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2 of the most common questions I’ve received over the past 6 years are “How do we know if a private online community is right for our association?” and “When is the right time to launch an online community for our association?”. The root of these questions stem from a slight fear and hesitation toward using a private online community as a tool to improve the association.

It’s totally understandable to feel this way especially if your association hasn’t attempted to launch a customized private online community or tried without success. In this post, I’m going to share a few ways to launch your private online community without the anxiety and uncertainty that you might have felt before.

Step #1: Define the purpose of your digital real estate

On a blank sheet of paper, write out all of the places where you interact with members.

This might include:

  • Email
  • LinkedIn Group
  • Facebook Group
  • Twitter

Next to each place, write down the purpose that it serves. I want you to be very specific here. Your answer shouldn’t be “to engage with members”. Although you mean well, that kind of thinking will keep your head spinning when it comes to measuring the actual impact of your social real estate.

Here is an example of what I mean:

  • Email – to share education, articles, and promote events
  • LinkedIn Group – to get articles, education and events to reach members through their news feed while on the platform
  • Facebook Group – to get articles, education and events to reach members through their news feed while on the platform
  • Twitter – To share up to the minute updates on new educational resources and results from lobbying efforts

Obviously, what you put is going to be specific to your association. There is no right or wrong answer. There just needs to be an answer.

The reason why you want to be very specific here is to set the right expectations and to align the right platform with the right purpose. For example, if you want to get RSVP’s from current members for an upcoming event, email makes sense. If you want to attract new members, LinkedIn and Facebook makes sense.

I also want you to think about the benefits to each place. What benefit do members receive from email, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.? Is the value unique enough to gain new members, retain existing members, and most important of all, support your mission?

The reality here is that there is going to be a gap in benefits to both you, the association, and your members.

Do members want a voice or do they really care at all?

Do members want exclusive access to documents or people that they can’t easily get through larger social networks?

Do members simply want answers to questions?

Do members want DIRECT access to other types of members for networking purposes?

Your answers to these types of questions will help determine EXACTLY what your private, or “customized”, online community should be made of. Going through this exercise helps clear your head, focus and understand what to do.

Even, if you don’t know the details or technology, it gives you a solid understanding of what you need and why it’s important for your association. This exercise also prevents you from a future headache by trying to do, or expect, too much from your private online community.

You might determine that the purpose your private online community is for giving members a place to share ideas because they value that opportunity. This is usually the case for small associations such as software user groups. You might also determine that the purpose is simply to share documents with members. Nothing more, nothing less.

Overall, understanding the purpose that each platform provides for your association is a critical first step in making sure your association benefits from the effort without just creating more work for yourself.

Step 2: Choose the right private online community platform

Consider the purpose of your online community from Step #1 above. The task here in Step 2 is to list all of the existing requirements of your online community. The list of requirements goes beyond features within a platform. Think about factors such as future feature needs, integrations, flexibility, security and support.

There are many routes to go when choosing the right platform for your online community:

  • Custom build – hire a third party development company to build your community from scratch or on top of an open-source platform
  • Website integration – build additional functionality within your website to support the purpose of your online community
  • Choose a SAAS (software-as-a-service) platform – a pre-existing framework allowing you to cut development, maintenance costs and cutting out the need make separate investments in new feature additions

There are pros and cons to each method, however it pays to get a third party opinion from someone that has worked in or with associations with a successful online community. They can help determine which method is right for YOUR association.

Here are a few association management consultants worth contacting:

Name: Amanda Kaiser
Company: Smooth The Path
Website: http://www.smooththepath.net
Twitter: @SmoothThePath

Name: Elizabeth Engle
Company: Spark Consulting
Website: http://getmespark.com
Twitter: @ewengel

Name: Wes Trochlil
Company: Effective Database Management
Website: http://effectivedatabase.com
Twitter: @westrochlil

Again, getting a third party opinion will remove biases and help to make sure that you have the right person making the decision. We need to make sure we leave our ego and past experiences on the table with this one.

In the past I’ve experienced associations that made a decision on community platform internally without consulting outside expertise and wasted a lot of time and money in the process. I’ve also seen associations choose vendors or systems that essentially held their data hostage and made it very difficult to move. Again, it pays to do your homework up front and know what you don’t know.

Step 3: Assign a community manager and design a launch strategy

Ok, by this point you’ve determined the purpose of your community. You’ve got your online community platform setup. Now what?

Do you prepare a series of emails to your membership leading up to launch day of your online community?

Do you just do a massive import of all your members and start posting?

Do you do a soft launch and only start with 1 or 2 groups and a handful of members (e.g. a committee)?

These are just a few critical questions to ask before actually importing members and launching your community. At the surface level, launching your community can seem a bit overwhelming.

As with choosing the right platform for your community, my advice here is to not rely on yourself to answer these questions. This is the point where you need to determine your community manager.

Community managers are essentially responsible for administrating your community and making sure the community is achieving the objectives and purpose for your association. The actual tasks vary from community to community.

Here are common tasks that I’ve seen community managers handle for associations:

  • Stirring up conversations with members
  • Posting content and “seeding” discussions to spark engagement
  • Turning on and configuring community features
  • Moderating discussions
  • Reporting key community activity back to association executives
  • Making sure new members getting added to community
  • Making sure data proper data from the community is flowing to and from any existing association management systems appropriately

Considering these points, ask yourself these questions:

How many tasks really need to get done for YOUR community?

Do you really have the time to manage these tasks?

Are you or anyone within your organization capable of managing these tasks? Again, we need to be honest with ourselves. There’s nothing fun about doing things you really don’t want to do or haven’t done before.

If you answered no to ANY of these questions, consider working with a professional community manager. Considering the potential benefits that your community will have for your association, it might be worth every penny.

Within Social HubSite, we provide you with a community advisor that will work with you or a designated community manager to make sure the objectives of your community are met. The words “advisor” and “manager” are key here.

Community Advisors think analytically about your community. They review your community by looking purely at how activities are measuring up against your objectives as an association. The benefit a Community Advisor should bring to an your association is assurance that value is achieved for both the member and the association.

Community Managers think operationally about your community. They handle the day-to-day tasks and focus on optimizing and enhancing the overall community experience. The benefit a Community Manager should bring to your association is the piece-of-mind knowing that your community is optimally serving the purpose and mission of your association.

We’ll be working on a list shortly with community management firms and independent consultants that your association might want to consider.

Wrapping up

As you can see in this post, I’m not sharing all of the small details behind launching a community. The reality is that it’s impossible to share a launch strategy and say it’s going to work.

The right online community launch strategy for your association involves many factors. Involving experienced community professionals earlier on in the process will help assure the online community serves as an asset, and not a liability, for your association.

Oh, and launching your online community the right way doesn’t need to cost a fortune. Set a budget. Determine the right level of work required for YOUR community. Know that launching a community doesn’t have to be hard or time consuming. Simply find the right people to help.

At Social HubSite, our entire staff has worked in or provided services to associations. They get what you are going through. This is why we’ve design Social HubSite not just as a community platform, but more as a solution.

We are here to guide you through the steps and questions presented in this post. We want you to stay focused on what your associations needs and not the technical stuff. Know that you are not alone. Your association will succeed through the power that’s inside of its very own community. You just need to focus on it!

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