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Alternatives to Listservs: 4 Reasons Online Communities Rule

Listservs used to rule, but now, creating an online community for your membership is the way forward in our increasingly virtual world.

Pizza or tacos? Ask that question on a dating app or social media poll and you’re sure to stir up some opinions.

And when comes to debates in the association technology world, you have “team listserv” and “team online community.” Whether you get a date based on your communication technology allegiance is yet to be determined. But your choice plays a critical role in your member engagement strategy.

Many associations still use listservs for member-to-member communication. And while I can’t tell you whether tacos or pizza is the right answer to the dating app question, I can tell you that considering an online community for your membership is the way forward in our increasingly virtual world.

Read on to learn more about the benefits of an online member community and the value it can bring to your membership and association overall.

Associations and Listservs: A History

If your association has been utilizing a listserv for your members over the last decade or two, it has probably served your association honorably. You’ve been able to send out emails to your list and your members have enjoyed reply-all options that let them communicate within the group.

During their heyday, listservs made a huge difference in member interaction and association communication. However, they’re now competing with online communities that have a much greater opportunity to increase member engagement and membership value.

Challenges of Listservs

In 2022, our digital landscape is flooded with information. Your members’ inboxes regularly overflow with colleague and client emails, newsletters, event invites and more.

If you are currently reaching your members via listserv, they are likely overlooking much of your content and engagement opportunities. Listservs often lead to email jams – too many reply-alls and people jumping into a conversation that’s often not relevant to the rest of the group. Without targeting and search capabilities, listserv discussions often become a barrier to engagement rather than an inviting way to join the conversation and learn from other members.

Another disadvantage to listservs is not being able to share resources efficiently. Listservs were a revelation back in the day, but now they’re just email clutter – it’s not easy to share files, retrieve past messages, or even ensure they’re reaching everyone’s inbox.

After a while, people often drop off or unsubscribe. Not because the content isn’t valuable to them, but because of the delivery format and frequency.

Online communities offer a variety of solutions to this. Could it be time to modernize how your members engage?

The Benefits of Online Communities

The ultimate goal of an online community is to foster member-to-member communication and engagement. The true value you are delivering to your members is the ability to connect them with the other members and resources they care about the most, year-round.

Communication can take place outside of just email (and with Higher Logic Community, members can still use their email to reply to community discussions, which members love! No extra logging in necessary).

A powerful alternative to listservs, online communities give members have more control and options over how they choose to engage – email, mobile app, logging into the community on their computers, etc. Your association can provide quality content and information more seamlessly and when members need to access those current or past conversations and content, they won’t have to worry about searching through their email archives. Higher Logic’s online community platform creates a record of conversations, files, blogs, and announcements that members can easily access.

“Our members and staff both love our new community. We went from a listserv type of system that didn’t have great archive capabilities to Higher Logic and now we have awesome archives, tagging and increased member engagement. The automation has also made staff’s job a lot easier.”

1. Targeting and Personalization

Online communities allow for intentional, targeted communication to build a personalized experience for each and every member, helping them maximize their ROI. When community is targeted by member interests or demographics, you can enable focused, relevant content and discussions, giving your members exactly what they need, when they need it.

Online communities also allow members to have more autonomy over their communication preferences: Members can opt to receive an email digest type of their choice which highlights content tied to their core interests, prompting engagement. So if your members loved engaging by email, they can easily respond to the thread right from their digest email.

2. Member Data and Increased Event Engagement

Your association’s online community isn’t just providing great content to your members – it’s collecting invaluable data for your team to use to enhance and elevate your member experience.

Every conversation, activity, like, search, and login can tell you valuable information about what programming resonates with them and what additional resources or information your members want to see.

Your members’ needs can truly drive your work. For example, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) found that members who engaged in at least one activity per month in the community generated five times the revenue than those who didn’t. But they also saw different topics coming up than they expected — GDPR quickly became a hot topic, causing the team to create more content and resources much more quickly than they had on their original roadmap, which led to even more engagement.

Communities can also help build excitement and connection around events, especially since many are virtual these days. A community dedicated to your event can help you create that sense of connection and engagement that members miss by not being in-person. Developing a specific channel or discussion space for your event within your community can help you ensure members continue to find value in the event before, during, and after the event, leaving a lasting impact.

“The Council on Undergraduate Research had to pivot to a virtual conference in 6 weeks. Key to our success was leveraging a trusted partner Higher Logic. CUR utilized their event community to bring both content and engagement to our community. While nothing replaces that face-to-face connection, the flexibility of the platform, which was already familiar to our members, allowed our community to get more out of our first virtual event. Many members expressed their gratitude for going virtual; they wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise.”

– Lindsay Currie, Executive Officer at the Council on Undergraduate Research

3. Non-Dues Revenue Opportunities

The new digital real estate created by your online community is yours to leverage!

Community ads are a great way to increase your organization’s revenue. One Higher Logic customer offered advertising space on their online member community and weekly newsletters and used an advertising kit to promote the space and how engaged members were. They generated nearly $14,000 in non-dues revenue in one year.

4. Membership Growth

Your online community can play a big role in member acquisition by enticing new members through public-facing content. Loyal and engaged members are there having discussions and potential new members can peek and peruse community discussions. You can choose to restrict as much or as little content as you’d like. Crack the door open for potential new members to explore, but leave them wanting more.

 “When somebody calls me and says, ‘Why do I want to pay for membership?’, the first thing I mention is our member community. It’s a dedicated, professional community where you can connect with likeminded individuals, ask questions, and learn from your peers. Members find so much value in being able to talk directly with their peers.”

– Ryan Couch, Systems Manager, North Carolina Dental Society

Serve your Members Better with an Online Community

A listserv is a member tool; an online community is a member experience. If you want to deliver value your members can’t get anywhere else, you need to consider upgrading from a listserv. Not only will you support your members’ professional growth and development, but you’ll drive overall growth for your association.

The personalization tools and targeted content available in your community will make it an indispensable value-add for your members. A listserv may be a place where they can enthusiastically participate in discussions, but is it also a place they can easily navigate to find the tools or articles relevant to their interests or needs? A space that is exclusively theirs, and a place that potential new members want to be? We would argue that this is where listservs fall short and online communities shine.

Giving your members an online community will not only create a seamless experience and abundance of connections for them, but it will provide your team with rich member data that drives better programming, membership growth, and overall value. Really: a win-win for all.

Erin York

Erin York is a Senior Consultant on the Strategic Services team. She specializes in launch best-practices and optimization for mature communities. She’s assisted both corporate and small-to-large scale associations leverage community as a successful scaling tool over her three-year tenure at Higher Logic. This will be her second Super Forum and is based out of Buffalo, NY.