Creating a member-oriented online community

This article originally appeared at ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. My thanks to Oona Schmid who co-wrote this article with me!

Just because an association creates an online community platform and stacks it with educational material does not mean members will rush to sign up. These tactics will help you build an engaging and attractive platform where members will want to spend time.

By its very definition, an association's online community is a place where members can meet and share with others who best understand them and their problems—and maybe their sense of humor, too.

Unless you're a mathematician, you probably haven't heard the one about the logician's wife: A logician's wife just had a baby. The doctor hands the newborn to the dad. The wife says, "Is it a boy or a girl?" The logician answers: "Yes."

Since every baby is either a boy or a girl, this question can be answered positively—if you process it with Boolean logic. That joke probably doesn't make you howl, but it might generate big laughs in the hallways of the Association of Symbolic Mathematics. And if we know anything, it's that there is an association for every community of practice, trade, and occupation.

Peer support is a unique need that only your association can satisfy for your professional or industry community. A well-orchestrated social media environment that includes popular channels like Facebook and Twitter as well as a private online community geared to support your members can be an invaluable and dynamic member benefit. After all, your members have problems that only other insiders can fully appreciate, and they may be looking for empathy, solutions, or even a good joke.

Empathy

Your online community should be a comfortable place for your members where they can express their feelings and opinions. Likewise, members should feel comfortable responding to one another's feelings and opinions with acknowledgement and, where appropriate, constructive criticism.
Creating a safe space like this isn't easy, but having a human moderator, whether paid or volunteer, goes a long way to helping you achieve this result. But remember, moderators are only effective if your organization creates clear and concise community guidelines. If you can't recruit or hire a moderator, then allowing members to flag inappropriate content can help you maintain an inviting and collegial online environment.

Solutions

While a safe space to vent is nice, it's not enough to attract members to your online community on a regular basis. They need to find actionable assets there as well. Your members may naturally share their own solutions, but you might also need to encourage this kind of behavior. To do this, organize interest groups, set up "Ask Me Anything" sessions or live chats, or create stellar blog content with industry thought leaders to catch members' attention. To make your online space a go-to destination for those seeking help, appoint ambassadors who can provide expert and best practice tips. The phrase "If you build it, they will come" is only true if you put your industry's key players and thought leaders on the field in addition to giving them the necessary equipment.

Humor

Finally, while 24-hour news may be indispensable for some folks, you might be surprised how many of your members want an online space where they can share lighthearted aspects of their lives and careers. Give your members a sandbox where they can play, swap stories, and show that they aren't just professional robots. Once they've taken to the space, it will create a positive feedback loop where your community becomes empathetic and welcoming for new members, and in turn they will be more willing to contribute ideas and solutions.

The beauty of an online community is that it can be there to support your members in their hour of crisis or need—and to celebrate and share in their hours of victory. Satisfy your members' desire for business solutions, a virtual high-five, or a shared laugh by providing them with a member-powered online community.

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