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Building Online Community, Capturing and Nurturing Member Loyalty

Posted By Kathie , Monday, May 18, 2015

Associations have always been about community, like-minded people with similar interests in professions or causes gathering to advance individually and as a whole. In recent past, building community in associations happened in person at our conventions and professional development programs.


Technology now affords us the opportunity to engage with our members year round with online communities, increasing the member value proposition if designed and delivered effectively. Just because you can technically build the online community doesn’t mean that members will come. If you’re going to build an online community, be aware of the ongoing commitment of time and resources to make it about enhancing and evolving relationships, not one-time transactions.

The first and most familiar online communities are Facebook and LinkedIn. Associations now have easy access to the tools to build member-only communities on their websites. With our members accustomed to the usability of Facebook and LinkedIn, we are competing with these platforms and need to have compelling reasons to create members-only online communities that are active and create value.

Online communities need to have a specific purpose with communication strategies to create conversation, collaboration, connections and new learnings. We need to facilitate that process and build momentum to create ongoing value.

There are a variety of features in online communities including forum discussion groups, file sharing, directories to list members and allow one-on-one communication, searchable databases to connect through like attributes, wiki-like collaboration on documents and sharing through social media tools. The key is determine which tools to use and why and not to use every tool if not necessary. Start with a few, keep it simple, give clear directions and get members to own the facilitation.

Key strategies to building an online community include:

Invite – ask thought leaders, millennials and mid-career members to participate and drive conversations

Good instructions – help members with their user name and password and how to retrieve it if they’ve forgotten. Create “rules” of engagement and define the purpose of the community

Prompting and prodding – get members to come back by cross-promoting on the website, emails and social media what’s happening and discussion on the online community

Personalize it – encourage members to upload photos and gather interests, attributes and key data points to find commonality amongst the community

Gamification – create points, incentives and make it fun with a little friendly competition

Consistency and commitment – foster the community, keep conversations and sharing going, ask thought-provoking questions, discuss trends, share tools and strategies that are compelling and will drive return visitors

Position and Market It – online communities are a great way to find experts, network (without selling) and ultimately are a great resource for social and collaborative learning.

There are many different ways to make your online community a benefit for your members.  The Association for Staff Physician Recruiters is currently using an online community to support both their live annual conference and fellowship program and their on-demand fellowship program.  The handouts and documents for the conference and on-demand webinars are posted to the community for download and members granted access as they registered. 

The Qualitative Research Consultants Association has created many different online communities to support their regional chapter groups and special interest groups as well.  This allows members to segment by location and topic of interest and network virtually.  Members are able to create their own events for networking or webinars, connect on and offline and also have a discussion forum for sharing resources and best practices. In addition, their members-only Forum Discussion Group is a vibrant exchange of thoughts and ideas on business issues and opportunities, research questions, social networking, suggestion box and industry news.

Several other associations are using the online communities to create mentorship relationships to assist newcomers to the field and the association.  The online community assists in creating the mentor-mentee pair, providing mentorship resources and a forum to assist in the pairing and networking.  In addition, group mentoring programs are a preferred method for millennials to engage with mentors.

In each of these cases, the online community is a specific member benefit that creates value for the association member and the organization as well. 


Members join our organizations for a sense of belonging and community so creating relevant experiences both online and in-person is critical to retention and member development. More and more for-profit companies are changing their business strategy to a “membership” model, creating loyal and long-term customers. Other good models for building online communities that foster impactful peer to peer connections and collaboration include LinkedIn, Match.com, Weight-Watchers, Salesforce.com, Marketo, Sierra Club, Amazon and Pinterest. In her new book, “The Membership Economy,” Robbie Kellman Baxter lays out detailed strategies and case studies from these companies that’s well worth not only the “read” but the actual implementation in our own organizations.



Tags:  association management 

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