Borrow These Insights From Niche Communities

Online groups centered on a specific interest tend to produce a dedicated, highly engaged member base. Associations can inject that spirit into their own membership by delivering experiences they can’t find anywhere else.

People join associations in part because they’re made up of people who care about the same niche things they do. (Wood poles? Check. Bearded Santas? Check.) But there are other spaces for niche communities, such as Facebook groups and Reddit, that serve as another outlet to connect with like-minded individuals.

These niche online communities—spaces centered around a specific topic, interest, or profession—often have high engagement and deeply invested members. That’s what Jen Capstraw experienced with the Facebook group she founded, which eventually led to the organization Women of Email.

“I just turned out a Facebook group as a place for us to centralize our ideas and our conversation,” she said. Once she formed the community, she saw quick growth: “We had more than 50 members in 24 hours, and then 129 members by the third day. [The group] became permanent because that’s where people are on a daily basis.”

How can associations generate the level of engagement and connection that can be found in thriving online communities? Consider these tips from Capstraw.

Give Your Members a Voice

A niche online community gives users an outlet to share their insights and opinions with their community. So, putting too narrow a definition on acceptable conversations can stifle engagement.

Capstraw and her team moderate the Facebook group lightly, and they don’t immediately delete threads with disagreements, arguments, or “off-topic” discussions. As a result, users feel empowered to share their thoughts freely. Associations can do the same by giving members opportunities to make their voices heard and creating a culture that welcomes a dialogue about potentially sensitive issues.

“In terms of how you behave in our community, we’re pretty loose about it. What can advance your career as a woman? Sometimes it’s just finding like-minded people and having a conversation with them,” Capstraw said. “Just building relationships advances our mission.”

Facilitate Meaningful Experiences

That said, an association, like a niche online community, should always focus on facilitating positive experiences that help members learn and connect. There should be rules that limit behavior that gets in the way of that goal, such as bullying, harassment, using hate speech, or using the community as a way to self-promote for profit.

This is where Women of Email’s community guidelines, which outline how to interact with others in the group, come in handy. Associations can follow the same formula by laying ground rules at meetings and establishing guidelines around workplace etiquette.

Serve Your Members’ Unique Needs

What makes niche online communities so powerful is that they scratch a very specific itch, serving a community that knows what it wants. Associations can fill that same role by having staff keep their ears to the ground to get a pulse for what their members need and tailoring experiences around those needs. Instead of offering a generic professional development course, for example, develop offerings that wouldn’t be found in any other community.

And how do you know what your members need? Just ask them and listen. This could take the form of a survey, a quick questionnaire, social listening, or town hall meetings to gauge member satisfaction.

Focus on Member Retention

Capstraw said she hasn’t promoted her Facebook group, instead focusing efforts on building strong relationships with existing members of the community.

“We have never spent money on promoting,” she said. “A really great community is going to advocate for itself; it’s going to make champions out of the participants.”

Associations can do this too: Don’t neglect member engagement for the sake of expanding your community through recruitment efforts. If you give members valuable experiences, then the community will grow naturally via word of mouth.

Create Opportunities for Deeper Connection

On top of its Facebook group, Women of Email has an informal subcommunity on Slack called Email Geeks, which features just a few hundred members. Providing a space for smaller group conversations has resulted in new avenues of discussion.

“Community tone is very much dictated by the number of participants,” Capstraw said. “There’s a certain feeling of, ‘This is a small, safer group, and I’m going to have a different conversation in this little tiny space than I am in this bigger space.’”

Hosting an upcoming conference? On top of main events where all attend, give members a chance to break into smaller groups for team-building activities or networking opportunities specific to various subcategories of interests.


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Michael Hickey

By Michael Hickey

Michael Hickey is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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