Engagement: You’re Doing It Right!

Engagement: You’re Doing It Right!

One of the other hot topics on the engagement virtual panel Mary Byers had organized for the Veterinary Medical Association on April 22 was: Who’s doing member engagement well, and what can we learn from them?

A few years ago, Anna Caraveli and I wrote Leading from the Outside-In, in which we describe what member-centric engagement looks like, enumerate eight keys to member-centric engagement, and profile 11 different membership organizations that are doing a great job at it.

Some of those were “big” stories, organizations that had completely transformed themselves, or were built from the ground up, as member-centric: the National Grocers’ Association, the Society for Hospital Medicine, SERMO, and The Community Roundtable. But most of the stories we shared were of associations that had transformed one program, one service, and were using that as a springboard to further change: American MENSA’s SIGs (special interest groups), the Homebuilders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut’s awards program, the Hydraulic Power Association’s standards locator, etc.

Even in one of the first collaborative white papers I produced, The Mission-Driven Volunteer, with Peggy Hoffman, we shared the story of the Oncology Nursing Society, where they were able to go from 1:26 active volunteer members to 1:5. THAT is an engagement success story.

Growing up, my dad was a big fan of Saturday morning PBS educational shows (This Old House, The Victory Garden, and the like), and there’s a running joke in my family about a gazebo-making machine into which you feed a tree and a fully assembled gazebo pops out the other end. The thing is, engagement is more like on the New Yankee Workshop, with master carpenter Norm Abram: Every project is unique, and requires attention to detail and a specific application of the materials and tools at hand.

What’s my point?

Every engagement success story is different and unique to the audiences that association is serving. There isn’t some sort of Universal Association Answer to Engagement, there’s only your audiences, their challenges and goals, and what your association can do to be their go-to solution provider.

Because that’s what I want for you.

Too many associations are a “nice to have” not a “need to have.” Being a “nice to have” is enough when times are good, but when times get tough (professionally or personally), people drop a “nice to have.” I want your association to be a vital partner in your members’ and other audiences’ success, and absolute dedication to a member-centric perspective is the way to get there.

Engagement Lessons from the Pandemic

Engagement Lessons from the Pandemic

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to appear on a virtual panel on engagement, organized by Mary Byers, for the Veterinary Medical Association. We covered a wide range of topics, a few of which I think others would benefit from thinking about, so I’ll be doing a few related blog posts.

Of course, the pandemic was top of mind for everyone. As vaccination rates rise, people (including your members and other audiences) are cautiously poking their heads out of their pandemic hibernation, trying to figure out what “normal” will look like going forward.

How has the future of association engagement changed as a result of the pandemic?

The story associations have always told ourselves is that we’re slow moving and cautious, wary of making too many changes too quickly.

During the pandemic, we learned that that story is not true and it never had to be.

Associations had the opportunity, and have taken it, to tell ourselves a new story about how we can operate, making decisions quickly, experimenting, trying new things, not expecting everything to be perfect all the time, and having compassion for our members and that compassion being reciprocated.

The key is going to be not forgetting that new, better story. We have to keep exercising the new muscles that allowed us to move quickly and be experimental and accepting. We were willing to try things that might not be 100% perfect, and nobody freaked out. Remember that.

The pandemic had uneven effects: some associations enjoyed increased member engagement while others have been deeply challenged. As we finally eye a post-pandemic future, what would you advise association professionals to be thinking about?

Your members’ goals and challenges are shifting rapidly. They’ve almost certainly changed dramatically from what they were in 2019. What you knew – or think you knew – about your members 18 or 12 or even six months ago is likely no longer accurate.

You can’t rely solely, or even heavily, on your board of directors to tell you what’s up. They’re partial “insiders,” so they know too much about the internal workings of your association. Their member experience is neither representative nor typical. Even their professional or industry experience is usually not typical, as people who are more senior or prominent in the profession or industry you serve are almost certainly over-represented.

You have to get out there and talk to your members and other audiences and find out what’s going on with them, and a 1-5 Likert scale satisfaction survey is not going to cut it. Their operating environment has shifted MUCH too radically.

Relatedly, the pandemic taught us all a lot about being more human with each other.

For example: There’s a well-known video of Professor John Kelly’s kids interrupting his interview with the BBC, and it was *quite* the scandal because it happened in March 2017.  After 14+ months of working from home and endless Zoom meetings, now people get mad if you reference your dog or cat and they DON’T make an appearance on your video call.

This has provided a wonderful opportunity for colleagues to be real with each other, and stop pretending like we’re all WorkBot 9000 8+ hours a day, with no personal lives or family relationships or human needs.

Well, guess what? Your members and other audiences are real people, too.

Hopefully, in the pandemic year, you’ve had the opportunity to begin to get to know them as people (and vice versa), and to better understand their fears, hopes, goals, and problems. As we move forward, continue to expand that human understanding, and seek to operate, in your programs, products, and especially services, from that place.

What have you learned, in your association, about engagement during the pandemic that you want to carry forward into the After Times, whatever they turn out to look like?

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Partnership v. Membership: Wrapping Up and the BIG Question

pile of tangled blue ropes

The Partnership v. Membership blog point-counterpoint series I was writing with Lewis Flax got abandoned a little abruptly almost exactly one year ago. I don’t know about you, but I could use some closure. And, of course, there’s the question of: How is all of this impacted by the pandemic, and the massive disruption in pretty much every aspect of our lives that’s resulted?

Membership and the Pandemic

I addressed this topic at the end of 2020, but there are a few things I want to highlight:

  • The pandemic is not affecting all professions and industries the same, and people’s needs, challenges, and goals are shifting rapidly, so you need to invest resources (time, attention, money) in learning about them for your particular profession or industry RIGHT NOW.
  • Some of your members may have to step back and become customers for a while. That’s OK. A customer relationship is a totally valid relationship for someone to have with your association. Be alert to opportunities to bring that person/company back as a member, but also, related to the point above, be aware of and sensitive to the pressures they’re operating under right now. In other words, don’t be pushy.
  • Ladders of engagement are more important than ever, and they’re probably dramatically different than what they were a year ago. You have to pay attention to your data about people’s behavior and look for patterns so you can act instead of just reacting.
  • There is literally no time like the present to kill underperforming programs, products, or services. How do you know? DATA. Learn it, know it, love it – USE IT.
  • Membership is a lagging indicator. Associations have taken hits in event revenue and in membership, and we’re not at bottom yet. Hang on – it’s going to get worse for us before it starts getting better, but it WILL eventually get better if we can make the nimble responsiveness the pandemic forced on us part of our core organizational culture going forward.

Partnership and the Pandemic

  • You HAVE TO talk to your corporate supporters. Lewis stressed this throughout the series, but changing needs, challenges, and goals are hitting supplier relationships particularly hard, because not only is their operating environment dramatically different than it was a year ago, what you can offer them is dramatically different, too. your association can still deliver value that helps them meet their goals in your market, but you are going to have to get creative and work closely with them to do that.

Thanks for hanging with us during this series! Links to all the posts in order.

Do you have insight about how the pandemic is impacting membership and/or corporate partnership in your association, what you’ve learned, and what you’ll be keeping moving forward, once we’re in the “new normal”? Share in the comments!

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Three Challenges – Three Opportunities

child standing at the foot long staircase - possibly at Mosque of Hasan II in Casablanca, Morocco

As we look to 2021, I see three main membership challenges for associations:

  1. Remember that membership is a lagging indicator. Per Marketing General’s annual Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, the Q4 2007 economic crash didn’t fully show up in association metrics until 2009. As hard as this is to hear, given what’s happened in associations this year (canceled meetings, revenue down, staff layoffs), it’s unlikely we’ve seen the bottom yet, and it’s likely we won’t see it for another 12-18 months. Ouch, I know.
  2. Despite the good results on the vaccine trials for Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, this long period of extreme uncertainty is far from over. For instance, we’re still not sure when we’ll all be able to travel again and really can’t even predict yet. This impacts association meetings, which in turn impacts everything most associations do because the conference often provides 30-50% of annual revenue.
  3. What you did yesterday won’t work today. Your members, customers, and the entire industry/profession community your association serves need you now in ways they don’t when everything’s fine, and what they need from you today, the challenges they’re facing, the goals they’re trying to achieve, are vastly different than they were a year ago. They’re different than what they were A MONTH AGO.

I also see three related opportunities:

  1. Don’t sleep on what’s going on with your members. Now is the time to be on the phone with them asking about what’s going on with them and paying attention to trends in your profession or industry. This is particularly important since we’ve lost opportunities to have the type of casual, in-person conversations we normally have at in-person events, trainings, board meetings, chapter events, committee meetings, etc. this year. Don’t assume you know, and don’t assume your board members’ experiences are typical of your entire membership base. You have the chance to become more than a “nice to have” – you can become a vital partner in their success. Don’t miss it.
  2. You need contingency plans. Back to the example of an annual conference, unlike six months ago, there are success stories on going virtual. The BEST CASE is your meeting will have to be a hybrid event if it’s due to occur any time before Q3 2021 (the best estimates right now are that it will take at least that long before enough people have been vaccinated to achieve reasonable herd immunity) and even then, some significant percentage of people will likely still be unwilling to travel. So plan for that NOW, not in six months when your registration is lagging.
  3. Now is the time to try something new or different. I’m going to keep using the conference example, where many associations that were forced to pivot suddenly to having a virtual event saw attendance grow and new segments of their members and other audiences participating who had been unable to participate in an in-person event in the past (travel and time away are much bigger “costs” than registration). Don’t lose what you learned there about including that audience and what they’re looking for when you can resume in-person events. We’re all having to do everything differently anyway, so if you have an underperforming program you’ve wanted to end or something you’ve wanted to experiment with, now’s your chance.

What trends do you see impacting membership, or associations more broadly, in 2021? What opportunities will they provide?

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

Rethinking Revenue: Your Membership Plan

webinar information - Rethinking Your Membership Plan, PIA Case Study, Wednesday, September 30

What happens when your membership plan becomes reality?

Join me and Dana Anaman (National Association of Professional Insurance Agents) Wednesday, September 30 at 10 am ET as we take you through our journey to increase membership for the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents. We’ll discuss how we approached membership recruitment, onboarding, engagement, retention, and renewal – the full membership lifecycle – to increase membership.

In this session, you’ll learn:

  • How we created a membership plan for PIA and what we thought was going to happen
  • What really happened when PIA began implementing this membership campaign
  • What PIA learned and how we’ve pivoted as a result
  • The results we achieved to increase memberships

Missed the session? No worries – you can view the free recording here.

Hosted by: Atigro, Charles River CFO, Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires, and Social Innovation Forum

Partnership v. Membership: Communicating Change

Neon sign that reads "Change"

Now that you’ve mapped out the changes you want to make to your membership program, and your board of directors is on board with those changes, how do you go about communicating them to the members who will be affected?

In contrast to communicating with your board about changes, dues increases can be the hardest sell to members. “What do you mean my dues are going up? Why?”

This highlights the danger, which I talked about in my last post, in going long stretches with no dues increase and then hitting members with a large increase all at once. It’s relatively easy to make the case that dues need to go up 2% this year because of inflation and the need to retain good staff. It’s much harder to make the case that dues need to go up 10% – or 15%, or 20% – this year, even though we’re not adding anything new, because we haven’t raised dues in five years, and now we have a problem. Some – hopefully most – members will still understand, but some will not, and you will likely experience at least a temporary dip in retention rate. So raise your dues 2% a year.

Changes like offering more choice in packages of benefits are actually relatively easy to explain in concept. “Hey! They’re giving me more choices! I like choices!”

Well, yes, but your members are likely to need guidance about which package best suits their demonstrated behavior, particularly if they’ve been accustomed to the Henry Ford “you can have your Model T in any color you want as long as it’s black” model of membersip. This is where all the data work you did creating the packages in the first place will help. You should already know what the markers are for the groups of members who would most benefit from bundled conference registration or webinars or publications or whatever you’ve chosen as your differentiators. Now you just have to connect those people with the option that will suit them best (and realize that not all of them are going to take you up on it in the first year, so you probably need at least a two year plan to educate people).

What if you re-do your categories to reflect changes in your industry? Well, again, communicate that (to be honest, your members are already aware that the shift in the industry is happening – you just need to explain how your association is going to respond). What usually happens is that some members dues barely change, some go down, and there’s always at least a handful that go up – sometimes WAY up.

Uh oh.

First, get out in front of it. You have to talk to those members before you announce the changes. They’re not stupid – they’ll be able to do the math on what they have been paying versus what they will be paying, and you need to prep them beforehand. Second, offer to work with them. They will eventually have to pay the new full dues amount. But there are lots of ways you can get there. Be creative, and ask for their suggestions.

No matter what your changes are, be honest. Be real. Show how your change – even if it’s sacrificing a beloved but under-used program – will benefit your members. Be prepared to explain it more than once, in more than one format, on more than one platform. And be confident! You did this for good reasons – your members will get it when you tell them why.

In his next post (which I think will be the final post in this series), Lewis will take on this topic from the corporate partnership side: if you’re switching from “$500 for the lanyards/$1000 for the conference bags” types of sponsorships to high-dollar, high-value corporate partnerships, how do you communicate that change to the current sponsors who are your potential partners?

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Partnership v. Membership: Selling the Board on Change

Skeptical man peering over his glasses

When you’ve realized it’s time to make a change to your dues amounts, member benefits, or overall membership structure, how do you convince your board of directors to support it? Particularly if there’s resistance?

Let’s start with the easiest case: a dues increase. Your benefits are staying the same, your structure is staying the same, you just have to start charging a bit more for what you’re offering.

First of all, this should not come as a surprise to your board (actually, none of this should). They’re aware that inflation exists, that the cost of providing the services your association offers is likely going up, and that if you want to retain good staff, you have to offer competitive compensation packages (which generally involve periodic raises). They shouldn’t be shocked that just because they paid $100 for membership a year ago doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be paying $100 this year – or next.

The challenge around dues increases lies more in “how much?” and “how often?”

I think dues should go up by a small percentage – say around 2% – every single year.

This simplifies things for your board. They vote one time that dues will automatically go up 2% a year barring unusual circumstances, and then they never have to deal with it again. In the meantime, your members don’t notice. $100 this year becomes $102 next, $104 the year after, etc.

You also never find yourself in the unenviable position of not having raised dues in five…or ten…or more years, being forced to raise them A LOT, EVERYONE noticing, and a percentage of members getting mad and leaving.

I will admit, this is easier to implement in individual membership associations that charge relatively low dues amounts. But even high-dues trades can do this: your $2500 annual dues for companies with fewer than 50 employees goes up to $2550 next year, $2600 the year after, etc. It’s more noticeable than dues going up by $2 a year, but it’s manageable for your members and again, preferable to letting dues lag badly behind the rate of inflation and then having to hit companies with a major increase.

The “barring unusual circumstances” bit is important, too. If there’s a major downturn in the economy broadly or just in your particular industry or profession, you always have the option of suspending increases for a year or two. But if you get your board to vote on this change once, they never need to bother with this relatively trivial operational issue again – they can keep their focus on the fiduciary and strategic issues that are their more appropriate spheres of responsibility.

What if you need to make bigger changes?

You’ve had an “all you can eat” model and you want to go to a cafeteria or tiered plan for benefits. Or vice versa. You have benefits that are underperforming – they’re costing a lot and not many people use them – and you want to kill them. People in your industry or profession are facing a major new challenge and you need to create something new to respond. Your entire membership structure has become outdated and is no longer appropriate because the nature of your industry is changing.

Start with the why.

Presumably, you’re not proposing these changes capriciously. You have reasons you think they’re a good idea, they’re necessary, and they’ll benefit the members and the association’s bottom line.

So share those reasons. Be honest with your board about what’s going on.

Show them the behavioral data that proves that if members buy one webinar, they almost always go on to buy two more, so you want to create a tiered level of membership that includes three webinars at a discounted rate.

Show them that only a tiny percentage of your members are using a particular service, that the market won’t bear what it would cost those that do use it to fully pay for it, and that if you eliminate that service, you can also shift that full time staff person to work that serves more members – or eliminate his position.

Share the stories of the members who’ve told you about their new challenge and asked you to help them address the emerging threat.

Summarize the trends reporting that points out the fundamental shift in the nature of your industry that means that you have to change the basis of your dues calculation, because the old basis no longer makes sense.

You’re going to have to make the same case to your members – you didn’t think you could just spring a big change on them with “don’t question us – we know best,” did you? – so this is good practice in honing your messaging.

The other key point is: you can’t just make these changes because you think it’s good for the association’s bottom line. They have to be good for the members, too. Altered benefits packages that more accurately reflect their observed behavior. More flexibility in choosing what they want and will pay for. Sharpened focus leading to improved service. Holding a sacred cow barbecue to make room for new programs, products, and services that better reflect the reality in today’s and tomorrow’s environment, not the world when your association was founded 40…75…100 years ago.

What if your board is still raising major objections?

That’s their job, and you should pay attention. You may not have done your homework sufficiently to make your case. You may have mis-identified trends. You may have overlooked alternative explanations for the data you’re presenting. You may be employing motivated reasoning, posing something that’s really only good for the association as being good for the members, and they can see through that.

They’re not your enemy – they’re your ally in coming to the best decisions for BOTH the financial health of the association AND serving your mission and your members. If they spot major, insurmountable problems in your plan, it may be time to go back to the drawing board.

In his next post, Lewis will take on this topic from the corporate partnership side: if you’ve been offering the “$500 for the lanyards/$1000 for the conference bags” types of sponsorships, how do you convince your board to take the plunge on shifting to high-dollar, high-value corporate partnerships?

Image found here.

Partnership v. Membership: ROI

Pile of US $1 bills

Lewis’s latest post in our ongoing, irregular series addresses making sponsorship offerings more valuable to your corporate supporters: understand what’s motivating them, structure the relationship to address their specific business needs, and offer different levels of investment. In short, create clear Return On Investment (ROI).

Which brings us to the ROI of membership, and sharing that ROI with your members.

Calls to calculate and share ROI tend to start from a good place. Someone on your board of directors, or in your membership committee, decides that it would be a terrific recruitment tool. The association provides tremendous value, of course, so if you clearly demonstrate to the members what an incredible value membership in your association is – members get a HUGE list of stuff that would cost MANY, MANY dollars for the low-low price of [whatever your dues cost], they’ll come flooding in.

“That’s a savings of MANY, MANY dollars! They’ll be beating down our doors to save all that money and get all that great stuff!”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t tend to work quite that way in practice.

Calculating and, even more so, sharing ROI is a fraught topic for membership professionals.

[This is different than calculating cost to serve, which you absolutely need to know, and which is absolutely an internal-only metric.]

One, the vast majority of your members do not use the vast majority of your benefits. And if they started to, you wouldn’t be able to function – I guarantee you are understaffed to have every single member taking 100% advantage of everything you provide. Associations are structured for limited engagement by our members.

In one sense, this is OK – generally speaking, a given member is seeking 2-3 key outcomes when she chooses to join your association. You might offer ten distinct member benefits, but she only needs two of them. As long as your association is helping her solve that key problem or achieve that key goal, she’s probably happy.

The problem when you start offering ROI calculations, however, is that you list ALL TEN benefits, adding up to some HUGE number of course, and then she realizes that she’s paying for all ten, even though she’s only using two.

Even worse, what if attaching dollar figures to each of those benefits alerts her to the fact that the dollar value of the two benefits she wants, even as the association assigns it, is less than what she’s paying in dues?

Uh oh.

Two, and relatedly, associations tend to over-value what we’re providing.

“What’s a subscription to our journal worth?”

“Well, if we divide the total cost to produce it by the total number of subscribers, it works out to $7.36 per person.”

“But what about the INTANGIBLE value?”

“It’s one MILLION dollars!” (in Dr. Evil voice)

When we start getting into ROI calculations, we REALLY REALLY want to be able to show a HUGE number for value to make whatever we’re charging in dues look infinitesimal by comparison.

That’s totally understandable, and in fact, a subscription to your journal probably really is worth way more than $7.36.

But our members are not stupid, and when we put our thumbs too heavily on the value side of the scale, they can smell the BS.

We’re particularly bad at valuing intangible benefits, like the connections that people make because we provided an environment where they could happen, or the insights gained in the hallway conversations at events, or knowing just who to call at 4:57 on a Friday afternoon when you have a business emergency that must be solved immediately, because your and her involvement in the local chapter has allowed you to build the type of relationship where you know she’ll pick up and that she can help you.

What’s that worth?

It’s priceless (with apologies to MasterCard).

So what am I saying?

One, if possible, avoid creating an ROI calculator or attaching direct dollar values to particular member benefits. It rarely ends well.

Two, when you’re thinking about ROI or ROE or engagement scoring, remember that you can’t put a dollar value on everything. We’re dealing with humans and relationships here – not just transactions. And some of what your members most value about their relationship with the association, and the relationships they’ve built and the doors that have opened for them because your association created that space, may be invisible to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

In his next post, Lewis is going to dig more deeply into the ROI of corporate partnership and sponsorship. Spoiler alert: it functions a little differently than the ROI of membership.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash



Membership Q&A: Call or Text?

grey rotary telephone

Let’s say you’re over email and want to take your welcome, retention, and/or renewal communications to the next level.

Should you call, or should you text?

Well, who are your members? What generations are represented and in what quantities?

It’s not just your imagination – Millennials and GenZ genuinely do prefer text to voice calls, by pretty significant majorities (in the US, nearly 3/4 prefer text). (You can get the full study here.) If your members skew younger, texting is going to feel far less intrusive than calling.

For older generations, Boomers in particular, the reverse is true. They are less comfortable in that medium and may find texting from people who aren’t intimates (family and close friends) inappropriate.

What if, like many associations, you members are a mix of generations?


Call your Boomers – and maybe your Xers, too, who according to the doctoral dissertation study referenced above are the generation most likely to be texting frequently with a spouse or life partner (that may be because they’re the current “sandwich” generation).

Text your Millennials.

Bonus question: Who should make the call?

We tend to default to asking members to call members. It seems like an easy and fun volunteer ask, a good job for your membership committee or even ad hoc volunteers: Can you give us 10 minutes to call a new member in your area, welcome her to the association, and tell her a few things you value about your membership?


I was just on a webinar today hosted by Engage Software and presented by Smooth The Path’s Amanda Kaiser. She had conducted a research study with Dynamic Benchmarking on effective new member engagement practices, the results of which were released last year, and they found that member calls, at least those focused on new member engagement, were most effective when placed by staff, not volunteers.


Their theory is that staff members actually PLACE the calls (which volunteers may neglect to do), and that they tend to be more disciplined about staying on message and can better explain member benefits.

Their study didn’t look at renewal calls, but I always advise clients who plan to call lapsing members to have a professional place those calls, whether that be a staff member or an outsourced telemarketing firm. Calling someone who’s lapsing is too scary for volunteers. Unless the member is lapsing because she forgot, she’s probably unhappy about something, and only staff members or their designated representatives have the authority to fix her problem.

Photo by Eckhard Hoehmann on Unsplash

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