There’s a difference between “setting up” and “building” an online community – and the latter requires much more time, ongoing effort, and resources.
Private online communities have grown in popularity in the association world, and they can be a great tool for building engagement and connecting members. But many resource-constrained membership organizations set them up only to find that it’s a lot harder to manage a community than they thought it would be.
A thriving online community requires a lot of time and attention. So before you launch, be sure you have the ingredients you need to make it successful!
What do you want to achieve? Most communities focus on information sharing, connecting members, staying in touch with members, and giving members a place where they can get answers to questions. Online communities thrive on content, but before you can determine what kind of content you want to distribute, you need to have some specific goals in mind.
It takes time to build a thriving community, so you need to think long term, rather than posting content on an ad hoc basis. Your strategy follows your purpose. Based on your goals, get something down on paper that provides some detail on what kind of content you’ll post, how often, how you’ll manage your community, and who will be responsible for managing it.
With so much competition for your members’ attention on the web, you need to be sure you’re giving them relevant, timely information they can’t get anywhere else. Maybe it's researching findings from studies you’ve conducted, quick tips from reputable experts within your organization, or videos that will teach your members something valuable.
Ideally, you’ll want to dedicate more than one person to creating and posting content, monitoring forums, and responding to questions. Choose people who know the industry really well, even if it means using a reliable volunteer. You want people who are up to speed on the latest industry trends so they can generate some discussion.
Think varied and personal. Your content should touch upon the issues and challenges your members to encounter on a day-to-day basis so that they are compelled to read it, watch it, or listen to it. Use a mix of mediums, including written content, videos, and photos to keep things interesting for your members.
Don’t do it alone. The most successful communities draw on the expertise of many contributors. This might mean including content from partner organizations, sponsors, board and staff members, and even enlisting some of your members to volunteer as contributors.
Your online community won’t grow overnight. Keep at it, monitor your progress, and re-assess your strategy from time to time. Be flexible – if something’s not working, acknowledge it and change your approach.
Put all these ingredients together, and over time your fledgling community will grow into a thriving, regularly visited hub for your members and prospective members.