By Guest Blogger:

Jonathan Norman, Community Strategy and Management Consultant

i-Publishing Consultants


The Memberwise report ‘Online Engagement by Membership Organizations in the UK’ (April 2017) reported that “less than half [of those involved in the research] currently use online forums or a private community, but more expect to do so in the future”.

You may feel that the next step for your memberships is some form of online community. If that’s the case, there are some simple questions to ask yourselves before you go any further.

What sort of community do you already have and where is it?

It’s worth taking a good hard look at your operation to understand where, how and why you might wish to build a community. For every Mumsnet, there are surely thousands of communities that were started with the best intentions but have just proved unsustainable.

Do you already have some form of community amongst your membership and if so, what form does it take? Perhaps you are already active on social media but to what extent might this activity be classed as a community.

Social media tools may lure you into a false sense of membership engagement but that is a very long way from a sustainable community.

What sort of community do you want?

Framing the community and its offering is a key to getting started successfully. Is this something to help students pursuing a professional qualification to share ideas? Something to help connect your members across organizational boundaries? Do your members want social interaction and support? Are they looking for technical advice and problem solving or maybe for a platform for developing their career? Who do they want to interact with – you and members of your organization, with each other, with people from outside your membership circle?

In each case where’s the value to you and your members? Will you simply be replicating a better platform that already exists or could it even be the needs of the organization are very different from those of your members?

What do you need to put in place?

Communities are hard work. How confident are you of your strategy if it relies on the premise ‘if we build it, then people will come’? You need to provide the platform, but you also need to build community, to moderate, to curate and collate.

Who is going to be responsible for undertaking and overseeing activities within the community? If you are asking someone to add this into their current role, will they have the necessary time and skills, because under-resourcing your community is a sure fire way to undermine any chance you may have had to get it started.

Make a list of the actions that you’ll need from the start of the community. These will include those that are responsive: welcoming new users, moderating their content, answering questions and solving technical problems. Those that are proactive: marketing and communications, content posting, scheduling and organizing events and activities, reporting, managing software developments. This doesn’t have to be a full-time job from Day One but make sure that the role is defined and that you have allocated the time or it will lose out to business-as-usual activities.

What might the implications be for the rest of your activities?

You need to have a clear sense of where you are now and where you want to get to (and why) before you start a community but, even with that in place, there are some further success factors you shouldn’t ignore.

Whilst the community is new, engaging with members is something you should be very good at. Connecting your community activity with your existing social media activity requires thought and effort but is essential.

Beyond that you need to consider how all of your other activities will be influenced by and influence your community activity. If you run training or networking events; how can you use the community to amplify each event, including activities that are a precursor to the event or follow it, as well as activities for the benefit of members who may not be able to attend the event itself? And how do you get all of your employees and volunteers involved, not just those in marketing or membership services?

Running a successful online professional community is fundamentally different from running a membership organization and, whilst you are unlikely to be able to anticipate exactly what that means from Day One, you do need to understand the implications for your membership and your services.

i-Publishing provides training, consultancy and support on strategy and practice for professional networks and communities of practice.