Building Your Association Community: From a Blueprint to a Home
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By Kathie Pugaczewski, CMP, CAE

Today, information is free. Just about anything an individual desires to know can be found with the right “Google” search. In a world of free information, there is a sense of anxiety among association professionals who have believed that a portion of their association’s value proposition was based on serving as the exclusive gateway to industry data. What they’ve missed is that associations are not in the business of providing raw data. Rather, a strong association transforms information into knowledge and insight by harnessing the collective expertise of thought leaders to create value and outcomes that shape professions, impact societies and drive the economy.

Since their inception, associations have been a forum for connection, community and collaboration. Prior to the rapid expansion of technology over the past 20 years, the primary way associations facilitated this forum for connection was through in-person meetings. Increasing accessibility of affordable technology platforms and social media tools creates opportunity for associations to establish and grow online communities for members to feel connected between in-person meetings. Done well, these communities can strengthen member retention, growth and engagement. The convergence of websites, databases, social media and private communities gives associations a strategic advantage to build and deepen the relationship among members by customizing offerings to their interests and needs.

There are a lot of tools to choose from; even if an association selects the right tool, there is still a critical resource requirement of knowledge and experience using the tool in order for the association to be successful. Just because you give someone a hammer doesn’t mean they can build a house. Sticking with the metaphor, staff professionals need to draft the blueprints, build the house and transform it into a home by engaging our members to foster and facilitate online community and collaboration.

When an association first launches a new online community and/or collaboration tool, it is building a new structure – a foundation for the house. Like social media, online communities must be member-driven to be sustainable. Following are key factors to consider in building the foundation of an online community:

Provide instructions and models: Members are busy – and unless they see the value of using the tools, they won’t. Build website “how to” pages and 2-3 minute webinars demonstrating how to use the tools.
Create a “member central” page on the website: Help members to easily find the online tools they want by providing a member portal page. This page also provides a “teaser” for nonmembers to see what they could access online if they join.
Be specific: File libraries and forum discussion groups must be focused on defined topics. General content won’t generate much interest. Get topic ideas from members that drive peer-to-peer connection and conversation.
Facilitate the process: Take a test drive with new tools and work with volunteers to brainstorm topics, questions and ideas that generate ongoing value. Like social media, private communities need to be facilitated by staff – but must be member-driven to be sustainable.

One example of an association that has had success establishing a new online community is the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). AHRD launched new file libraries and forum discussion groups with specific topics based on the interests of its members. The file library names include topics such as Conference Presenters and Attendees, Articles Worth Reading, Emerging Scholars, Practitioner Resources, and Webcast Library.

The forum discussion called “Conversations” has two layers, with broad categories and specific topics beneath. Categories include Water Cooler, Career Development and The Field of HRD. Under each broad topic, specific subtopics help to direct the conversation, like “Off the record,” with a focus on non-career/academic topics – a great way for members to connect on interests outside of their profession. Three other topics for each primary member segment include “In the field” to focus on academics; “In the classroom” for students; and “Practitioners” for the scholar-practitioner community.

AHRD’s Special Interest Groups (SIGs) are now set up as online groups. The association will provide training to show the SIG chairs how to use the tools to add value to their community – including a group directory, messaging members, file libraries, shared calendar and forum discussion. These new features will start conversations and add value to SIG membership. The association is forming a SIG Leaders Group to share best practices.

The Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) is effectively utilizing forum discussion groups and file libraries for its board, committees and SIGs. The tools can complement each other. QRCA has a very active LinkedIn Group (which is open to nonmembers) and a members-only forum discussion group. By cross-promoting content of both social media and private online communities, the value increases in both platforms.

The Association of Image Consultants International (AICI) has a virtual chapter structure that empowers chapter leaders to have real-time access to chapter member information as they join and choose their chapter in the online database. The description of the chapter is public, but members of the chapter need to log in to access the online tools.

In a world of free information, associations need not panic that they are losing relevance. Associations need to communicate the value of member-based community and access to thought leadership that converts information into insight and action. The tools and blueprint are essential to building the house, but it takes member input, experience, and know-how to turn a house into a home worth visiting again and again.

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