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Using Online Community to Increase Member Retention

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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.

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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.

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