Membership Memo: Find Your Connectors

Volunteers can help keep your online community strong.

Online communities are great for connecting members, but community managers and other association staff can’t do it alone. According to the State of Community Management 2019 report from Community Roundtable, many community managers are spread too thin and can’t keep up with all the activity in their online forums.

To avoid burning out, Simon Helton, director of community engagement at the International Society for Technology in Education, recruits a dedicated corps of ISTE members to provide backup support.

“Volunteers are an amazing asset and can serve as a force multiplier,” he says. “They’re very good at answering members’ questions and can serve as champions or ambassadors.”

If that sounds like a good solution for your community management challenges, Helton has some tips for getting started. First, identify a variety of ways for your volunteers to participate.

“Some examples include welcoming in new members, nudging along conversations that need further attention, or seeding the community with discussions during quieter periods,” Helton says. “We rely on [members] quite a bit, especially because we cover such a wide range of topics and there’s just no way to have enough expertise on our staff to do it all.”

He thinks of members as subject matter experts for different community channels. In addition to ad hoc volunteers, he has recruited dedicated teams who moderate discussions on specific topics.

“Each team is about 12 people,” he says. “They keep an eye on discussions and post about professional learning activities related to the topic, things like webinars, newsletters, or book studies.”

That’s not to say associations should overlook the value of having a team of community managers on staff.

“There is a reason community managers exist as a profession,” he says. “If you’re spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on community software, take the second step of investment and hire a person to manage it properly to ensure success.”

Helton and another ISTE staff member are responsible for overseeing the entire community space, but they stay behind the scenes. “The goal is to have a somewhat invisible hand and have members establish the peer-to-peer connection,” he says.

Online community management tools and technology also help spur member engagement. ISTE deploys automated emails to welcome new members and congratulate them on their first post. “Or if someone has been absent for a while or hasn’t signed into their account, we can email and say, ‘Hey, you joined but you’re missing out on this great member benefit,’” Helton says.

He suggests creating small, personalized touchpoints that make volunteers feel appreciated.

“It’s all about building a direct connection,” he says. “We try to have check-in calls with volunteers and send thank-you cards. Then, we invite them to special events at our conference and thank them in person for their contributions.”

(pixelnest/Getty Images)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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