Just like traditional communities, online communities provide your members a way to be social, discuss issues, meet people with common interests, and support each other in times of need. Both online and offline communities are places to interact, converse, and cultivate relationships.
While communities of all kinds are largely beneficial, they take effort and there are things to consider before creating a new place to interact. Here are 8 things to think about before starting an online community.
1. Your audience. Consider your audience and where they go now to seek answers. Does another online community already exist where there is high involvement? Or are your members not very tech-savvy? Do they use social media? Think about what they do now, and where an online community would fit into their daily routine.
2. It's not easy to get started. Even if you do all of the right things starting out, the beginning is probably going to be a little rough. It's certainly not something where you "build it, and they will come." It takes work and patience to grow a thriving online community. Make sure you keep your expectations reasonable, be persistent, and know that it's a process to grow an online community.
3. Where you want this to go. What do you hope your online community will look like in a month? In a year? 5 years down the road? Determine goals in the beginning, so you can evaluate whether or not you're being successful. And considering where you want to be down the road is important to making sure you find the right platform or vendor to meet your needs.
4. Find power users. An online community can be a lot like the chicken and egg dilemma. No one wants to join a community before there is activity, but there's never going to be activity until you have members. The key here is finding people who who are going to actively participate. Reach out to people that would make great power users at the beginning and ask them to help jump start the new community.
5. Give people a reason to participate. Emailing members, begging them to participate isn't the answer. Start interesting and even controversial topics. Give your power users specific instructions and ways to get involved. Offer people the ability raise their profile status by participating. And recognize the achievements and contributions amongst your organization.
6. Don't provide all the answers. This may sound odd, but the purpose of an online community is for your members to ask questions and participate in finding the answers. If you provide all of the answers right off the bat, members arrive and find what they need without contributing to the community. Your purpose as an organization is to help facilitate and jump in when needed, but largely let the community help each other.
7. Who's going to administer. Although your community should eventually run fairly naturally with the majority of contributions from members, they still take a considerable amount of resources. A good administrator will do their best to get everyone involved and keep up a regular flow of topics.Be sure you consider your available staff resources and don't give this task to someone that already has a full workload.
8. Will it integrate with your current system. For many associations, having an online community that integrates into your association management software is key. Members would only have one login to remember and you can gain valuable member intelligence from the additional data you can collect. This makes it easier for the members to participate and your association gains greater visibility into the use of community.
The key to this all is to ask, "What do you want to accomplish?" The answer to this question - and subsequent questions - will help you drive your decisions.
What are your goals for providing an online community to your members? Can you accomplish those goals with existing systems and resources, or do you need to invest in new software or add staff members?
And, of course, "How will you measure success?" Can you link the use of your online community to an increase in member retention or sponsorship revenue? Can you show that new members joined because they needed the resources offered by your online community?
Remember, you're not considering starting an online community just for fun. You're seeking ways to grow your association, provide better service to your members and get rewarded for your efforts. Just like other initiatives, create a plan that you can manage and measure.
Interested in learning about WebLink's suite of technology solutions? Contact us to learn more.