When it comes to running a membership-based association or nonprofit, building a strong sense of community among your members and supporters is essential. Traditionally, these ‘communities’ were built through costly and time-intensive in-person meetings and events. To be sure, those events still hold a meaningful place in both member engagement and revenue generation. In today’s interconnected digital world, however, online communities have emerged as a powerful tool for membership-based associations, trade organizations, and nonprofits alike. These virtual spaces provide a platform for members to connect, collaborate, and share their expertise, fostering a sense of belonging and community.  


Online communities are a flexible, affordable, and widely accessible way to create a space where members can share ideas, learn from one another, and feel included as part of a larger whole. A diverse range of online communities exist today that can be used to build engagement with members and prospective members. In this article, we’ll explore what online communities are, why they are uniquely useful for membership-based associations, and how these associations can leverage them to drive membership renewals and attract new members. 


What are Online Communities? 

Online communities are virtual spaces where people with common interests, goals, or passions come together to share ideas, knowledge, and experiences. These communities can take various forms, from social media groups to discussion forums, and they cater to different demographics and interests. Some ‘brand name’ examples of online communities include LinkedIn and Facebook groups, Instagram Communities, Slack channels, Reddit subs, Twitter X chats, and other social media platforms which continue emerging on a regular basis.  


In addition to these off-the-shelf options, many Association Management Software (AMS) platforms incorporate bespoke online communities that integrate with their member database component. While we don’t endorse specific products, we do encourage association leaders to perform their due diligence when selecting a platform and recommend experimenting with the website Capterra for easy side-by-side comparisons. While doing your research, keep in mind the three key reasons users engage with an online community, and be sure the platform you choose supports their needs: 


1. Shared Interest: Members join these communities because they share a common interest, profession, or goal, which forms the basis for engagement and interaction.


2. Discussion and Collaboration: Effective online communities facilitate discussions, knowledge sharing, and collaboration among members. Members can ask questions, seek advice, and offer insights to their peers. 


3. Networking: These communities enable members to connect with like-minded individuals beyond geographical boundaries, expanding their network and opportunities. 



Why are Online Communities Uniquely Useful for Membership-Based Associations? 

Associations can benefit in many ways from incorporating online communities into their marketing, outreach, and engagement strategies. Online communities provide a dynamic platform for members to engage with one another and the association. This engagement strengthens member relationships and increases their investment in the organization. Effective communities deliver other member perks that keep them coming back for me:   


  • Expertise Sharing: Members possess valuable expertise. Online communities allow associations to tap into this knowledge pool, enriching their offerings and providing additional value to members. 
  • Continuous Learning: Associations can host webinars, workshops, and discussions within the community, creating opportunities for members to learn and grow professionally. 
  • Accessible Resources: Associations can centralize resources, documents, and industry updates in the community, ensuring members have easy access to relevant information. 

As an added bonus, the information shared by members – and between them – provides volumes of relevant data that can be used to inform future programming, and marketing and communications campaigns, that will resonate with members and keep them coming back year after year.     


How Can Associations Use Online Communities to Drive Renewals and Attract New members? 

By creating vibrant virtual spaces where members can connect, collaborate, and share ideas, associations can foster a sense of community that strengthens bonds, increases the value of your members’ dues investment, and boosts retention over the long run. Leveraging online communities should be a strategic priority for forward-thinking association marketing and engagement teams, who can use these tools to: 


  • Nurture Relationships: Associations can use online communities to nurture member relationships by fostering connections and interactions. Engaged members are more likely to renew their memberships. 
  • Showcase Value: Highlight the value of the association within the community by sharing success stories, case studies, and member testimonials. This demonstrates the tangible benefits of membership. 
  • Offer Exclusive Content: Provide members with exclusive content such as industry insights, research reports, and expert interviews. This incentivizes new members to join and existing members to stay. 
  • Promote Events: Use the community to promote upcoming events, conferences, and workshops. Members who feel connected are more likely to attend and encourage others to do the same. 
  • Engage in Conversations: Actively participate in community discussions as the association. Address member queries, provide insights, and show that the association is dedicated to member success. 

Wrapping it all up 

Online communities can be a transformative tool for membership-based organization that are looking to build engagement, retain members, and attract new ones. These digital hubs foster engagement, collaboration, and belonging among members, ultimately driving membership renewals and attracting new members. By embracing the power of online communities, associations can create a vibrant, virtual ecosystem that benefits both members and the organization as a whole. 


As your association looks to the future, consider how an online community could be the missing piece in your membership growth strategy. Embrace the digital age and harness the potential of online communities to create a thriving and united membership base. 


Remember, every comment, post, and interaction within the community contributes to the sense of belonging that keeps members invested and engaged. So, get started on building your online community today and watch as it becomes a catalyst for membership growth and lasting connections. 


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