Nearly all U.S. companies use some form of social media or community website to connect with their current and prospective customers. Meanwhile, the debate rages on, over the Return on Investment (ROI) of social media and whether or not it is quantifiable. Regardless of your ability to measure ROI, the significance of community websites is indisputable and can be seen simply in the sheer number of consumers who utilize these channels on a consistent basis. As an association, increased engagement with your members online can result in a variety of indirect financial returns in the form of increased retention, recruitment, event attendance, product purchases, financial donations, lifetime value and so on. Ben Martin, CAE and Chief Engagement Officer at Online Community Results, refers to these benefits as Return on Engagement (ROE). Instead of working to pin down the ROI and questioning the monetary rewards of social networking, uncovering what makes your members value your online community and how you can work to deliver that value to them.
The true power of an online community lies in the idea that people innately pursue companionship, mobility and opportunity (these are also the elements that led your members to join your association). If you are not providing these factors within your social network then you are not utilizing it properly. A community is the means through which people connect with one another due to some shared commonality. Even in our most reclusive moments we still want to feel connected in some way.
Social networking has become monumentally popular because humans have a deep desire to bond. Your community should be tapping into that urge by giving your members a reason to converse. Your community should allow them to do so from anywhere at any time. Members should be able to move seamlessly through this online space – ease of use is paramount. You deliver member value by giving them an opportunity to develop a network and by providing them a knowledge-base that allows them to advance both personally and professionally. As an association, your community website should be the instrument that inspires your members to become emotional invested in your organization. Now that you know the importance of an online community, let’s talk about the best ways to cultivate a thriving online community.
1. Have a Dedicated Community Manager
A successful community website needs a manager who will encourage participation by promptly responding to questions, promoting conversations and providing positive feedback. This individual should also make sure that all of your association’s information is up-to-date on your community website. Social networks are in constant flux so it is important to have an online community manager who has the knowledge and tools to adapt to these changes.
2. Onboard New Members & Create a Welcoming Atmosphere
We all know how important first impressions are – work to create a positive one with your new members. Developing a friendly and helpful atmosphere is easy and inexpensive. Send an enthusiastic welcome package to your new members with directions on where to sign in to your community website and basic instructions of how to use it. Your community manager should give special attention to new members by putting some extra effort into catering to them. Paying special attention in the beginning to new members can go a long way in forming a productive community website.
3. Utilize the Features That Make Sense for Your Members
Understanding which features deliver the most value to your members can be tricky, especially if your community website is relatively new. More established online communities have a long history of site traffic, which maps out where the most activity has taken place over time. Newer communities will need to do a little trial and error to figure out what works for their members and then shift their focus. For associations, some of the most useful features are blogs, event & activity calendars, career centers and job boards, community photo galleries, professional development centers, forums, groups, idea boxes, rewards, news, surveys, profiles, and member & staff lists. Ultimately, you must come to understand what your members want by monitoring their activities and by listening to them.
4. Share Engaging Content
It seems like everyone is throwing around the buzz word engagement – this concept is just as hard to quantify as ROI when it comes to social media. Posting engaging content is sharing information that inspires your members to interact with your community website. Your content won’t initiate viral-like activity every time you post, but there are few simple steps you that can take to make sure that you’re headed in the right direction: create visual posts using images or videos, make sure it’s timely and relevant, keep it personal, be transparent, and keep it brief, clear and concise.
5. Gamify your Community Website
Implementing gamification mechanics can be a very powerful method for influencing behavior and driving results. It has been proven that people learn behaviors more easily through games. There is a magnitude of simple, fun and free ways that you can incentivize your members. You should think about establishing challenges, points, badges and levels for increased engagement online. For example, it is very simple to announce a photo contest during the registration period for your big annual event and give away free registration to the member who posts the best photo. Just use a little imagination, think outside of the box and have fun with it!
6. Capitalize on Negative Feedback
It is important to accept the fact that you will receive harsh criticism sometimes. Negative feedback is not pleasant, but it is not the end of the world. What matters most is how you react to it. First of all, determine whether the negative comment has any merit. Even if the negativity is unwarranted you should always respond. Ignoring negative comments reflects poorly upon your association, instead you should be very honest and transparent in your response. Sometimes people criticize because they care. Understand the difference between the negativity from people who want to see your community succeed and those who are only interested in stirring the pot. If the comment does have merit it is vital that you take the opportunity to learn from your shortcomings and grow as you move forward. Thank those who provide constructive criticism, and put effort into alleviating the problems they are having. Judging these situations can be difficult so you must plan your response carefully. Put yourself in your members shoes and ask a coworker for a second opinion if need be.
7. Share your Member’s Favorite Things
Ask your members to share their favorite online community features and any other things that they love about your association. This will create a very positive and constructive community atmosphere. You should then share these positive posts across your community platform. This will show you listen to and value your members. It can also show other members helpful features that they were previously unaware of. Just be careful not to overdo it.
Your member’s willingness to spend not only their money but their time with your association is a very powerful resource. You should aim to form a community that convenes around your brand, but eventually it should regulate itself. Your ultimate goal should be for your community to own itself. The benefits for your association can be massive. An online community that enables and encourages your members to build a supportive social network will tie them to your association both logically and emotionally.