Why Your Association’s Community-Building Strategy Might Need a Tweak

If your association has been leaning on staff-centered online community engagement tactics, it might not have the effect you’re expecting, says culture expert Maddie Grant. Instead, let the members take the lead.

The difference between canned community engagement and the real thing can feel subtle. But you know it when you see it.

And when engagement feels forced in a member community, it can feel disingenuous—something highlighted in a thread that picked up heat in the community-building space on social media.

In an email, community expert Rosie Sherry noted the reaction to the tweet was fairly robust. “It made me think, realize, see that really anything can be good for community building, but just because you are doing it doesn’t mean you are building community,” she said.

Maddie Grant, cofounder of the culture-driven consultancy PROPEL, compares tactics like these with the early days of social media, before brand marketers moved in.

“It used to be really organic and just fun and interesting and kind of new, and then the marketers took over, and now you’re just getting spammed all the time with the ads,” Grant said. “I think community management, not in the same way, there’s a little bit of that, too, because all of these tactics are so obvious.”

Service at the Center

So why do these tactics feel so poorly suited to online communities? And what does that say about community-building in general?

The secret might come down to who is driving the engagement. Sherry explained that communities that put the organization’s goals at the center will often fail to engage. Instead, she suggested that member communities should be built with service in mind.

“There would be better success with a community if done this way because the focus is more on building something of value for the people, rather than the person [or organization] at the center of things,” she said.

In an ideal world, Grant said community managers could mostly stay out of the way of the member conversations.

“Really, the best communities are where the organization itself is completely invisible and in the background and is just making sure that everything runs smoothly from a technology perspective, or that there’s a helpdesk person in case anybody has issues, or that is focused on onboarding new people into the community,” she said.

Community Considerations

Grant offered a few suggestions as to what that might look like, including creating a network of “champions” to help seed conversation in the community, but also to think about the structure of the community, building it in a way where everyone who joins has a role—such as a help forum or an area dedicated to Q&A.

“The impetus for people to help each other is really, really high, as opposed to ‘just come in here and discuss these industry-related topics,’ where nobody has time for that,” she said.

Grant offered two additional insights on keeping digital communities going:

One-way engagement is OK, sometimes. If you can’t get people to comment, all is not lost. Since the start of the pandemic, people have found themselves engaging aggressively through mediums like Zoom, and they may need a break from posting on a forum. While passive forms of consumption, like podcasts and videos, may seem underrated compared with commenting, Grant said they still have significant value. Just be sure to offer options. “The value of people watching or just reading or sharing is actually much higher for the association than the value of somebody commenting, or posting, which obviously has always been harder to get,” she explained.

How should you feel about external competition? In recent years, Facebook’s long-neglected Groups feature made a big comeback as a way to interact with others, in ways that don’t seem as stilted as more professional platforms. Grant noted that the professional nature of association communities can actually put Facebook groups at an advantage in some ways, as they tend to be a bit looser. However, associations can learn from them in trying to encourage a balance. “You can still have rules without curbing some of those connections, because that’s how people obviously get to know each other,” she said. She also noted that the informal nature of Facebook groups makes them distinct from the stronger strategic nature of associations. “It’s so much more lightweight,” she said.

(DmitriMaruta/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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