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Using Online Community to Increase Member Retention

A few weeks ago I was in Orlando at ASAE’s Great Ideas conference. I love this conference because it’s small and the content is good and it’s not all about the expo hall (as much as I love me some expo hall). Also, it’s sunny and warm here and not a snowflake in sight, so it’s a welcome break from the polar vortex. And of course I was excited to get a chance to talk about my favorite subject, online community, with my friend Josh Paul, in the session we presented yesterday, Using Online Community to Increase Member Retention. We did so much research about the subject that I swear we could write a book about it….so be forewarned!

Suppose you’re not obsessed with online communities like I am–you might wonder how online community can help increase member retention. To me, it’s just a given–retention is about keeping members engaged with both the association and other members. Look at the top three reasons members don’t renew association membership, according to MGI’s 2013 Membership Marketing Benchmarking report:

  1. Budget cuts
  2. Lack of engagement
  3. Unable to justify membership costs with ROI

Two of these three can be addressed/alleviated with online community. An online community is about year-round engagement with the organization. It’s networking (the top reason people join associations, according to the MGI report), socializing, exchanging expertise and being reminded on a regular basis of the association’s offerings. In my opinion, there is no better way for people to engage with both the association they’re paying to belong to and the other members they’re paying to network with. Of course, face to face is the best way to network and communicate, but realistically, that can’t happen every day. Online community can.

ROI of membership costs can easily be linked to online community: access to experts in the field, cost savings over hiring a consultant or other third party if you can get answers to questions/challenges via the online community, time spent researching when you can just post in the community and get an answer, etc. Collaborate is a great example of this: how much time and money have ASAE members saved by being able to query a group of association professionals about an issue, product or service? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say “I posted about this on Collaborate and got a ton of great feedback” I’d have a decent number of dollars; likewise, consultant friends have told me about business they’ve gotten as a direct result of responding to queries.

The rub is that all this doesn’t just happen if you launch an online community; it has to be a thriving, well-managed community. With that in mind, if you want your association’s online community to become one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable, tool in your retention arsenal, these five things are musts:

  1. Community management is key. Build it and they will come is a myth; you need a dedicated community manager to tie community into the rest of your association’s offerings—communication vehicles, marketing, events, etc. Volunteers can help with this, as moderators and/or champions for your online community and as participants, but you need to have a dedicated staff person or consultant to be able to tie the community in with all the other things your association offers.
  2. Regular communication and cross promotion are essential. A weekly email digest of posts of interest, questions that need answers and mention of new resources in the community are a must to drive engagement and make participation in the community a habit. You must also weave the online community into your other communication vehicles: newsletters, print ads and editorial content in magazine, on-site meetups at conferences, cross-promotion in journals and other publications via journal clubs, and public social media channels.
  3. Leadership buy-in is essential. Both executive staff buy-in and volunteer leader support are essential to the success of your online community. The same way volunteer leader attendance at business and annual meetings are mandatory, so must be volunteer leader participation in your community if you want leaders to lead by example in terms of your online community. Make active participation in the online community part of a leader agreement—the way “face time” with leaders is essential at in-person events, it’s the same with online community. If leaders don’t participate, it sends a message to members that it’s not important.
  4. Online community is about more than conversation. Yes, online community is about discussions and networking, but it doesn’t stop there—it can be much more than just a place where people connect for networking. Make your community your platform for volunteer collaboration—create groups for various leadership groups and use the group for disseminating collaborative documents, agendas and minutes. This will reduce the need to send files via email and will make it easier for these documents to “live” in a central place—and will also send traffic to the community and reinforce the community as a place members need and want to visit. The same can be true for other content, such as examples, policies, presentations, etc.
  5. Online community is a valuable member benefit. If you treat it like a throw-away, and don’t devote resources to it, members won’t value it either. Likewise, if you do devote resources to it, don’t give it away for free. That doesn’t necessarily mean making your community members-only, although I personally think it should be a member benefit. What it does mean is that if you’re going to open part or all of the community to non-members, at least be strategic about it and get something for the association in the bargain: have a plan in place for converting participants to members or at least marketing products and services to them, and be able to track those conversions as they happen.


Maggie McGary is an  association community manager and blogs at Mizz Information.  You can follow her on Twitter @maggielmcg and connect with her on LinkedIn.



(photo credit)


Anne Ornelas March 27, 2014 at 12:19 PM

OK, so this is really great and innovative for sure. However, what about organizations who do not have the financial or staff resources to put towards building an online community such as Collaborate? What are our alternatives to building online engagement year-round to continue increasing/sustaining member value and ROI? It’s easy to talk about this when you have the ability to create the community in a robust way, but many of us are struggling with other priorities at the same time and can’t figure out how to do this in a way that 1. won’t break us financially, 2. won’t require a significant staff resource (i.e. 1 FTE) to manage it and 3. will actually get members to come to the party. I’m so tired of hearing how this is so important but when you have conference and membership models that both need attention, the online community is just another item on our long list of wishes that seem out of reach.

Maggie McGary April 1, 2014 at 8:44 AM

I hear you, Anne, and I get that not every association has resources to dedicate to this. However, online community is nothing new–most associations have at least a listserv, which is an online community and usually a pretty popular member benefit. I don’t claim to know the answer or the secret formula–I wish I did!–but I think some clues are looking at how you’re currently dedicating resources and looking at how you can shift those resources into areas that are about making participation in and engagement with the association year-round–like online community. Maybe it means having the membership staff focus a dedicated amount of time to building a robust online community; maybe it means the executive director being the one who gets training in community management and leads the charge; maybe someone on staff whose job has nothing to do with online community now but who has the right personality and skill set dedicating part of his/her job to community management–I don’ t think there’s one right answer. I do think, however, that it’s worth investing in if you’re committed to doing it right….easier said than done, I realize, when budget is tight. I’ve worked for a lot of associations and I think there are usually at least some things that are very resource intensive that maybe have diminishing returns….maybe looking for areas like that and sunsetting those, instead focusing on building a robust online community? Again, I wish I had all the answers, but I would encourage you not to totally write it off thinking that financially or time-wise it’s just not an option–even if it’s just nurturing an existing listserv to make it a more valuable member benefit, I think it’s worth the effort.

Anne Ornelas April 1, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Thanks Maggie for your thoughtful commentary. We do have a staff person whose job is to under marketing/communications and she has a role in building engagement. We do have “forums” that no one uses, and allow for commenting on our blogs (again, that few members use or participate). The hard part is that our membership is aging, many are not sitting at a desk all day but out in the community, with clients, or doing other things that take away from their time to post online. The nurturing takes a significant amount of time, in my opinion, and we are a staff of 15 that are already stretched. I’m feeling like such a negative ned here, it just seems like an uphill battle at the moment.

Maggie McGary April 1, 2014 at 12:48 PM

Anne–I totally understand and have been there, done that so I know the feeling. The one thing I’d say in this case is that while that might be your current member demographic, will the same be true of your next generation of members? Also, I wouldn’t be too sure that just because your membership skews older that they’re not online–while they may not be behind a computer all day, every day, chances are that they a) have mobile devices that they use throughout the day and b) do spend time online at some point in their day/week. Even if it’s just highlighting a hot discussion in the forums (or one that has no responses) in your magazine or newsletter each week or month can really help raise the visibility of your community to members and enhance participation. Community is definitely a chicken and egg thing–execs say “we have a community and nobody uses it”….yet they don’t do anything to promote it to members or show how it could have value if they did participate. Maybe just start with one tiny initiative to try to drive participation up and see how that goes, then go from there? Maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised? Or maybe I’ll be proven wrong? 🙂

Anne Ornelas April 1, 2014 at 2:53 PM

Yes, you are absolutely correct on the new member engagement. Ok, ok, I’m beginning to see the light at the very far end of the tunnel. Thanks for your feedback and encouragement, and for allowing me to whine a bit!

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