How the Right Technology Kept This Association Prepared for the Unexpected

Rachael Bell, director of content and communications at the New Jersey Society of CPAs, discusses the power of community.

The work of a certified public accountant (CPA) involves a lot of preparation. So it might not come as a surprise that the director of content and communications at the New Jersey Society of CPAs was as technologically prepared as anyone could be when the pandemic abruptly disrupted the association world in early 2020.

“About 10 years ago, we were looking for technology that would help our member committees and interest groups communicate better,” says Rachael Bell. “The technology we were using at the time had very limited functionality, so we began utilizing the Higher Logic community platform to connect these subsets of our members.”

Bell admits that the association initially underutilized the platform’s capabilities, but after the team at Higher Logic recommended opening up a communication channel for all 14,000 members in addition to the smaller groups, it completely took off. “I’ve been here 32 years and I would say it is the best thing we have ever done for our members,” she exclaims. “It was a situation where, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ They embraced it full on.”

The ability to easily and quickly ask questions and get answers from fellow members was extremely useful in those early days, and it proved to be invaluable as the pandemic emerged right before the 2020 tax filing deadline. “During the height of the pandemic, activity in our Open Forum (full-member community) increased 160 percent,” reports Bell. “To give you perspective, we had 823 total postings from March to June 2019 compared to 2,170 postings for the same period in 2020.”

And this tech has staying power. While the level of activity has dropped off from its 2020 peak, they have not dropped back down to pre-pandemic levels. “March to June 2021 had 1,370 postings, which is a 66 percent increase from the same period in 2019,” Bell says.

“All of our segments of members engage with the community forum, but it is really valuable to our sole practitioners,” Bell explains. “They don’t have an in-house network of colleagues to turn to for questions and issues that arise, and so this open forum has provided them with that network.”

As the one in charge of all content for the association—including NJCPA’s quarterly magazine, articles on its website, blog, two podcasts, and social media posts, Bell says the key to engagement is the automation tools that Higher Logic provides. It creates a daily email notification that pulls in all of the topic discussions from the prior day. Members also have an option to choose real-time email alerts about new posts.

“Members can choose whatever cadence they prefer to fit their schedules,” Bell explains. “The system also automatically reaches out to members who haven’t posted in a set amount of time to re-engage them. The emails are automated, but they look like they come from me, so I often get replies back saying, ‘Sorry I was on vacation!’ or something. It’s great because even though it is automated, you can customize the message to make it warmer and more personable.”

Bell believes the success of the community continues thanks in part to restraint from her department. “We have a policy of not using it to market our programs. If somebody asks a question and we have resources to address it, we’ll post that. And we proactively post breaking news that impacts our members. But by not flooding the community with marketing messages, members really feel that it is their group.”

The interconnection has helped everyone at the association during these difficult times, and Bell says it has been rewarding to see the community boards continue to flourish. “We get many unsolicited compliments and thank yous, members saying that they couldn’t be helping their clients if they didn’t get this information from us. And those sorts of messages are just amazing,” she says. “It’s a great payoff for me and for the staff who have been working long days to help keep our members supported and thriving.”

Higher Logic, the industry-leading, human-focused engagement platform, delivers powerful online communities and communication tools to engage members at every stage of their journey. Higher Logic provides a robust engagement platform and strategic services with over a decade of experience in building personalized and scalable community engagement programs. We serve more than 3,000 customers, representing over 350,000 online communities with greater than 200 million users in more than 42 countries worldwide.