Recently, Ernie Smith wrote a good piece about starting online communities in Associations Now. In the article, he referred back to the Reddit volunteer moderator revolt I wrote about last August, and offered some tips for organizations just beginning to build online communities. For associations looking to build strong online communities from the ground up, I’d build upon Ernie’s tips a bit, as follows:
1- DON’T JUST BUILD FOR YOURSELF–BRING EVERYONE ELSE ON BOARD.
For many associations, the first step in building an online community is purchasing software. While software is the foundation on which your community will live, there are important steps to take before you start building. Start developing relationships and creating a shared vision for what the community can become early on, before you buy any software or even start the selection process. Consider creating a community steering committee who will ultimately become your community champions. The more personal the interactions you establish before the community is built, the more buy-in you’ll have before the community is even up and running–and the easier it will be have those champions begin cultivating a strong community once it’s up and running.
2 – BUILD A COMMUNITY FROM AN EXISTING BOND.
This is where associations have a distinct advantage over brands looking to build online communities–association members already have an existing bond, which is baked into the association. However, far from being a slam-dunk, in my experience, this is often a loose bond. Yes, your association represents an industry or a profession, but while that bond does already exist, you may see better success building a community around a smaller segment of the membership with a bond stronger than mere shared membership or professional affiliation. For example, instead of just one overarching community for all members, initially focus on special interest groups, new members, members who hold the association’s certification, etc. Those niche groups will likely bring you some early wins in terms of engagement, participation and enthusiasm about the community, and you can then use those successes and community champions to springboard your community to the broader membership.
3 – JUST BECAUSE A BOND EXISTS DOESN’T MEAN THEY KNOW YOU DO.
This one is sort of a head-scratcher for associations, because obviously your members know your organization exists. That said, to grow their community, associations should leverage their other points of contact with members (newsletters, social media, magazines, events, etc.) to continually raise awareness of the community. General calls to action like “Join a conversation with your peers!” are less effective than specific calls to action like “See what [specific member or industry expert] had to say about [hot topic in the field your association represents] this week in our community.” Also, look at your community as a hook to bring new members on board, or at least to raise awareness about your association among the broader community of potential members, customers or event attendees. Even if your community is a member-only benefit, there are ways to surface interactions and resources behind the community wall to larger constituencies.
4 – MAKE SURE YOUR COMMUNITY MANAGERS ARE GREAT STORYTELLERS.
Hmmmmmm. What community managers? Let’s get real here. Most association communities don’t have a manager. They took the “if you build it they will come approach”….and the results often are proof positive that this strategy just doesn’t work if you’re trying to build a strong, engaged community (and who isn’t?). My most successful clients have one thing in common: A dedicated community manager. Even if they’re not great storytellers (and most of the ones I work with aren’t!) this is still the #1 predictor of success. If someone is focused on community, the community thrives. Whodathunkit? So storytelling aside, make sure your community managers just ARE…as in, have one–or, ideally, more than one.
5 – ALL EMPLOYEES SHOULD KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT COMMUNITY UPKEEP.
This one is spot-on and I agree entirely. One of the top roles of a community manager (assuming you have one) is coaching other staff on how to engage in — and harvest the benefits of — the community. The full time community managers I work with hold regular meetings and brown bag lunches with their co-workers to ensure the principles of effective community management are spread far and wide. And more than just community upkeep, the more staff who are aware of what’s going on in the community, the more likely your association is to be successful in integrating the community into all aspects of the association’s other offerings…which, in turn, will fuel continued community growth and engagement.