Association Essentials: Create Online Membership Communities

April 19, 2023
Learn about three tips for creating an online membership community in your association.
Many people share the misconception that making meaningful professional relationships online is rare or even impossible. But there are many strategies your association can implement to use the internet, technology, and virtual tools to your advantage.

As an association leader or administrator, you remember the unprecedented changes COVID-19 had on businesses, schools, and organizations around the world. The total shift to virtual operations allowed associations to continue meeting while keeping members safe. However, connecting online continues to benefit associations even after restrictions were lifted.

With a digital approach, associations can facilitate connections between members across different states, regions, and countries. These connections keep members engaged and motivate them to get more involved in the association, boosting retention rates. 

You can implement strategies that cultivate these relationships by using an association management system (AMS). Your AMS should make things like registration and email communications easier for both association leaders and members. To get started, let’s explore how you can use these capabilities to attract new members online.

Reach new members online

Almost every industry reaps the benefits of digital marketing and outreach, from businesses to nonprofit organizations. According to Fifty and Fifty, nonprofits can see increased donations, recruit more repeat donors, and maximize retention by developing a strong digital marketing strategy. Your association can meet similar goals like increasing membership upgrades and encouraging members to participate by using a digital approach to membership marketing.

If your association is looking to grow its online communities, consider shifting your marketing strategy to target prospective members who are already tech-savvy and involved in other virtual groups. This might involve recruiting members from social media, your association’s website, or professional networking sites. Some benefits of this outreach and marketing method include:

  • Members already demonstrate a preference for online communication channels and will be responsive to digital touch points in the future.
  • If they are knowledgeable and experienced with technology, they will be able to offer tips for ways your association can improve its online outreach, marketing, and virtual community-building activities.
  • These members likely have an existing professional network who are engaged online and could be willing to join the association.

Another key benefit to using online marketing and outreach to attract new members is that you can learn important information about new members to provide a smoother onboarding experience. You can gather valuable member data like communication preference, response and click-through rates, engagement in interest meetings, and more to measure and improve the efficacy of your recruitment efforts.

Hold virtual events

Use fun events to build connections and break the ice between members. For example, you might organize a virtual auction to raise money for a common cause. This will band members together to accomplish a goal and create a sense of teamwork along the way.

The primary benefit of hosting virtual or hybrid events is their ability to connect members who may be scattered across the nation or even the world. This way, your association can connect professionals in your field to more people than ever, helping them share resources, advice, and professional contacts with people they may not otherwise have met.

For a successful virtual event, you’ll need to invest in the right technology. One essential that can be helpful for most events is a robust, easy-to-use video conferencing platform that allows members to see and speak with each other. 

Make sure the platform you choose has high-quality sound and video, screen-sharing capabilities, group and private chat options, and the option to record meetings. You can also leverage your AMS to send marketing messages and announcements to members before the event and upload post-event resources and recordings.

Provide virtual spaces for connection

When your members feel a sense of community and belonging, they are more likely to have high levels of engagement and remain long-term members of the association. Over time, this translates to positive relationships between your association and its members. While it may be more challenging to cultivate deep relationships online, there are plenty of strategies you can use to motivate members to build their professional networks.

To foster connections, your association can provide spaces for members to hold discussions and swap resources and advice. A few ways you can do this include:

  • Discussion forums. After meetings, events, conferences, or special guests, kick off a thread on your discussion forum inviting members to share their thoughts and questions. Not only does this give you an idea of what members enjoy and what could be improved, but it gives them a chance to find like-minded peers in their field and learn from new perspectives.
  • Shared learning resources. You should use your AMS to upload resources like recordings of keynote speakers, show notes, and eLearning materials. But you can also open the floor to members by allowing them to share their own helpful resources. This helps foster a culture in which members support one another and further fellow members’ careers.
  • Custom member profiles and member directories. Allow members to personalize and update their member profiles to include their full names, a photo, past and current roles, and location. These profiles, coupled with member directories containing contact information, function like a form of social media to make it easy for members to reach out to fellow members outside of association events and meetings.

A robust AMS makes setting up these points of connection easy. Fonteva’s guide to association management systems highlights other ways you can use your AMS to organize committees, offer mobile capabilities for more participation, and make it easy for members of local chapters to plan in-person events. You can also use your AMS to flag any members with low levels of participation or who might be at risk of lapsing and choose a strategy or approach that will keep them on board at your association.

Make building connections with members a central part of your association’s management strategy. When you use comprehensive membership software, you can easily automate many of the processes needed to create an online member community. By creating a tight-knit professional network, each member will feel motivated to participate, have a sense of belonging, and want to remain an active member of your association.

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