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Good Online Community Design Maximizes Member Engagement

In a recent episode of the Member Engagement Show, Martha Jack, Higher Logic’s Director of Design Services, delved into the crucial role that community and web design plays for associations and member engagement.

Martha and Higher Logic’s Design Services team specialize in designing communities that not only look great, but are also help users engage and support the objectives of the association. Martha has worked with countless associations to build engaging online communities and create synergy between their community and their website. On the show, she discusses how to create a good online experience for members and the ways an association’s online community can be designed to increase member involvement and achieve their goals.

Design Your Online Community to Drive Member Engagement

The most important thing to remember about working in associations is that they run on a people-centered model. Everything from the member benefits you offer to events to collecting feedback should have your members at the heart of it.

With that in mind, look at every one of the following tips with members in mind. What are they looking for in an association? What resources do they need? What can your association do to make the online experience better for members?

Understand the Purpose of Online Community Design

Martha emphasizes the importance of aligning community design with the specific objectives and needs of each association and their members. Virtual communities created with platforms like Higher Logic Thrive are purpose-built to foster member connections and facilitate peer-to-peer networking. But you can also use them to provide easy access to resources and keep your association’s offering’s top of mind.

online community design planning call

“One of the things we ask in a discovery call with association clients is ‘why did you get community in the first place,’” says Martha. “And the typical answer is the ability for members to connect and share knowledge. But for some other organizations, it’s peer-to-peer networking and connections. Or sometimes it’s more about providing easy access to resources. Or other times it’s about giving members the ability to easily do their volunteer working group – whether that’s a committee, a chapter, or something else. Those goals should kind of drive what members see when they land on your community pages. Your community design can drive people to the actions that you want to take and to help them take the best advantage of the community.”

It’s important to think about the ways your association website and online community can be a strategic tool to enhance user experience, encourage member engagement, and help your association meet its goals. With thoughful design, your community can essentially become a hub for members to find what they’re looking for – and what you want them to see. You can use a social-media-style homepage feed – like the one built into Higher Logic Thrive Community – to keep members up-to-date on the latest community news and conversations. You can highlight upcoming events in your community sidebar. You can use your hero banner at the top of the community homepage to call out the top ways for members to get involved.

Get inspiration from our Community Lookbook! Check out examples of association communities built with member engagement in mind.

Matching Your Online Community Design to Your Association

Martha describes how the smallest design elements can be some of the most impactful for aligning your community with your association. This might include things like:

  • Font
  • Brand colors and logo
  • Using consistent button design
  • Matching your community navigation to your website’s navigation
  • Making sure it’s clear how members navigate between your website and your community

“Many associations have a number of web presences. Maybe you have a community, a career center, your social media, an LMS, etc. So as your members work their way through these platforms, how do you ensure they still know it’s you?” says Martha. “You can keep it simple with, ‘well, our logo’s on here and we have some things in common on all the sites.’ And, having done this for 14 years, I am still blown away by how much of a difference it makes just matching your fonts on all your systems. It seems like a small detail, but it makes a huge difference. Things like the font, the footer, whether your buttons have square or round corners or if they have arrows on them, and any other design elements specific to your organization all contribute to your association’s specific look and feel. We can bring that all into the community to make sure it looks like a part of your organization.”

Make Your Online Community Functional and Adaptable

Community also plays a pivotal role in guiding users toward desired actions while saving association staff time. Community automation tools help staff create engagement points without having to do everything manually. Martha highlights the significance of designing for sustainability, ensuring the community is built to evolve with the organization’s changing needs and is user-friendly for members and staff alike.

One of the things that’s also really important to my team when we’re working with a customer is that their community is going to be sustainable. And by that, I don’t mean environmentally friendly – I mean, how you set up your community so it grows with you,” says Martha. “If there’s something we know about associations, it’s that their needs change over the year… So that’s something we consider – how can the community change alongside the association’s needs? How can it be easy for the organization to update moving forward? There are lots of opportunities to automate stuff. I’m a big fan of having things kind of work while you sleep.

Easy to use online community set up

One example Martha shared: “So it might come up in discovery that an organization wants an area on their community where they want to do a member spotlight…In an ideal situation, would that be something you update every day? Maybe. Is that going to happen if someone has to update it manually? No. But there are things we can do, like set up the community to randomize that member spotlight, for example. So maybe you can add information about five different members and every time the page loads, the community pulls information to show a different one of those members. By doing this, the page will look like it’s being updated but it’s not something you need to go in and do on a daily basis.”

Prioritize Personalization and User Experience in Your Community

Tailoring the community experience to individual members is another way you can design your online community to enhance engagement and encourage member satisfaction. Associations have to prove to members that the features and benefits of the association offers are important to their needs and can’t be missed. Martha discusses the importance of personalization, leveraging member data to deliver customized content, and features. By anticipating user needs and preferences, associations can create intuitive interfaces that streamline navigation and encourage participation.

“We know so much about members, right?” says Martha. “For example, with a Higher Logic Thrive Community integrated with an AMS or CRM we have all that information that might be coming over from that AMS or CRM. And we know everything members are doing or not doing in the community. So if I’m a member who happens to be serving on a committee, we can set up some UX that’s like a ‘My Committees’ dashboard and only people who are serving on a committee would see that prompt – and once they’re not serving on the committee anymore, that’ll drop out of their view automatically. So we can think ahead to some of those design things we can set up to personalize the community for some specific personas each association has.”

This helps members find the content that’s most relevant to them, reducing the number of questions an association gets and ultimately helping members feel really supported and seen.

Use Strategic Rollout and Communication

Martha also offers comfort for associations that take a phased approach with their community rollout. You don’t have to have your community 100% finished or fleshed out before you launch it – in fact, later in the episode, she argues a community is never fully finished.

Focus on simplicity and effective communication. Rather than overwhelming users with numerous features at once, associations should prioritize introducing members to the essential functionalities of a new community first, and then gradually introduce new community features and opportunities over time. Clear and concise communication during the launch phase is crucial to driving initial engagement and adoption.

“It’s a lot to bite off, launching a community, right? And especially if you’ve never done it before and it’s totally new to your organization and your members. So keep it simple,” says Martha. “I regularly have conversations with associations who ask ‘What does the launch process look like?’ And technically it’s the flip of a switch – technically it’s not a big deal at all. It’s just the community goes live and now it’s available at a URL you can share. So what a community launch really is, is an exercise in communications. Sharing with your members ‘what is this? how do I use it? what are we supposed to be doing here?’ Some associations, where we’ve done a brand new design, will send screenshots in the weeks leading up to the community launch to get people excited. Sometimes people flip the switch and then do a social post or email saying ‘Hey, look at the new look and feel of our community. We’re really excited about it!’…And once an organization has had a community for a long time, having new tools or new functionality to promote can be helpful. You never know what new feature you highlight is going to draw somebody’s attention.”

Lean into User-Generated Content in Your Community

Successful community management involves ongoing adaptation based on member-generated content and member feedback. By remaining responsive to user input, organizations can ensure sustained member engagement and satisfaction. And members like to hear from each other!

man using an online community

“I think there’s some fear around [user-generated content],” says Martha. It’s like, ‘No, but we want to copyedit everything that’s on our website. We want to make sure we’re in control.’ But I think if you can trust your members and open the door a little bit to let people see what others in their field are talking about and see the frequency that they’re talking, that’s huge. One of our customers, Veterinary Hospital Managers Association, has both their website and their community on Higher Logic. And my team designed it so that even if you’re not logged in, and you’re on the homepage, you can see a lot of the community discussion content. You can see what people are talking about and the timestamp that it was five minutes ago. And VHMA didn’t have to update their website for that – their members show what an active space it is.”

Showing this level of activity and engagement can be particularly valuable with so many people working remote now. Association communities are in a perfect position to fill in for the lost connection of seeing colleagues around the office or the proverbial “water cooler.” Online communities are also an ideal resource for early-career members and young professionals who might not get to go to an annual meeting or event. The association becomes a place where members can ask questions, see association news, or discuss something with the wider industry, and then the association fills a gap.

Online Community Design That Inspires Engagement

In today’s digital landscape, effective community design is instrumental in maximizing member engagement and fostering a thriving online ecosystem for associations. By prioritizing functionality, personalization, and content from members, associations can create dynamic communities that resonate with members and support organizational goals.

Continuous adaptation and a proactive approach to user feedback are essential for driving long-term success in online community management.

There’s a Lot More to Learn About Design in Associations:

Martha’s insights provide valuable guidance for association professionals seeking to elevate their community engagement strategies and leverage the power of thoughtful design to create meaningful connections with their members. We invite you to listen to her episode to get the full extent of her expertise in designing your community.

And join us for our annual conference, Super Forum 2024, April 10-12 in National Harbor, MD, where Martha will be teaching a session on Web Accessibility to equip you with the knowledge and tools needed to create digital spaces that are welcoming and usable by individuals of all abilities. Super Forum is packed with sessions designed to help association professionals spark ideas, improve processes, and deepen member engagement.

Related Resources

Community Lookbook

See the latest and greatest in examples of online community designs for associations.

Community Management Checklist

Explore practical tips and a list of tasks to help you manage your member community.

We know community – let us help you create yours!

Higher Logic is the leading online community provider for associations, serving more than 3,000 customers, representing over 350,000 online communities. Our Design Services team is also available to help you build your community, incorporating best practices and impactful member engagement strategies.

Kelly Whelan

Kelly Whelan is the Content Marketing Manager for Higher Logic. In this role, she develops content to support association professionals and advise them on member engagement and communication strategy. She also hosts Higher Logic’s podcast, The Member Engagement Show. She has ~10 years of experience working in marketing for associations and nonprofits.