What Engaged Associations Know That You Don't

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ASAE, IPWEA, NASS, and ASA are great examples of associations with successful engagement strategies, offering diversity of activity and resources on their community sites. Here are the steps you need to boost your community engagement strategy.

By Caitlin McDonnell Struhs

When it comes right down to it, the function of an online community is all about giving people a place to engage, no matter their interests or industries. There are a number of cases that point to the bottom-line results of having an engaged community.

The American Society of Association Executives found that members who are engaged in their online community, Collaborate, are 30 percent more likely to renew. Further, they found that these engaged members are 23 percent more likely to recommend ASAE to their peers.

Engagement grew dramatically for ASAE's Collaborate right away. The number of messages posted to discussion groups within the community increased in activity by 30 percent over the previous listservs. ASAE's Reggie Henry, CAE, summed up the change well: "The best thing we've done in the last 15 years is launch Collaborate.

Another great example of an association leveraging its online community for member engagement and ultimately retention is The Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia. "IPWEA's integrated approach to our community has increased new member prospects by more than 25 percent, says CEO Chris Champion, "with a net increase in membership in 2014 of 11 percent, which has improved outreach effectiveness to people interested in our services.

Responses to IPWEA's community site have been overwhelmingly positive, and growth has been rapid. Before the online community, its old site averaged 3,800 visits per month. Since launch, visits have increased exponentially, from around 5,000 in July 2012 to nearly 20,000 per month as of September 2014. In the first three months, the community boasted 30,214 total logins.

Taking Advantage of Your Members and Your Industry's Strengths

Success is never overnight; the right engagement strategies for the right organizations often entail a lot of testing. But the best engagement plans follow the strategic goals of the organization and understand the top needs of members.

The North American Spine Society was focused on choosing a community platform that was both effective for its members in the medical profession and optimized for users on different devices around the world. A global multidisciplinary medical society, NASS has more than 8,000 members in 72 countries.

NASS has had particular success with its community discussions. "The community discussion on SpineConnect is probably the best and most helpful dialogue available to our profession today, says Dr. Kim J. Garges, MD, a SpineConnect Member from the Nassau Spine Institute. Shortly after launching SpineConnect, there were over 700 discussion posts and nearly 300 unique authors contributing questions, answers, and valuable content.

The case discussion threads are more than a chatting tool for physicians  it's a useful Q&A arena for real cases. A lot of members wanted and needed a place to network with colleagues, discuss what is happening within their practices, and exchange ideas. It goes beyond convention for communicating within the spine care community.

A great perk of an engaged community is a complete view of your membership and their activities. The American Staffing Association has more than 22,000 members in its online community, and currently boasts over 3,000 ongoing discussion posts.

"We launched ASA Central at a critical time for our industry, says Diana Mertz, director, sections and member engagement for ASA. "The Affordable Care Act and its impact on our industry was a topic our members had many questions about and needed a lot of direction.

Mertz says ASA's members turned to ASA Central to ask those questions and assist one another with the intricacies of the legislation. "Not only were staffing firm colleagues helping each other out, it also allowed ASA legal team members the opportunity to provide their expertise on the issue, she says.

From daily digest emails to community events like celebrating ASA Central's birthday, there's no shortage of creative ways to engage members. This engagement can be more organized and targeted to certain groups if you track member activity through your database.

ASA uses Higher Logic's Activity Sync module, which writes back community activity to the association management software. "When we speak with members, we are able to look at their member record in our database and see what they have done in ASA Central (accepted the terms of use, updated their profile, posted a discussion, etc.), which provides us a quick snapshot of engagement in our community, says Mertz.

A Better Community Engagement Strategy

These associations are great examples of successful engagement strategies and the diversity of activity and resources you can have on your community site. But what are the next steps if you need to improve your own strategy?

Whether your community is years in the making or brand new, here is engagement broken down into three primary goals. In other words, make sure your community site(s) pass these three tests:

Step 1  Make it easy.

In a recent survey, Google found mobile users are five times more likely to abandon the task they are trying to complete if the site is not optimized for mobile use. So making it easier for your members and customers to engage across multiple platforms can have a significant impact on their level of engagement and how much value they get out of it. This focus on the usability and accessibility of your community site will go a long way toward keeping members interested in the community activity and coming back for more.

Step 2 Make it often.

Provide as many opportunities for engagement as possible. Does this mean add more features to the platform, notifications and prompts to bring people back, or entirely new engagement programs? The answer is all of the above. Make sure people can engage the way they want to engage, whether it's on mobile devices, email, smart watches, or a desktop. This is called frictionless engagement.

Step 3 Make it fun.

You want users to have a more enthusiastic response to your community than "it’s usable” or "it’s straightforward.” Rather, the community should feel good to use and give people what they want. They should enjoy finding answers to their questions and being recognized for contributions. It's fun to be a part of a community they were searching for all along.

Worried your association's engagement tactics aren't as effective as you'd like? Here's how you can do a quick-check on best practices and refresh your engagement strategy:

  • Let your members do the talking. Whether it's direct feedback, getting to know them better, or learning how they interact with each other on the community, you want to hear from your members, so collect and collate online activity in one place by providing a trustworthy community for members to speak their minds and crowd-source useful content. Opinions, discussions, blogs, and more will be the most useful and popular communications.
  • Get your message out there. Online communities can bridge the communication gaps among members and between groups. For example, when it comes to an industry question or event, the community's discussions and library resources can be easily accessed and shared. This mode of communicating and sending messages becomes a reliable source to help spread the word.
  • Be creative with non-dues revenue streams. More than the go-to hubs for members to interact and share knowledge, communities are also great platforms for generating new revenue streams. It's a valuable resource for improving both member satisfaction and returns on investment. Any community can use advertising, vendors, events, and other unique revenue streams to help its organization to flourish.

If your association includes special interest groups (SIGs), offer devoted communities for an additional fee to increase and retain membership. Consider tying together your community and events registration and details to help educate attendees and prospects, learn more about recent efforts, and upcoming issues or talk about what needs improvement.

  • Use gamification to improve retention and satisfaction. Gamification is another strong tactic to increase your engagement success. Reward your members for contributing to community content with digital recognition such as points, ribbons, or profile badges. You'll have the opportunity to acknowledge and thank members while also nurturing them to continue interacting on the community.
  • Encourage leadership participation. Association leaders and their online communities should mix together. Executive participation affects the success of an online community, and leaders should be both champions of the platform and creators or cross-pollinators of useful industry content. According to 2014 findings from The Community Roundtable, 58 percent of best-in-class communities had active CEO participation. We can use the analogy of an annual meeting in what scenario would it be acceptable for an organization's CEO not to attend the annual meeting and other important face-to-face events?
  • Better engagement means more content. If your community addresses these engagement tactics, the activity of engagement will produce great content. One association has produced almost 150,000 pieces of content in its community over the last six years. This is all produced by the members, for the members. Not only is that an impressive amount — taken together, it's a great resource and true knowledge base for all members.

In this case, it's also open to the public and available for anyone to read, browse, and download. This isn’t always an option for organizations, but use this open concept as a benchmark for how easy and accessible content is for your members in the first place. In turn, it will produce new members, more registrations at events, and interest in new programs. It's encompassing enough to forward a mission to educate the industry and the world on what you do, and open enough to encourage organic conversations among people who simply want to connect.

Whether an association wants to sell something (memberships, event registrations, e-books, etc.) or just wants to facilitate discussion around a common interest, it can't succeed without engagement.

Caitlin McDonnell Struhs is a copywriter at Higher Logic, a leading provider of cloud-based community platforms.

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