It’s been a minute since I’ve written about my all-time favorite topic: online community for associations. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking (aka obsessing) about it though…for better or for worse, depending which way you look at that 🙂
Even though I’ve recently switched over to the “dark side” (although it’s the brightest dark side ever…more on that to come, or let’s catch up and I’ll tell you all about it), I remain passionate about associations and am excited to be able to continue working with them, if as a partner/adviser rather than staff member. And I also remain obsessed with the importance of online community for associations, as well as the importance of housing that community on a platform that you control, not one that controls you (I assume you’ve read about the changes to Facebook’s algorithm and how it will impact publishers and–much more so–associations with little/no ad budget). But I’ll digress about those Facebook changes for now…but more on that and some updates on LinkedIn groups coming as soon.
It’s been a while, but I’ve written before about why associations have an advantage that brands/for-profits don’t have when it comes to online community, but I used to write about it a lot and still think about it plenty, even though community management hasn’t been an official part of my job for a few years. While not actively involved in managing online community (I don’t count social media management as community management), I have watched more and more associations invest in online community technology while still for the most part ignoring the importance of community management. Yes, technology vendors have started talking about community management–especially as marketing fodder–and have even started offering it as a service, the understanding of the discipline of community management among association execs still seems to be about the same as it was 10 years ago…e.g. barely to not at all existent. Granted, I certainly don’t know everything nor do I have a pulse on every association out there, but between talking to association friends, including those whose roles include community management…or those who don’t and following association publications and webinars about online community and community management, it’s pretty clear that very little has changed.
In fact, earlier this week Associations Now featured a perfect example of this. This week’s Wednesday Buzz article included a segment about whether it’s worth it to revive a struggling online community, based on a recent FeverBee post. Here’s the quote that forced me out of my blogging slump:
“A recent Feverbee post suggests you may need to revamp the entire concept or purpose of the community—or even make the tough decision to close it down.”
With all due respect to Rich Millington–and he is certainly a smart online community pro with a lot of experience–I think this particular advice is not only just misguided in the context of associations, but just wrong.
Associations ARE communities regardless of whether they use an online community platform or a listserv or a newsletter or only in-person events to connect peers and foster connections/collaboration….or even if they don’t use any of these online tactics. While brand communities–that Rich talks about in his post–may not find it valuable to sustain a community launched around a particular topic, associations that aren’t able to sustain interest in the topic/profession they represent have a much bigger problem than online community. The “hard change” they’d have to make to correct the problem has nothing to do with online community; it would mean sunsetting the association then starting from scratch with something else….something that doesn’t really work in the association world.
Absolutely, many associations launch online communities that aren’t a success–IMO that’s mostly because associations don’t understand, care about or invest in community management and think that all online community entails is buying the technology and then waiting for the vendor-promised “engagement” to happen. If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean that the solution is just shrugging and saying “see–we tried online community and nobody used it so we’re ending it and just switching to Facebook Groups because everyone’s already on Facebook” or something similar.
Sure, it could mean doing as Rich suggests and auditing your online community’s activity/engagement and figuring out whether the problem is a lack of strategy/management that’s preventing members from visiting and/or engaging or that the platform is too clunky or otherwise not suited to your members’ needs. But the CHIP method outlined in the post and suggested in the Associations Now piece just doesn’t align with associations for the following reasons:
C – Create content. Associations already have a ton of valuable content. They publish magazines and journals and newsletters and blogs and reports. Sure, maybe create content highlighting what’s happening in the online community to raise awareness of the platform and encourage participation, but just creating more content? Not so much.
H – Host. Associations, for the most part, already have this part on lock, whether it’s annual in-person meetings, committee meetings, local events, webinars and/or other online events. Create webinars about the online community to show members how to use it or highlight particular features or topics? Sure. Host face-to-face meetings of active groups or focus on the online community at annual meeting? Definitely. But creating these events as an exercise in building a community? That box is already checked.
I – Interact. Associations already interact with members, whether it’s via members reaching out to the organization with questions, problems or compliments, or whether it’s association staff interacting with members…that’s what associations are already about. Sure, if you’re looking to build out engagement in an existing online community or get feedback for a new platform, reach out to members to get their input…but if that’s the only time an association is interacting with members, they’ve got much bigger issues.
P – Participate. Sure, association staff can participate in other online communities or attend in-person meetings or company visits…but those groups/communities/events are probably already affiliated with the association. Either that or they’re competitors, and unless you’re exhibiting at a trade show, buying an ad or a piece of sponsored content in their community or publication, participating in either online or face-to-face conversations with the purpose of soliciting people to join your association may not go over so well. So yes, participate in these things on behalf of your association, as you already do, and promote your online community as a resource when it makes sense. But again…unless you promote your online community to existing members, devote adequate resources and staff to managing it effectively on an ongoing basis and make sure members know what value participation offers, they won’t participate…and may well find other online communities that will eventually replace your association.
To that last point: today more than ever before, competition for people’s attention and time is fierce. But associations have something that brands don’t: existing members aligned around a common issue. Not providing an online community platform of some sort for those members to connect with each other 24/7 instead of once a year at annual events just means that they’ll find or build that community elsewhere. Unless you’re making the tough decision to sunset the association entirely, shutting down the community of members and starting from scratch with new members around a different topic isn’t really an option.