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The Next Frontier for Online Communities

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Online communities are a great way for members to connect, network, and collaborate. But a personal touch is missing. Going forward they need to be more than a digital hub and evolve into a real-time, interactive space.

Associations exist to bring people together around a shared purpose and values—and online communities are an extension of that connectivity. But they can do more.

“They have the opportunity to not only deepen those relationships, but the mission and purpose of the association and help members feel like they really belong to something bigger,” said Marjorie Anderson, product manager of digital communities at Project Management Institute and founder of the Community by Association website.

One of the things that became clear during the pandemic is there is a personal element missing in how associations use technology. “It’s hard to get personal connection from the kinds of communities we have now,” said Moira Edwards, CAE, president of Ellipsis Partners.

Currently, online communities are predominantly asynchronous. People post messages and the replies come later. There needs to be a shift from purely text-based interactions to other forms of communication. “There will be audio, video, and virtual reality,” Edwards said. “And they’re going to bring people together in real-time that is much closer to in-person interaction.”

Let’s Stick Together

To improve online communities and take them into their next iteration, it’s important to get a clear understanding of member needs and values, which will help define how the platforms support those priorities.

For example, even though a lot of people currently use online communities to support committee and other group-related work, most of the platforms don’t adequately help members do what they actually need to accomplish. “That’s a huge gap,” Edwards said. “People are using Dropbox, Google Docs, somebody’s Zoom account. There’s no central place or tool for a committee to truly work.”

That’s where real-time, small group, personal interactions will help by allowing for instant messaging, video chat, and group messaging. “It’s crazy that we don’t have the ability to reach out to somebody quickly and easily through these online communities,” Edwards said.

Enhanced Member Journey

It’s clear that online communities have the potential to provide lots of information around member behaviors, the types of content they are consuming, and the kinds of conversations they are having—particularly for professional associations.

“It’s hard to get personal connection from the kinds of communities we have now.” — Moira Edwards, CAE, Ellipsis Partners

That means the technology that supports them needs to be able to connect into larger association systems to provide insights that inform the holistic part of the user journey, not just how people are connecting with the online community, Anderson said.

“That information and data will help feed not just the community but also what the member experience needs to look like and what event experiences need to look like,” Anderson said. “That’s really what we’re going to see a lot more of in the future.”

According to Forj’s 2021 State of Association Member Experience report [PDF], community platforms are a primary information source for members, so associations need to figure out how to integrate their business and organizational goals into the online community and use it to create connections across the organization.

“That is what will make a huge difference in how you are able to serve your members and connect to people who may not have as tight of a relationship with you,” Anderson said.

In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that online communities are one of the first places people go to express their satisfaction—or dissatisfaction—with an experience or a product. There’s a wealth of information associations can glean from them about whether their membership model is working, whether a certification process is difficult, and more.

“This is candid information that’s being given through the online community,” Anderson said. “It’s a place where members and people participating in the space feel like they’re able to voice opinions and concerns.”

And they know there is a good chance their concerns will get noticed, especially if there is a dedicated manager monitoring these communities and taking that feedback to the appropriate departments in the association.

However, the roles and benefits online communities can provide go beyond just member engagement. As associations are building out products, helping chapters reimagine what engagement looks like at the local level, and trying to ensure their volunteers are staying engaged when they might not be able to gather face to face, online communities have the potential to help bring these groups together.

“It gives them innovative ways to hold meetings, look at engagement differently, and work together in a different way,” Anderson said.

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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