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Using Online Community to Increase Member Retention - 4/9/2014 -

Maggie McGary
Retention is about keeping members engaged with both the association and other members. According to MGI, the top reasons members don’t renew association membership are budget cuts, lack of engagement, and unable to justify the cost of membership with ROI. The good news is, two of those three challenges can be alleviated with online community. Here’s how.

By Maggie McGary

Suppose you’re not obsessed with online communities like I am—you might wonder how online community can help increase member retention. To me, it’s just a given: Retention is about keeping members engaged with both the association and other members. Look at the top three reasons members don’t renew association membership, according to MGI’s 2013 Membership Marketing Benchmarking report:

  • Budget cuts
  • Lack of engagement
  • Unable to justify membership costs with ROI

Two of these three can be addressed or alleviated with online community. An online community is about year-round engagement with the organization. It’s networking (the top reason people join associations, according to the MGI report), socializing, exchanging expertise, and being reminded on a regular basis of the association’s offerings. In my opinion, there is no better way for people to engage with both the association they’re paying to belong to and the other members they’re paying to network with.

Of course, face-to-face is the best way to network and communicate, but realistically, that can’t happen every day. Online community can.

ROI of membership costs can easily be linked to online community: access to experts in the field, cost savings over hiring a consultant or other third party if you can get answers to questions/challenges via the online community, time spent researching when you can just post in the community and get an answer, etc.

The rub is that all this doesn’t just happen if you launch an online community; it has to be a thriving, well-managed community. With that in mind, if you want your association’s online community to become one of the most valuable—if not the most valuable—tool in your retention arsenal, these five things are musts:

  1. Community management is  key. Build it and they will come is a myth; you need a dedicated community manager to tie community into the rest of your association’s offerings: communication vehicles, marketing, events, etc. Volunteers can help with this—as moderators and/or champions for your online community and as participants—but you need a dedicated staff person or consultant to tie the community in with all the other things your association offers.
  2. Regular communication and cross promotion are essential. A weekly email digest of posts of interest, questions that need answers, and mention of new resources in the community are a must to drive engagement and make participation in the community a habit. You must also weave the online community into your other communication vehicles: newsletters, print ads and editorial content in magazines, on-site meet-ups at conferences, cross-promotion in journals and other publications via journal clubs, and public social media channels.
  3. Leadership buy-in is important. Both executive staff buy-in and volunteer leader support are essential to the success of your online community. The same way volunteer leader attendance at business and annual meetings is mandatory, so must be volunteer leader participation in your community—if you want leaders to lead by example in terms of your online community. Make active participation in the online community part of a leader agreement. Just as face time with leaders is essential at in-person events, it’s the same with online community. If leaders don’t participate, it sends a message to members that it’s not important.
  4. Online community is about more than conversation.Yes, online community is about discussions and networking, but it doesn’t stop there—it can be much more than just a place where people connect for networking. Make your community your platform for volunteer collaboration. Create groups for various leadership groups, and use the group for disseminating collaborative documents, agendas, and minutes. This will reduce the need to send files via email and will make it easier for these documents to live in a central place. It will also send traffic to the community and reinforce the community as a place that members need and want to visit. The same can be true for other content, such as examples, policies, presentations, etc.
  5. Online community is a valuable member benefit. If you treat it like a throwaway, and don’t devote resources to it, members won’t value it either. Likewise, if you do devote resources to it, don’t give it away for free. That doesn’t necessarily mean making your community members-only, although I personally think it should be a member benefit. What it does mean is that if you’re going to open part or all of the community to non-members, at least be strategic about it and get something for the association in the bargain. Have a plan in place for converting participants to members—or at least marketing products and services to them—and be able to track those conversions as they happen.

Maggie McGary is an association community manager and blogs at Mizz Information. With her colleague Josh Paul, director of marketing and strategy at Socious, she recently presented "Using Online Community to Increase Member Retention" at ASAE’s Great Ideas conference in Orlando. This article was reprinted with permission from Social Fish.


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