Online Community – Who Cares!

15 Mar

Associations care deeply about member engagement. Particularly with the advent of social media, I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that lack of member engagement is the death knoll for an association. But I often meet with associations who have very little interest in developing a rich online community for their members. I find this puzzling because in my experience, both personally and professionally, those types of communities drive a very high level of engagement.

Why this dichotomy? Three possible reasons came to mind relatively quickly:

#1 – Bad Experience. If you’ve every participated in a dead or dying community, you can quickly get the feeling that online communities don’t work. If you happen to harbour any suspicions about whether people really are willing to interact in meaningful ways online, then this sort of experience will definitely confirm them. Or you might have spent some time looking in on a community that did not match your own interests, and come to the conclusion that there just wasn’t anything of value to be gained from participation.

Communities are like music. Pick any particular genre, and you’ll find people who think it’s “crap” and other who just can’t get enough. Some forms are more popular in general, and some music really is so bad that almost no one will listen to it. But just one amazing experience; music that somehow manages to bring joy to your soul, is enough to offset the bad. Communities are like that. Once you have experienced one which “works,” you will always seek out those experiences in the future.

#2 – Lack of Experience. If you’ve never actually participated in an online community, it really can be hard to understand what the fuss is all about. I think it is fairly natural to be a little suspicious that human interaction can be squeezed down an ethernet cable. It can be difficult to imagine the richness of experience that is possible in online environments. And the current social media platforms that most people are familiar with (Facebook, Twitter) have a reputation for supporting interactions that are superficial in nature. You’ve probably heard someone say they don’t use Twitter because they’re not interested in what other people were having for lunch. In an association context, we have a strong desire for our communities to support more meaningful interactions than that.

To quote Jimi Hendrix: “Are you experienced?” If you haven’t had the opportunity to participate in a healthy online community, you really should try it out. My own experience is that communities of like-minded professionals can be incredibly valuable. If you get it right, an online community for your association can be the centerpiece of your organization. It becomes the embodiment of what your association really is: a collection of like-minded individuals who come together for their mutual benefit.

#3 – Too Much Experience. The notion that you have “learned too much” about something doesn’t actually seem to make sense. But it’s possible to have experienced a number of online communities and formed the impression that they’re roughly all the same because there are common elements that are present in almost all online communities. There is a tendency to assume that an online community is just a place where more or less unstructured discussions happen. And it can be hard to envision how that sort of interaction is going to lead to the sort of engagement that you want with and among your members.

While discussion does form the backbone of virtually all online communities, there is a much greater variety of activity that is possible. For example, I have seen online communities that included activities such as: virtual book clubs, Q&A sessions with acknlowledged experts, informal training, mentoring, and collaboration on producing reports, articles, policies, etc. Those sorts of activities strike me at least, as aligning closely with the core mission of most associations.

To wrap up, there are a lot of reasons why an online community might not seem like a particular priority for your association. But I hope I have given you a sense of why it might be worth looking into. As I mentioned above, I think that associations are primarily about “community” by their very nature, and so the potential value that an online community brings can be substantial.

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