Online Communities Reap Benefits From Volunteer, Executive Leadership

A report on the habits of highly effective online communities encourages volunteer guidance and CEO participation.

Strategy, governance, and executive leadership. In the most simple terms, these are a few of the keys to success for an online community. Sound familiar?

The Community Roundtable (The CR)—the community for community managers—published the 2014 edition of its “State of Community Management” report a few weeks ago, and it focuses on the key elements that mark success in “mature,” or best-in-class, online communities. While the details are specific to online communities, the fundamental principles underlying the key findings are, perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the same core elements that make up successful associations.

Joshua Paul at the Socious blog has a good roundup of the findings, but in short, here’s what the report said:

In 58 percent of the best-performing communities, the organization’s CEO is an active participant.

  1. Community maturity delivers business value. The vast majority (79 percent) of the best-performing communities have an “approved, operational, and measurable” strategy.
  2. Advocacy programs increase engagement. Here, “advocacy” means a leadership structure of some sort, community members volunteering to help guide the direction of the community and actively participating in its success. Among communities with formal leadership programs, 71 percent can measure the community’s business value; among those without, only 33 percent can do so.
  3. Executive participation affects success. In 58 percent of the best-performing communities, the organization’s CEO is an active participant.

The CR’s core audience and survey participants are community managers at for-profit companies, with either external customer communities or internal employee communities. So, these results require some unpacking for the association context, but don’t discount their value. (Last year’s report showcasing the effect of a community manager on engagement levels in an online community was unquestionably relevant to association communities, for instance.)

I don’t think the first finding requires much analysis; it’s rather straightforward. An online community—particularly when built on a dedicated software platform like the one that powers ASAE’s Collaborate or others offered by a growing number of tech providers—is both a significant investment and significant source of member value. Associations should recognize that potential and align their communities with their organizational strategy. They’re more than just prettier listservers.

The other two findings, however, raise some interesting questions for associations.

Leadership Programs

An online community is in some ways a community within a community, the larger one being your association as a whole. Your association, however, already has its own governance structure and volunteer leadership groups, so where does the online community fit in? Does your board of directors or one of your existing committees take on the role of guiding the online community? Or do you establish another volunteer committee—which, to be sure, will require hands-on management, just like all of your other volunteer committees—dedicated specifically to the success of the online community?

The CR report provides some strong support for making that investment, saying that such a leadership program will increase engagement. Communities with a multi-tiered leadership program see 46 percent of members participating in the community beyond just lurking (compared to 30 percent in communities with no leadership program), as well as a “a significantly higher percent of community members collaborating with each other to create value.”

It also suggests that, while community managers are vital, they can expand their impact by involving members in community-building roles such as recruiting and welcoming new members and facilitating introductions and connections.

CEO Participation

The CR report says communities in which the organization’s CEO participates see higher overall member engagement rates, reflecting “the importance of establishing credibility and modeling behavior in the community.” Fifty-eight percent of best-in-class communities have CEO participation, compared to just 30 percent on average among all communities surveyed.

Here, again, the role of your CEO in your online community may depend on your association’s goals, culture, and staff makeup. Is your online community a place for member-to-member interaction only, or are staff encouraged to participate in discussions? And would they be welcomed as equals by your members? Do your staff have enough industry expertise to weigh in on matters of debate, or are they mostly management experts? Is your CEO recognized as the face of your industry, or is he or she more of a facilitator of volunteer leadership?

Executive participation as suggested by The CR report could also equate to board-member participation in the association setting. How active are your board members in your online community, and how might their participation influence overall engagement? Also a factor is whether matters of association business are often discussed in your online community or whether it mostly focuses on your members’ work and knowledge.

All of these questions ought to be considered, but The CR report supports the basic idea that your association’s leaders, whether staff or volunteer, can have an outsize positive influence on your online community simply by participating. And community managers should help make that happen. Among all communities surveyed in The CR report, 58 percent of community managers coach their executives on how to participate in the community (85 percent among best-in-class communities).

The Community Roundtable’s full “State of Community Management 2014” report is embedded below. It’s long and thorough but definitely worth your time if you’re looking to improve your association’s online community:


How does your association’s online community match up with The Community Roundtable’s recommendations? Do you have a measurable strategy or a volunteer governance structure for the community? Do your board members, executive team, or CEO participate? What are your other keys to success for your online community? Let us know in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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