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How to Build the Business Case for Your Association’s Online Community Strategy

You’ll need to convince your leadership team about online communities. Here are 6 steps to building your business case.

You’ve spent countless hours interviewing members and pouring over data. You’ve researched techniques, combed the internet for tools, and finally come up with a solution.

The best way for your association to provide long-term value to members is with an online community.

It’s perfect. You can increase non-dues revenue with an online store, deliver benefits with user-generated content, and engage members with discussion forums and blog posts.

Here’s the catch: while most people know the key to success for membership organizations is to provide value, they disagree about the best way to deliver that value. Why is an online community better than a conference or a members-only magazine? Isn’t there a cheaper option?

Convincing your leadership team that an online community is the best way to provide value to members can be a challenge – especially if they’re unfamiliar with the concept.

Fortunately, that’s what business cases are for. A strong business case will justify your online community strategy by showing what the project can accomplish, how it will happen, and the resources the community needs to be successful.

To build a powerful business case for your online community, follow these six steps.

6 Steps to Building a Business Case for Your Online Member Community

Every organization has its own set of unique goals that need to be considered. When building your business case, customize it for your association, taking into account the experiences of your leadership team as well as the needs of your members.

1. Collect Feedback from Stakeholders

If someone cares enough to give you their opinion, even if it rivals yours, it means they care about the future of your association. Someone who isn’t engaged won’t bother to express an opinion, so view even negative feedback as a step in the right direction.

Once you recognize concerns, you can reframe your approach. Appreciate constructive criticism and complaints, listen to where members and staff are coming from, and incorporate that into your case. If you don’t listen, you risk losing buy-in.

Often, surface-level objections like “the software costs too much” aren’t your colleagues’ actual concerns. They may be less worried about software costs than they are investing in something that could fail, for instance. If you’re savvy enough to recognize this situation, don’t argue over superficial things like price. Instead, address the underlying concerns so everyone feels confident that starting an online community is the right choice.

2. Gather the Hard Data

The most compelling business cases are built on results. Look at other associations’ successful communities as a source of data that could inform your strategy. What effect have those communities had on renewals, satisfaction, and event attendance? Every organization will be different, but look for data on how established association communities have impacted:

  • Retention
  • Member engagement
  • Membership upgrades
  • Event registration and other non-dues revenue streams
  • Referrals
  • Satisfaction

Take some time to put this information together, creating visual representations to make it easier to digest. If you have trouble finding reliable data sources, start with ASAE, Marketing General, and the association professionals in your network.

3. Define Your Online Community Goals

Every task  you undertake should be in line with your association’s mission, including your online community. Make sure your board and executive team understand how your community fits into your mission and goals.

For instance, your association’s mission may be to improve your industry and help industry professionals advance their careers. Your online community can help further that mission by providing a place where members can access e-courses and professional development material 24/7. The goal for your online community, then, may be to increase the number of members who take advantage of online professional development resources.

Once your leadership team sees the community’s ability to deliver value to members and improve your association, they may be more willing to lend their support.

4. Be Honest

Transparency is essential. If you only stress the benefits of an online community and leave off any challenges you might face, you are doing yourself a disservice for two reasons:

1. It looks like you’re hiding something. There’s always at least one disadvantage – maybe you need to hire more people to manage the community, or the platform is beyond your budget – so if you don’t mention any, you look inauthentic. People may even wonder what else you’re keeping from them.

2. Fewer people will volunteer to help. If you tell everyone building a community is easy, they’ll believe you. And that could mean no one will offer to help. You’ll be on your own instead of winning support from people with the diverse talents you’ll need to build a thriving community.

To ensure that you’re transparent and honest, don’t just talk about your community’s goals and how they align with your association’s mission. Include the challenges the community will face and some potential ways to overcome them. Your communication will be more genuine and give you an ideal opportunity to ask for help. And by getting your colleagues involved in the community  they’ll become invested in the project’s success.

5. Include Operational Needs

The more thought you put into making your online community a reality, the more support you will garner, so don’t just come to the table with an idea – show up with a clear outline of what you need to turn your idea into reality. Show everyone how the community will work by putting community management details into your presentation. You should include:

  • Time tables
  • Staffing and resource needs
  • Costs
  • Objectives
  • Measurable goals
  • A step-by-step implementation plan or schedule

In addition to logistics, it’s critical to explain the benefits of private member communities and the problems they’ll solve. For instance, LinkedIn poses a threat to membership organizations because it allows like-minded professionals to gather around topics or industries for free. LinkedIn is, essentially, offering an alternative to your association. Explaining how your online community combats this challenge will help stakeholders see the value in the project.

Expert Tip: Public social networks like LinkedIn are only one of the challenges that associations face today. Identify your association’s other challenges or initiatives, such as delivering benefits more efficiently or providing personalized communication, and include them in your pitch. The more problems your online community solves, the more likely you are to win support.

6. Provide a Test Drive

For many people, an online community is an abstract idea. Your board members may not be able to picture the community and how members will use it. To overcome this issue,provide examples of online communities, don’t just describe them. Demonstrate available community features and what they’ll look like. It’s easier for people to support something they can see in their mind’s eye and could also help them understand how different a private online community is to a LinkedIn or Facebook page.

The easiest way to help your association’s leadership team visualize an online community is with a video tour or demo. The best online community software providers offer free tours or demos of their software, so find a few of those before making your pitch.

Choose a tour that shows a real (or mockup) online community that highlights the features your management team will love most. For instance, if one of your association’s goals is to increase non-dues revenue, choose a tour that highlights an online store or advertising options. Let your executive team and board members watch the tour so they can imagine your future community.

Get Buy-In for Your Online Community

Building community is often instrumental to improving retention. Remember, people aren’t loyal to your association. They’re loyal to the new friends and colleagues they’ve met through your association, as well as the other ways you’ve improved their lives. An online community helps you and your members build those relationships and provide value far better than other engagement tools.

Just remember that rallying support for your project is a normal part of the process. Building a business case is necessary and objections are not cause for alarm. They mean you have an interested and engaged leadership team. Take the time to bring your detractors on board and you’ll be surprised by how much it strengthens your online community. Converts often hold very strong convictions once they’re brought around.

Andy Steggles

Andy co-founded Higher Logic with a mission to transform and disrupt the B2B group collaboration software market. He now serves on its Board of Directors, with a specific focus on M&A and other strategic growth initiatives.