Building Buy-In for an Online Community at Your Association

Associations, Community Strategy // Need to pitch community to your association's board? We'll walk you through aligning your strategy with their priorities and overcoming common objections.

Elizabeth Bell
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You don’t have to be a hypnotist or a master of persuasion to build support for an online community among your association’s board and executive team.

Instead, you need to align your new online community with the mission and priorities of your association’s leadership.

It’s easy to say, harder to do – but we’ll walk you through what you need to get there, including aligning with your association’s overall priorities and overcoming common objectives.

How to Align with Your Board and Executive Team’s Priorities

Did your association have a strategic planning meeting at the beginning of the calendar or fiscal year? If so, secure a copy of the strategic plan, and use it as the guide for your presentation.

If a document like this doesn’t exist, hold some informational interviews with your executive director and the head of the board to figure out what the association’s main goals are for the upcoming year.

Your goal should be to demonstrate how the community aligns with and leads to achieving the goals of your association’s strategic plan. This is how you can prove your new member community will be a valuable technology investment.

Here are five examples of priorities you might find in your association’s strategic plan, along with key points for how community helps.

5 Common Organizational Priorities for Associations

While the way you align your proposed member community with your executives’ goals will vary by association, five of the most common priorities you might find in the strategic plan include new member acquisition, member engagement and retention, non-dues revenue growth, advocacy and legislation, and maintaining relevance.

1. New Member Acquisition

The goal: Every year, bringing in new members is likely to be on your association’s list. Your organization needs to bring in new members to meet revenue goals, and often, this includes increasing the young member base.

In order to recruit new members, associations need to provide a unique value proposition, something compelling enough that people see value in paying for membership on their own or asking their company to sponsor their membership.

Where community fits in:

  • Be your industry’s thought leader. Communities are a great way to promote your association’s status in the industry. Member-generated content shows you’re the place to be, while fostering peer-to-peer engagement among your most valuable members.
  • Use community to reach future members. An online community opens a window into your members’ interests, wants, needs, and pain points. Their discussions, the resources they download, and the feedback they give you are all crucial to building your member personas. Additionally, you could suggest a “freemium” community membership for potential members to showcase the value of joining your association.

Download the Community Roundtable's State of Community Management Report

2. Member Engagement and Retention

The goal: The key to member retention is to offer what members need and want, and make sure they’re aware of it.

Where community fits in:

  • Deepen member relationships year-round, not just at meetings or events. Members can stay connected to one another and to your association even when in-person connections are not possible. They receive value from their membership through peer-to-peer connections, mentoring, access to experts, exclusive content, and more. See how associations are doing this during COVID-19.
  • Use the data generated by community interactions to generate more relevant programming. The American Society of Association Executives worked with Association Analytics to analyze their community data, which helped them identify overarching membership trends and popular topics, like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), enabling them to offer what members were expressing they needed.
  • Identify at-risk members and re-engage them. The engagement data generated by your community can help your membership team determine who is likely to renew and who is at risk. Once you know who’s at risk, you use automated campaigns to send timely, personalized member communications to those members.

3. Growing Non-Dues Revenue

The goal: If your organization offers certifications, continued education, or trainings as membership benefits, your leadership may want to boost involvement in these areas to grow non-dues revenue. Revenue from these types of sources account for 70% of professional associations’ and over 54% of trade associations’ total revenue (ASAE Foundation).

Where community fits in:

  • Add new, high-traffic advertising space. Online engagement tools open up a new world of advertising space and give you a new way to attract sponsors with compelling and diverse offers around events, community ad space, and member newsletters and mailings
  • Promote your publications and subscriptions. With a combination of engagement tools, you can gather the data about members’ interests, segment your members by interests, and nurture members with automated campaigns – all to encourage more participation and create more exposure for the content they’re truly interested in, like your new report.
  • Increase event registration and participation. Use the community to advertise your events, whether they’re virtual or in-person. Your online community is a fantastic resource to encourage those who haven’t registered for the event to register sooner, rather than later. Your event community can help you make sure attendees continue to find value in the event and in your association even after it’s over, and reduce the amount of follow-up work you have to do.
  • Give members a place to learn and find the right content. Use your community to show members the courses and certifications available to them, then give them a place to discuss and meet fellow learners.

4. Advocacy and Legislative Initiatives

The goal: Your association may have certain goals for getting members involved in this year, rallying them behind your legislative or advocacy initiatives.

How community helps:

  • Create a natural pool of advocates. The community is a great place to gather your current highly-involved members and create new advocates. Engaged members can influence less-engaged members and encourage them to get involved with your initiatives.
  • Organize volunteering opportunities. Instead of having to manage your programs with a spreadsheet, you can use a community to organize volunteers, easily tracking their involvement and rewarding them through gamification. It’s easier and faster for you to get members involved.

5. Staying Relevant

The goal: Being on the cutting edge and staying relevant is key to continuing to thrive as an organizations. Many associations are looking to technology to help them achieve various goals like millennial recruitment and maximizing staff resources.

How community helps:

  • Appeal to the next generation of members with a modern community experience. MTI chose online community as a tool for digital transformation. Because online community is such an effective communication tool, staff spend less time solving transactional member requests or committee issues, for significantly reduced overhead costs. Community is now a vital piece of MTI’s gold-standard member benefits.
  • Be the industry leader. Communities are a great way to promote your association’s status in the industry. Member-generated content shows your thought leadership and appeals to new members.

After the pitch, your leadership or board may have objections – here are a few of the most common objections to adopting a community, and how you can respond to them.

Overcoming Common Objections to Community

Your goal during this should be to give them confidence that you’ve thought through these things and to convince them that the effort or cost will be worth it for both the health of your organization and an improved member experience.

Objection 1: Price

Example: “X platform is cheap/free. Why don’t we use that?”

Price is always a valid concern – but what you’re proposing is worth the investment. Inexpensive platforms are not likely to provide either the full suite of tools or the broad member benefits that a member engagement platform can.

For example, a tool that’s made for forums could be helpful for creating more interaction, but that’s not a true community.

If you want to create a community that members keep coming back to and rely on as a top member benefit, the platform you choose needs to have deep engagement capabilities (like automation tools for community managers, personalization features, resource libraries, discussion threads, and more) in order to achieve that continuous member engagement that will fulfill your association’s strategic goals.

Objection 2: Social Media

Example: “It would be much easier to create a social media group. Let’s just do that.”

Social media groups are free, but you don’t own your member data, these lack community management tools, and to top it off, engagement is much, much lower in a social media group versus an owned community (The Community Roundtable, 2019).

Sure, social media platforms have a large and ready audience, but there are perils to building your home on someone else’s land.

  • Data: You don’t own your member data – the social media platform does. This is an unsecure environment for members. If you want to see the full benefits of community on your organization, it’s critical that you own your data, and use that data to build the RIGHT experience for your members, rather than letting someone take control.
  • Control: On a social platform, you lack branding abilities and community management tools. This can be seen in low engagement rates. The Community Roundtable says, “For those who work in social media, engagement rates average between .05-5% of their total followers. In contrast, almost 50% of community members are actively engaged.”
  • Access: Some of your members may not be able to access social media during the work day – the prime time for them to be engaging in your community as they seek professional resources, search for an answer during the work day, or download a resource. If you have an online community with its own domain, you mitigate the risk that they can’t access it at work..
  • Visibility: When you have an owned community, your own domain gets the benefit of user-generated content. For example, the Educational Theatre Association’s community is public, meaning anyone can request a login and Google indexes their content – leading to a 900% increase in organic search rankings. A social media community won’t boost your visibility in this way.

See how the Southern Medical Association is using community to help members with their unique challenges.

Objection 3: Timing

Example: “Our conference is coming up. Let’s concentrate on that.”

If you keep waiting for the right time to launch an online community, it will most likely never happen. There will always be something that gets in the way. If the board’s specific worry turns out to be an event, you could discuss how an event is actually the perfect opportunity to launch your community.  The Promotional Products Association International used this strategy to promote their community launch, boosting their initial success.

Make community an action item in your meetings and if it truly is an organizational goal, set a deadline for implementing your strategy as you would any other task.

Objection 4: Lack of Interest

Example: “Our members won’t use this.”

The chance to make connections is most likely one of your members’ top reasons for joining an association. And many associations are currently unable to meet this need.

According to Marketing General Inc, these are the top four challenges to associations’ member retention:

  • Members’ lack of engagement with the organization (41%)
  • Difficulty justifying membership costs with any significant ROI (27%)
  • Leaving the industry or budget cuts (27%)
  • Lack of value (25%)

What better way to fix these challenges than to provide valuable relationships, engagement, and ROI to your members year-round through a community?

See how the Metal Treating Institute is creating new value for its members.

Objection 5: The Status Quo

Example: “What we’re doing now is fine.”

Can you run an association without an online community? Yes – but you’re missing out on a huge growth opportunity, effectively keeping your members at arm’s length instead of engaging with them and giving them opportunities to network with each other.

Choosing not to adopt a community means your association will miss out on ways to improve the member experience, collect data, disseminate information, and understand their preferences.

Additionally, if one of your association’s worries is an aging member base, new engagement technology is one of the best ways to ensure longevity and recruit younger members.

Community Will Grow Your Association

Don’t let objections make you doubt your pitch. Show your board how your new online community will improve the return on investment you can offer members, tying their priorities into your community strategy.

This is the direction all organizations are moving – becoming more human and providing a more personal, tailored experience. A community is your chance to continue innovating and providing high-value benefits to your members.

Download the Engagement Trends Report 2020

Editor’s note: This post was originally written by Christina Green in January 2016 and has since been revised to reflect latest updates and research.

Elizabeth Bell

Content Marketing Manager

Elizabeth Bell is the Content Marketing Manager at Higher Logic. She’s passionate about communities, tech, and communicating about both effectively. When she’s not writing, you’ll probably find her cooking, reading, gardening, or playing volleyball.

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