Membership Q&A: Online Communities?

Group of people sitting next to each other on a stone wall

No, I’m not going to get into which white-label platform you should use – for that, we have ReviewMyCommunity.

Take one step back: white-label or public?

That is, the publicly-available, commercial platforms (LinkedIn, Facebook, and their ilk).

This is a tough one.

The advantage – and it’s a BIG one – of using a public platform is that your members are already there. They already know how to access the site. They already have an account. They already know how to use the site. They already log in on a regular basis.

That’s significant.

Your members are experiencing platform fatigue. They don’t want to create another account whose password they’re going to forget. They don’t want to have to learn another interface. They don’t want to have to remember to check another website. They’re overloaded with information and looking to simplify.

On the other hand, if it’s free, you’re the product.

You don’t pay for that platform which means, as many of us have discovered to our great sorrow over the years, they can change the rules at any time, in any way, with any – or no – warning.

When Facebook first started breaking out from being just a place where college kids and young adults went to “poke” each other and play FarmVille, associations went big on the platform, investing time and resources in developing our organizational pages, and getting good results – fans, likes, driving traffic back to our main websites.

But Facebook couldn’t profit off that exposure, so they changed the rules to decrease organizations’ visibility in our audiences’ timelines. Unless you pay.

Thus began a war of attrition between Facebook and organizations trying to use Facebook for audience outreach, where we start enjoying success that isn’t filling Facebook’s coffers, so they change the rules, so our “reach” drops off, so we either pay the protection money or figure out a way around the new rule changes until Facebook catches up with us and changes the rules AGAIN.

LinkedIn, being the business platform, cut straight to the chase, and for all intents and purposes, killed Groups in 2017. I mean, they still exist, but they’re buried and a lot of the functionality has been stripped. LinkedIn’s energy seems to be going towards having your feed be the locus of interaction (like Facebook), but somehow I don’t think this blog post (which will auto-post to my LI feed) is going to be nearly as compelling as latest viral cat video or meme on Facebook.

You don’t own the data from that platform – they do. Can you download contact information for members of your LinkedIn Group? Nope. You appear to be able to, for Facebook, at least right now and for some types of groups. But that may change in the 15 minutes from when I type this until I hit “publish” on this post. And you don’t own any data, information, insights, etc. that are shared in your groups on either platform.

Additionally, although your members may be on a particular platform, they may not want to be WITH YOUR ASSOCIATION on that platform. You have a better shot here with LinkedIn, of course, but it’s pretty common for people to use the other platforms solely for personal reasons, which means they may not want to connect with you at all, or even if they do, they may not want to interact with your content there.

So why is this even a question? Just get Higher Logic or Breezio or whatever and be done with it.

That’s not that simple, either. Aside from cost issues, there’s a flywheel effect. Getting an online community started from scratch is really hard. In order for people to want to come, there has to be some “there” there, but there won’t be useful content without active contributors.

Chicken and egg? Yep.

I will say, all of the community platform vendors that have been successful in the association space are well aware of this problem, and offer all sorts of resources and guides and tips and assistance to their clients in getting the machine going.

But you still have to assess things like:

Overall size of your audience. Online communities are subject to the 90-9-1 rule. That is, 90% are going to lurk nearly exclusively. Nine percent will contribute occasionally. One percent will be truly active.

Math problem (don’t worry – it’s easy): What’s the overall size of your audience?

If you have 100,000 community members, you’re in good shape – that’s a lot of lurkers, but it’s also 1,000 active contributors and 9,000 occasional contributors, which is PLENTY to generate robust conversation.

Now if your total audience is 1000 – or 500 – or 100 – your white-label online community may NEVER take off. Too few contributors. It’s just math.

Their comfort level with technology, and the user interface and experience of the technology undergirding the platform you choose. All the respected platforms support Single Sign-On (SSO) at this point, but are your members even comfortable with logging into your website in the first place? Are they going to be willing and able to put in the time to learn what your community platform can do? Are they going to be savvy enough not to kill conversation with a constant flood of “me, too” posts? Will the platform allow them to interact in the way(s) they want, which at a minimum should include: website that is responsive design (so it works equally well on a computer, tablet, or smartphone), email, and app?

Their work environments and patterns. Are they people who are online for their jobs or at their jobs? Is that where they go to get advice, or do they turn to the person next to them? Do they like typing responses back and forth on an open platform, or are they more comfortable on the phone – or texting – with individuals or a small, select group?

There’s no one right answer for every association or for every industry or profession. For some, a private community is going to be worth the investment of association resources (not just buying the technology, but also staff time and attention to nurture your new community) and the learning curve for the members.

For some, the drawbacks of Facebook or LinkedIn will be far outweighed by the convenience, ease, and cost (or lack thereof) of these platforms.

Some groups may not benefit from an online community, no matter what the platform – they may be more suited to facilitating one-on-one or small group relationships.

Remember, associations are about community, about groups of people coming together to accomplish things they couldn’t do at all – or at least not as well or easily – on their own. What best helps your particular people achieve that goal?

Know yourself, know your industry or profession, know your members – and don’t be distracted by the new, shiny, hot thing everyone’s fangirling over this week.

Edited to add: The September/October 2019 issue of CalSAE’s The Executive magazine includes an excellent article on just this topic! Check it out!

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash




What Makes Community?

Back in the mid-1990s (so, in Internet time, 500 years ago), I was a member of a thriving online community on the Runner’s World website. We shared training regimens, asked each other questions, told race stories, got injury and gear advice, told stupid jokes, gave each other a lot of shit, got into arguments and then made up, and generally had a ball.

“Wait!” you say. “That was, like, 10 years before Facebook or LinkedIn or MySpace or Friendster or any of that stuff. Were you using carrier pigeons to communicate? How did that work?”

The technology was neither intuitive nor sophisticated. I remember how excited we all got when the discussions started being threaded instead of appearing in a Hunter Thompson-esque stream-of-consciousness. There were no community managers, no training videos. No one created a community strategy or marketing and communications plan. It shouldn’t have worked.

But it did.

Why? What makes community?

This question came up a few weeks ago during #assnchat. Many associations have launched private communities of one sort of another at this point, or are at least considering it.

Unsurprisingly, “results vary.”

The question is why.

It’s not like there’s some BIG secret around how to make online communities work.

  • You need organizational buy-in at all levels, but particularly among executives and volunteer leaders.
  • You need dedicated community manager(s) to shepherd process and nurture the community.
  • You need community champions from among your audiences to keep the conversation going.
  • You need a platform that works (from a tech perspective) and is relatively intuitive to use.
  • You need to educate your audiences (ALL your audiences) in how to use that platform, and do it in bite-sized chunks and in a variety of formats.
  • You need to give people a reason to show up and participate, and to keep coming back.
  • You need to remember the 90-9-1 rule and learn to love your lurkers.
  • You need to communicate what’s going on in the community with your audiences on an ongoing basis.

But even with all that, your community can still fall flat.


Passion, or to be more precise, lack thereof.

People have to care, about each other, about the topics being discussed, about sharing knowledge, about learning from each other, about projects they’re working on together.

Or, as Jamie Notter would say: “It’s all about love.”

If you have it, there’s a good chance your online community will make it, even in the absence of a manager or a strategy or a communications plan or even adequate technology. Without it, you could have the best strategy and marketing and staffing and platform and support in the world, and it will probably flop anyway.

What is your association doing to discover and support your audiences’ passion?

Marketing Masterstrokes

Yesterday, Kristina Twigg (Water Environment Federation), Lauren Wolfe (Higher Logic), and I presented on marketing your private online community at the Higher Logic Users’ Group Super Forum.

Kristina, Lauren, and I each shared our own tips for marketing community (contained in the slides below), and then we led a crowdsourcing exercise to elicit additional private community marketing advice from Higher Logic clients and users:

  • Make business cards with your community URL to hand out. Advanced tip? Have a laminating machine at your conference so people can make luggage tags with your community card on one side and their own business card on the other.
  • Have a solid strategy for roll out (and K.I.S.S.).
  • Do at least ONE mailing (maybe a postcard?) about your new community.  If your members have unsubbed your mailing list, you won’t be able to get them via email.
  • Have a mobile app for the community? Use QRC for easy app download.
  • Encourage people to upload profile pictures. Send “is this you?” messages with a blank head outline periodically.
  • Pre-populate the login “remember me” box – make people opt *out* rather than having to opt in.
  • Start a blog series to attract attention.
  • Include a regular “most discussed in our community” feature in your other communications pieces (like enewsletters).
  • If your listservs are still live, link to them in the appropriate communities so the information is searchable.