Online communities: too much information

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A thriving online community can help turn the most out-of-touch association into a vital and relevant resource. But how much, asks Majorie Anderson, should your organisation be prepared to share to achieve this goal?

Online communities are places for people to gather in a digital space to talk through ideas and find answers to common problems. They can foster a sense of belonging and help to create a connection to your association that may not have existed otherwise. But should that ‘connection’ be reserved for members? Or should your online community welcome all-comers? Or maybe a bit of both?
Associations build their products and services around the needs of their members, and lobby and innovate on their behalf. Online communities help associations determine what members want, spot new innovations, and communicate effectively when the market wants quick feedback. All of these are valuable and important, but should you only be hearing from your members? Let’s look at the case for open versus closed communities -   and whether there’s a happy medium.
Open communities
Open communities allow anyone to join. All that is required is a login to access content.  Visitors can create their own blogs, comment on existing content, and make connections that benefit them. This is a great way for an association to broaden their reach to people with a particular interest or working in a specific industry. The hiccup is that it doesn’t necessarily help you serve your market.
Yes, you’re gaining valuable insights, but how do you filter out what’s relevant to your association and guide visitors to the products and services you’ve created? It’s like casting your net into the ocean hoping to catch a specific kind of fish without knowing whether that’s where they swim.
This is not to say that there’s no value in having an open online community. Healthcare associations can provide tremendous value by serving those with medical conditions who are looking for a place to talk or for people who can understand what they’re experiencing. When evaluating whether your community should be open, be mindful of its purpose and plan accordingly.
Closed communities
Closed communities are off limits to non-members. It’s like an invitation to an exclusive party. Everyone there knows all about your association, they’re heavily invested in your mission and believe in the work that you do. They know who your founders are, advocate on your behalf without prompting, and will pay their dues religiously year after year. It’s an association utopia.
What’s missing is an objective viewpoint.
All the people contributing to your community are already on board. They may push back if they feel you’re making a decision that’s not in the best interest of the membership, but that’s the only point of view you’re getting. You could be missing out on what’s new in the market because the conversations that your members are having strongly align with your association’s direction and overall strategy unless you’re supplementing that with some other form of outreach or touch point.
Closed communities can be great opportunities for associations to test new products and obtain feedback from their membership in an environment where information won’t be leaked to the rest of the world prematurely. These members have a history with you, are invested your cause, and are interested the association’s growth. A closed online community can serve as a great incubator for creating valuable products and services that you will know, without any doubt, they want.
That said, unless your sole purpose is to create a space for your members to interact as a part of the overall member benefit, you run the risk of cutting off other lines of thought, innovation, and experience that can help your association broaden its reach and grow.
You also risk stifling the growth of your community.
Happy medium
If you’re struggling to choose between an open or closed model for your online community, there is probably a happy medium: limited or hybrid access. But what does that look like?
That’s ultimately your decision, but the association I work has the following policy which works well.
Anyone can register on the site and participate in the community. They can contribute to discussion posts, read articles and blogs, and even download certain content. They can get value out of the community, even if they are not members of the association. However members enjoy certain online perks, like access to premium content like live/on-demand webinars, virtual conferences etc.
The mix of people within the community gives those within the profession that we serve a place to have conversations about successes and challenges and allows them to consume content that will help them be more successful. It nurtures conversations that address challenges from an industry standpoint and not just from the lens of those who have chosen to pay membership dues. It exposes non-members to the benefits of membership without a hard sell and gives them the chance to join.

You could be missing out on what’s new in the market because the conversations that your members are having strongly align with your association’s direction and overall strategy unless you’re supplementing that with some other form of outreach or touch point.

From an association standpoint, it gives insight into what’s going on in the market, what direction the profession is heading in, and what practitioners have a need for (not just our members) which, in turn, helps strengthen our standards and thought leadership. And it creates a trust that we are, in fact, here to serve them as professionals, regardless of membership status. That’s hugely important.
You have to evaluate the purpose of your community and align it with your organization’s strategy. The community experience can’t feel disjointed. Build your community so that it feels like home to those you serve, whether you choose to leave the door open or closed.

Some associations have taken the idea of an open online community and made it their business model, as James Lancaster reports…
The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) does things differently. Founded in 2005, it has no barriers to entry. A member, it boasts, is anyone who says they are a member.
To date, 100,000 people in 50 countries have chosen to call themselves members.
Actually an IxDA member is someone who has ‘connected’ – either through subscribing to a newsletter, via social media or by connecting with a local chapter. The point is there are no membership fees or barriers to entry based on job descriptions. It’s simply about connecting people who are interested in interaction design – be they academics, designers, researchers or employers.
‘We don’t care if you call yourself an interaction designer or not,’ the association says.
The website – the association’s point of entry – is barrier-free. Anyone can access discussion forums, watch videos and connect with their peers. As a result there is a healthy cross-pollination of ideas.
In effect, the association has taken the concept of an association as a membership-based organisation and ripped it up. Instead it calls itself a membership-supported organisation.
It has a range of sponsors including household names like Facebook, Google, Bloomberg, Amazon and Microsoft, and raises income through events and individual contributions.
[caption id="attachment_3695" align="alignnone" width="300"]

Brenda Sanderson[/caption]

Brenda Sanderson, executive director, said: “I often get other association managers asking me how to convert their paid membership to what we do and I say, I have absolutely no idea. What I know is that if you start from scratch you can build a sustainable business model around free membership.”
So what was the impetus for side-stepping the traditional dues-based revenue stream?
“It was a values-based decision from the very beginning of the association. We started as a virtual community, a list-serve to be exact, and although, to scale things up, we had to incorporate, it was always going to be open access.”
About the author: Marjorie Anderson is an association community engagement manager and founder of @CommunitybyAssn

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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