibitions

2. Group management and engagement

Clear segmentation is needed to allow your members to have the best experience in the online community. Having various discussion boards in your community for specific interests will give members a personalized experience, encouraging engagement in the community. The same goes for audience-specific groups, such as individuals who volunteer, attend events and new members.

The best part of having this segmentation is that members can opt into specific groups that meet their interests at any time, allowing everyone’s preferences to align with their experience in the online community.

This group management and segmentation is also helpful for staff members. They can use member data to get to know their members based on their behaviors in the community. Seeing this data allows organizations to communicate with the right individuals at the right time, increasing member engagement and building deeper, more personal relationships.

3. Additional revenue opportunities

When utilizing a member-exclusive online community, there are many ways an association can build additional revenue. You can provide member-only learning opportunities such as webinars, educational sessions, and certification programs by promoting them in the community. This is also a good place to give members easy access to merchandise or store links, you can offer special discounts and sales to those in the online community.

It’s also a great space to promote any branded items you’re selling and any events you’re hosting. Including a special early-bird price for members that register in your online community is another way to encourage members to use the space and engage with your content.

4. Better communication and workflows

Online communities should always be member-centric, but did you know they have benefits for your internal team and boards, too?

You can use your online community as a centralized location for your document storage and access. Ashly shared some data from a case study about a Personify client using CommUnity. The National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP) saved $1,600 per year after CommUnity platform replaced DropBox!

Leveraging your online community as a central place for everything is vital for getting the most out of the software. Use it for storing:

  • Meeting minutes
  • Working documents
  • Annual reports
  • Content to share with members
  • Anything else your association may create

The best part is that you can restrict access to certain staff members using the group management feature.

For your marketing team, an online community provides benefits as well. Instead of using a typical email to communicate with members, you can post the same content in your community discussion board. This space encourages more interaction and engagement with members, giving you a better idea of interest and engagement than tracking email opens and clicks.

5. Increasing member loyalty

Members join associations for their mission and they will stay loyal due to the connections they make and the value offered to them. An online community is an interactive and live space for members to grow loyalty to your organization. This can happen because they:

  • Get up-to-date announcements on new events
  • Can build connections with other members
  • See others engaging (and enjoying) their membership in your organization

 It’s hard to walk away from an organization that clearly cares about its members so much.

Member-driven content is also something we’ve seen contribute to membership retention. When members can interact with each other and build connections with those who have the same interests and values as them, it strengthens your community from the inside. When you see your members producing a lot of content and interacting with each other’s creations… that’s when you know your online community is doing what it should.

Your need-to-have online community

While many are viewing online communities as essential to their organization, it’s important to make sure it aligns with member needs and behaviors. The driving factor in building your online community should be that your members need it, want it and see it as enhancing their experience in your organization.

And try not to stress about how to manage your online community. There are many options ranging from hiring a dedicated community manager to having a volunteer team. For a deeper dive into how you can do more with less, check out “No Community Manager? No Problem.”

An online community can be a huge benefit for your organization. To watch the full conversation between Ashly Stewart, Marketing Manager from Personify and Don Knox, Executive Chair for Civica Associations Conferences and Exhibitions click the link below!