How your association can use an online community to boost member engagement and retention

The challenges facing membership organisations in 2022 and where online communities fit into the modern member journey.
How your association can use an online community to boost member engagement and retention

All eyes are on online communities. According to the State of Community Management 2022, the pandemic and resulting societal, financial, and business changes, have shone a spotlight on communities (and the opportunities they offer) among C-Suite executives. Now, 88% of senior executives are supportive of the community programs in their organization (up from 56% in 2017). Largely because they have seen positive returns and tangible benefits in the wake of the pandemic. 

Evolving expectations for membership organizations

Yet, there is still work to do. Member expectations have evolved and associations have been forced to rethink interactions between their employees and members. The current market landscape means value-adds are more critical when members are choosing whether to pay their membership fees for another year or leave. Internally, financial conditions are causing senior leaders to double-check every dollar spent — putting pressure on online community managers to justify any resources spent on communities and directly link results to bottom-line successes. 

Engagement plays a key role here, as a readily-available, loyal member base is the foundation to many other revenue-boosting activities and assets. Obviously, for an association to grow, its membership base must constantly increase and this relies on retaining current members and attracting new ones. 

2022 themes: value and innovation

The 2022 membership marketing benchmark report found that associations which focus on three areas have higher member renewal rates:

  1. Having a clearly identified value proposition.
  2. 42% of associations state that having members understand this value proposition leads to increased net membership. 
  3. The more innovative an association is seen (by its executives) the more new members it has. 

Online communities fulfill every one of these points, by differentiating an association to its members, delivering exclusive content and insights, and allowing associations to test new ideas and content with members before rolling them out more widely. Consequently, increasing engagement and member lifetime value.  

Value propositions are not one-size-fits-all. An association that caters to members in fast-paced, ever-changing industries like Healthcare or Pharma, where there are frequent regulatory changes and new trends, would want to deliver a different service compared to one in the creative industries. To find what’s genuinely valuable to your members, your best source is direct from them — gather a group of your most loyal members (usually the first to join your association or people who regularly attend your events) and ask them. Seek to understand what existing services they find most helpful, what new services they would like, and what they are happy to pay in return. Adapt your community offering, services, and pricing model in response. 

Engaging all ages

Moreover, consider the changing needs of different generations. A common conundrum we’re seeing today is the shift in what junior demographics want from an association. According to Marketing General, 57% of people join an association to network with their peers, while 26% want to learn best practices and 25% need to access specialized information. 

Now consider the fact that Gen Z are digital natives who feel more confident interacting online compared to in-person. And that both Gen Z and Millennials value communities that deliver a sense of understanding and belonging. It’s obvious that in just a few years’ time, online communities will become the de facto way for associations to deliver all of the above: networking, learning, and specialized knowledge-sharing. Conversely, it’s this desire to find belonging that leads many Millennials and Gen Z to seek out niche communities over social media. 

Your value proposition may even look different between member groups. Not all members will share the same interests or goals so segmenting them based on behavioral data (articles they have liked or events they have attended) or roles/seniority, can help you deliver a personalized experience.

The right community can deliver a more joined-up member experience

The idea of membership organizations, societies, or associations having an online community is certainly not new. Many already run communities for members. 

So the problem isnt so much about not having a community, as about having the right community.

To create an experience that fulfills memberswish to network and learn best practices, a community needs to have features that cater to both, namely: content publishing, expert directories, private and open discussion spaces, the ability to host videos, online training and facilitate pre-, post- and concurrent discussion around events.

In other words, it cant just be a noisy forum. It needs to have depth and showcase genuine expertise.

The modern membership community ought to create a seamless member journey by bringing together an organization’s offerings in one place. This means that marketing content, membership content, email communications, networking, events, training and even publishing content can be linked together to deliver a coherent, joined-up brand.

Doing this makes it easier for members to engage because they know where to engage, who to engage with, and how to find their fellow members - all in one place. Rather than through multiple social media channels, emails, and so on. Its about making their lives easier and making engagement straightforward.

The importance of a community strategy

Great community engagement takes work and planning. That’s where a community strategy comes in. Thankfully, the State of Community Management 2022 found that 72% of organizations now have a community strategy (although worryingly, that leaves 28% with none). A community with no strategy will be unable to correlate positive outcomes back to business goals and won’t be able to define or consistently deliver its value proposition to members. Online community management is a big task, having a strategy to give direction and accountability is the first step to managing your community effectively.

Compelling content creates engagement

Consistent content is another feature of highly engaged communities. Developing an editorial calendar based on members’ content needs and your business goals, will create a regular cadence of unique (and helpful) content, connect your community to other association activities like events or research, and encourage external expert participation.

The best community managers tap into external sources to create content for their members. This reduces the need for community teams to develop all content themselves and enables a community to scale faster. Two notable examples that saw increases in 2022 are peers from other parts of the organization (50% versus 43% in 2021) and vendors/partners (20% versus 15%). Tapping into your members too, especially those who have been with your association for a long time, can be a simple way to reinforce their importance to your organization and boost their loyalty.

 How does this work in practice?

Let’s look at how one membership organization was able to bring together its many activities in one place and deliver new value to its members. 

The Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) launched on the Zapnito platform to build a community for its audience of molecular life sciences researchers. The community is publicly accessible, but with private roomsused for certain audiences, programs and events. 

After a year post-launch, the results are incredibly promising. Not only has the FEBS Network hit the targets set by FEBS and their partners Wiley, but in some areas they have exceeded them by as much as 300%. Just a few highlights included: 87% above target on the number of visits, 13% above target on time engaged and 62% above target for content shares. (You can find full details in the case study).

Of course, it isn’t a cut-and-paste activity when it comes to building a community that really engages with your members. Your association is unique and requires a tailored approach. That’s where we can help. 

Want to discuss your association’s needs and how a community can help? Arrange a call with our team now. 

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