There are dozens of services every association offers its members, but the underlying value proposition for joining an association is that it connects you to others within your industry’s professional community. For much of the 20th century, associations built communities through annual conferences, networking happy hours, and in-person trainings, but these days members expect much more — the ability to access education materials and network with their colleagues 24/7, 365 days a year. When they encounter a problem, they want to throw it out to an online community and receive feedback immediately. They don’t want to have to wait until an annual conference to showcase their successes and make industry contacts.

This is why many associations are increasingly directing their focus toward building online communities and leveraging them as a benefit for their members. A recent survey released by Greenfield Services found that “networking opportunities” were the most important factor in members’ decision to join an association, and online communities — whether they’re facilitated through custom forum software or a major social media platform — allow associations to effectively scale member networking to a level that wasn’t possible a mere decade ago.

But too many associations have naively embraced community tools only to find the forums they erected remained moribund and unused. The adage of “if you build it they will come” certainly doesn’t apply to online communities, and any money you spend purchasing software will be wasted if you don’t have an actual strategy in place for how to lure members to your online forum and keep them coming back.

To solve these challenges, many associations turn to people like Ben Martin and Andy Steggles.

Martin has spent 15 years in the association space and got his start in online community building when he helped the Virginia Association of REALTORS® launch its forums. Three years ago he transitioned to consulting starting Online Community Results and has helped dozens of associations implement their own platforms.

Steggles is the president of Higher Logic, one of the most widely-used community software platforms for associations.

We spoke to Martin and Steggles about what advice they give their clients who want to build out robust online communities.

Choosing Between Online vs Private Communities

Before launching your community, you first need to decide whether you’ll build it solely on already-existing public platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn or if you want to purchase and implement a private community on your association website.

Public platforms like Facebook Groups and LinkedIn Groups have several benefits. The first is that they’re free, whereas private forums carry with them significant subscription and development costs. Another perk is that these platforms already have hundreds of millions of users who spend hours a day visiting them on desktop and mobile; it’s much easier to build engagement on a tool that’s already widely used among your members.

In fact, many of your members are likely already subscribed to industry-related LinkedIn and Facebook groups. “LinkedIn groups are by far the most powerful aspect of LinkedIn,” business consultant Lewis Howes wrote. “Hands down.”

But before you eschew your own private message boards and devote all your efforts to free systems, consider these drawbacks:

  • “Digital sharecropping:” That term was coined several years ago to describe what happens when you invest all your time and resources into building a following on a platform that you don’t own, i.e. Facebook, LinkedIn, etc… “When you’re pushing all your engagement to LinkedIn, you’re renting your social presence, and you don’t get the full value of your member’s engagement,” said Martin.
  • Lack of CRM integration: “There’s no integration with the database, and LinkedIn has no idea who your members are,” said Steggles. “To try to manually control that is beyond painful. Because it doesn’t have an integration with your database, it doesn’t know who’s serving on a committee, who’s attending an event, who’s bought a book.” You’re also limited in terms of the analytics data you can pull.  
  • Lack of configuration: Because these networks aim to serve hundreds of millions of users simultaneously, there’s an understandable lack of customization to their platforms.
  • Limitations in permissions: Many associations set up multiple committees and subsections within their organizations, but with most social platforms you can choose who’s allowed to participate in your community but can’t divide them into subcategories that indicate which threads they’re allowed to view and participate in. For instance, let’s say you want to have a discussion thread that can only be accessed by your executive board; that’s incredibly difficult to do on LinkedIn and Facebook but very easy on a private forum that’s integrated into your CRM.
  • Spam: “LinkedIn is rife with spam,” said Steggles. “One of the top benefits of a private community is there’s no spam. You have to be a member to participate.”
  • Others cashing in on your success: “I had a client who was running a LinkedIn group, and they found out there was a competing conference being advertised in their LinkedIn group to their own members,” said Martin. “That’s because, as a LinkedIn marketer, you can target groups that are in your sphere. You don’t have to build the group, all you have to do is pay to target it. My client was peeved about this. They were like, ‘Wait a minute, I spent all this time and energy building up this LinkedIn group of 10,000 people, and now my competitors are leveraging it to their benefit?’”

Of course public and private forums aren’t mutually exclusive. Martin pointed out that several organizations use social media tools to attract non-members who otherwise wouldn’t have access to your private message boards. It’s not uncommon for organizations to take an “all of the above” strategy in which they have a social presence on all major platforms.


If you are interested in discussing how Engagement Dynamics can help drive
member engagement, please contact our product team for more information.


Hiring a Community Manager

There needs to be someone whose chief focus every day involves moderating and contributing to your online communities. This is the person who schedules monthly Twitter chats and hangouts, curates industry news on your various organization social platforms, weeds out spam, and identifies your most engaged users and reaches out to them 1:1 to encourage further discussion. Without a community manager a community has no direction or cohesion; it’s just a wild free-for-all, which means users aren’t likely to realize its value. In most cases, you end up with a ghost town.

Identifying “Community Champions”

Ben Martin“You’re going to want to find community champions, people who are already active and interested in communicating with their peers online,” said Martin. “You might be able to find these people in already-existing industry Facebook and LinkedIn groups. The association might have an existing committee that’s tasked with these kinds of initiative, and they can be leveraged to be your community champions.”

Think of these people as your power users, the most active community members who will provide the seed content that attracts less-engaged users.

Encouraging Members to Set Up Community Profiles

According to internal statistics compiled by Higher Logic, users who take the time to simply set up a user profile with a bio and photo are 23% more likely to revisit and participate in a community forum.

Asking Prompt Questions

Steggles explained why prompting your users to introduce themselves increased the likelihood they’d return:

headshot_andy.jpgIt’s imperative that you help people overcome the fear factor. One way to do this is when a new user signs up you ask them to introduce themselves by answering two or three very simple questions. And the reason we do that is to get them familiar with how to post a message. Most of the forums we set up have a “new members introduction” thread.  New users are given a link to the reply thread and asked a number of questions. Usually it’s like ‘How did you get into the profession?’ or ‘What’s your main interest?’ or ‘What’s one fun fact that others might find interesting to know about you?’ You always tailor that to the industry. For the The Automobile Association, their question was, ‘If you were a car what car would you be?’

The reason we do that is because we want them to know how easy it is to post and that they’ve got this community they can engage with. On average, there’s a 7% chance that a member will post a message to a community. However, if someone posts a message, there’s a 48% chance they will post another message in that same period of time. In other words, if you can help them post that first message, the assumption is that, because they felt so comfortable with it and the response was positive, they don’t mind doing it again. And what is a more perfect time for someone to post a message than when they’re first signing up and are already logged in?


Your first thought upon reading all of this likely boils down to: “This seems like a lot of work.” But assuming that member retention is your main focus, then there are few things more imperative than building an online community. Otherwise, your members will go out and build one themselves. “Some people in my industry think LinkedIn groups and Facebook groups pose a threat to membership associations because it’s so easy for someone to go in and create something that could basically serve a lot of the same purposes as an association’s online community,” said Martin.

So yes, an online community takes up a lot of resources and work, but doing so will ensure your organization remains relevant well into the 21st century. Look at any major brand or media company and you’ll find that they engage users across multiple platforms, tailoring their content to each social network’s strengths and preferences. Your industry group’s approach should be no different.