Making Online Communities Thrive

An ‘excellent association membership benefit’ can keep the conversation going year-round.

Miguel Neves

Online communities have powered the development of the World Wide Web as we know it today, and while some develop organically around a hashtag or sentiment, most are planned and carefully managed. Online communities are an excellent association membership benefit when they are the go-to place for members to ask questions and interact with each other.

As social animals, we seek interaction with our peers and online communities are a perfect platform to do just this. They are also a great way to extend the association’s message year-round and make it interactive, particularly between face-to-face events or if members do not regularly meet in person. In addition, an engaged online community that is aligned with the association is likely to have positive effects on membership numbers and overall revenue.

Purpose and Choice of Technology

Just like that of an association, the purpose of an online community should be clear and easily understood by everyone — this is crucial to make it work. It must be something that everyone supports and relates to, and it should never have a secret commercial agenda. It’s also important to define what success looks like. Member engagement or brand relevance are not easy to measure, but they are good end-goals to aim for.

Many associations encourage members to interact on their website. While this generates traffic to the association’s website, this choice may be short sighted. Many association websites are powered by cumbersome technology that is not mobile friendly. These online communities are also hidden away from other potential members who are unlikely to regularly visit the association website.

Many of the most active online communities use social media instead. Closed Facebook groups can work well. The platform works quite effectively on most devices and almost everyone is familiar with Facebook. Hosting an online community on social media makes it easy to find it so that those interested in the topic can engage and become members. But there are downsides to using social media such as the dependency on Facebook’s platform, the lack of privacy, and the lack of synchronization with the association’s database. The choice of platform should be carefully considered in the first place, as changing from one platform to another should be avoided.


Guidance is an important part of online communities. Common sense rules should help stop discrimination or bullying of any sort from the start. SPAM, blatant sales content, and other misuse should also be addressed. Rules should be simple and made clearly visible and guidance should be offered on how best to engage with the community. The rules must be actively enforced, and everyone should be encouraged to help enforce them. This not only makes the task more manageable, it also reinforces the trust among members of the community.
Gaining Momentum
Technology, rules, and guidelines are only the start. Many online communities start off largely inactive and gaining momentum is a hard task. To prevent this, it is important to make the benefits clear, in other words defining the “What’s in it for me?” Explaining how the technology works is also recommended, particularly if you don’t use social media platforms.

But all of this may not be enough. Often conversations need to start artificially: that way a new online community can start with a bang! While this may be seen as somewhat deceitful, it can provide the spark needed for others to see clear benefits and organically contribute to the online community. In most cases this is done by identifying a set of key issues and asking well-known members to pitch in with questions.

Community Management

As momentum builds, online communities can change. Close monitoring is important, but there is a fine balance between a well-managed community and one that is micro-managed and stale. Discussions should be mainly user-generated and anything that is branded or commercial is to be avoided. Ultimately an online community can itself be of value to its members and the value should not directly depend on the association managing it. Likewise, much of the value to the association will simply come from supporting the online community.

No online community should exist in isolation. It should effectively be part of other communication efforts coming from the association itself, such as newsletters, social media posts, and links to the main website. It can and should be used to discuss important topics, get feedback from members and even generate content for the association. At best, it is a dynamic tool where association members can confidently share their ideas and thoughts and discuss what matters to them.

It may not be possible to pre-design online communities and accurately predict their development but creating a safe and organised topic-focused online space where peer-to-peer interactions are encouraged is a great place to start. Patience is key, as many online communities develop slowly. Some simply never gather enough momentum to offer value to members and ultimately close down. This is not an easy decision to make, but an association’s limited resources might well be spent better otherwise.

Measuring Success

For thriving online communities, success can be measured in many ways which largely depend on the purpose of the association. The amount of activity and the overall size of an online community can be good indicators of success. However, as they grow, they are harder to manage and often become less attractive to members. Sometimes spinoff communities are formed and these can be a great opportunity to reshape and refocus conversations.

Perhaps the strongest sign of a thriving online community is when all association members are familiar with it, even if they do not actively participate. When an online community becomes a core part of an association’s content and communication plan, it becomes part of everyone’s vocabulary, from the intern to the executive director.

A regular Boardroom contributor, Miguel Neves, CMP, DES, is the founder of Social Media Chefs, a digital engagement consultancy that uses the language of food to help organisations develop their social media strategy.

This article was contributed by Boardroom.

Related Posts

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.