By Erin Fry
Online communities, where people gather and network on the Internet, are sprouting up everywhere you look these days. You have the big social networks—Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn—and not surprisingly, associations are seeing the benefit of providing an exclusive, private online location where their members can communicate.
While online communities can be a great member benefit, one of the biggest challenges—besides enticing members to visit your community—is providing compelling content that not only engages members, but also brings them back to the community time and again.
So, your association has decided to launch an online community for its members. Great! But if you're like most association staff, these days you're doing more work with less money and time. How do you create content for your community without spending hours writing articles, blogs, and posts on discussion boards?
Before you even start thinking about creating content, come up with a plan for communicating with your online community. Decide which communication vehicle(s) you'll use (blog, article, discussion forum, etc.), the frequency of communication, any budget concerns, and your target audience. Next, decide who on your communications staff (and possibly volunteers) will be creating and posting content to the community.
Now that you have a plan, take a look at what content you have available right now. The fastest, cheapest way to get content up on your online community is to take something you already own and do something new with it. Does your association have a website from which you can repurpose content? Can you take an article published in your association magazine and post it as a blog?
Or, even better, take existing content and springboard off it. For example, say you published an article in the magazine about the increased popularity of Google+ and how association members can leverage this new social network in their careers/businesses. You could then post a blog on your community site from a member who's had success with Google+ and invite other members to comment on this topic. It's the best of both worlds, and it connects two communication vehicles and invites members in to discuss a topic that could affect their careers.
But Wait, There's More
After exhausting the content you have, it's time to look for inspiration elsewhere. And here's where tools like Google Alerts, RSS feeds, and other association blogs can help the most. Set up Google Alerts for keywords related to your industry, and read the alerts as they come in to see if there's a hot topic or industry trend members would want to know (and chat) about. Perhaps reading one of the alerts sparks an idea for a blog post—voila!—new content.
If the software your association uses allows outside content to be pulled in, set up RSS feeds so you get fresh information without having to write something original. This will keep your site current without a huge amount of time being devoted to developing new content.
And don't forget to utilize experts in the industry, association members, or other people who would be willing to contribute their time and expertise to your community. There's a wealth of knowledge in your community—use it.
Erin Fry is editor and publications manager for Romance Writers of America and a member of the Association Media & Publishing Content Creation Committee.