Three signs your association is ready for an online community

While I may be biased toward online communities–I think lots of organizations can find ways to incorporate community into their business strategies–I will also be the first to tell you that there is a right time, and a wrong time, to launch your association’s community. Before you can even start building your private social network, you need to make sure you check a few things off the list first.

So what are the signs that you’re ready to rock?

Your members have asked for something like an online community

Maybe you’re lucky and already have a listserv, private Facebook or LinkedIn group, or some other form of online forum in place. In all likelihood, though, you will have to do some digging to find out if your members even want an online community, and to do that you have ask. What your members ask for exactly will probably vary widely, but keep your ear to the ground for words like networking, meetings, peer support, mentor, and learning. If you hear members requesting resources that you think an online community could provide, then you’re probably on the right path.

Of course, to get an idea of what your members want, you have to listen first, so make sure you are administering feedback surveys and organizing regular meetings of your association’s committees and task forces to gather feedback. Then once you have ideas from members, you can begin molding a plan from the brainstorm and gathering buy-in from key decision makers.

You have buy-in from your boss and your boss’s boss

Just as important as getting member support, you will have a hard time launching your community without some muscle from internal stakeholders to help you out. You’ll need the influence (or permission) of your boss at some point in this process, so they should be completely on board with the idea of building an online community. It also wouldn’t hurt to get the blessings of a senior member or two, as well as a couple of other departments that would benefit from the creation of a member community.

But how do you build consensus if your key internal stakeholders don’t understand or appreciate online community? Start with that list of things you and your members think an online community could accomplish for your organization, then compare those ideas to your association’s business strategy. Pick out the ones that line up and stitch them together into a 90-second elevator pitch for your boss and/or board. Include some points about the cost and return as well as the member behaviors and activity you expect your community to engender. In this way, you’re able to frame the community as a benefit to your members as well as a benefit overall to the association. That’s music to any CEO’s ears.

You are (mostly) happy with your AMS/CRM (and IT team)

Finally, if you plan to launch an online community, it is important to have an adaptable association management system or customer relationship manager in place. This is what’s called your “system of record” in the tech parlance. While there are some community platforms that can operate just fine without a system of record, it’s usually not recommended to move forward with any kind of member engagement technology without a place to store all of the member data that technology will produce.

Of course, no one is ever totally happy with their AMS, so make sure you have the proper resources, including employees, to back up the community technology you will need to maintain. Regardless of how large your online community is, every aspect of it will work better with a strong technology infrastructure underlying it. And while you can likely rely on your community support team to handle issues, it’s best to have a dedicated full-time tech on staff before launching a community. You will be able to more quickly rebound from inevitable technical difficulties, and having dedicated IT support will make it that much easier to customize and integrate new tools and features into your community as it grows.

You’re ready for a promotion

It’s only after you’ve gathered these three things that you can start developing a real strategy for your online community. While it may take some time to put this stuff in place, prior planning will mean that your community starts with a much stronger foundation. That stronger foundation will make your community more likely to succeed, which will be good for your members, your association, and for you–and your career.

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