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How to Turn your Member Area Into an Engaging Online Experience?

Posted by Maurik Gashi

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Two years deep into the pandemic, Association Communications and Membership Directors across the globe are trying to find creative ways to keep their members engaged. This has primarily taken place online, through webinars, online events and other forms of online content. To add exclusivity to the member experience, many events and documents are only accessible behind a members’ area or members’ portal (typically accessed through the website). This makes members feel valued and the portal adds a whole new dimension of membership value, which Associations are becoming increasingly aware of. 

Webinars and online meetings have proven themselves a fantastic way to keep members somehow engaged with the association. They provide knowledge, empower members to connect with each other in the chat and help members vote (on issues or challenges, policy etc.). They have also allowed working groups and committees who would normally meet in person to meet on a regular basis and continue their duties effectively. However, with the rise of online meetings as a core engagement strategy, Associations have found themselves running into unexpected obstacles.

Challenge with Webinars

With Webinar levels at an all-time high, and Zoom growing its revenues by over 500% since the pandemic, Managers and Directors have also expressed their concerns using Webinars as a primary source of engagement. In our day to day work, we speak to Trade and Professional Associations to help overcome their online member engagement challenges. Throughout the last two years, we’ve observed their attempts to solve “low attendance” of online events, as they struggled to meet their targets. The main response to this challenge has been “increasing the number of online events,” which has been found to “grow our teams’ workload” and “not always showing signs of increased engagement.“ Directors and Managers have even stated that at times, this method even proves itself counterproductive, as members become used to too many webinars and start attending less of them. 

Others have tried to provide recordings of these webinars so that members can “watch them in their own time.” But this usually does not lead to an increase in interaction, since members can’t interact with each other after the webinar is finished.

From Online Events and a Members Area to Vibrant Community Hub

While the pandemic has highlighted the importance of online interaction, the concept is not new. Membership-based organisations have been employing innovative approaches for engaging their members online, for many years already. Some of them have completely transformed their online member experience, using a simple strategy, which matches the core of human behaviour and the value Associations provide an online engagement platform.

Association members obtain a lot of value from education, information and collective policy-making, but above all else, they obtain value from connecting with other like-minded peers! Has that not always been the primary goal of in-person events

We all love attending in-person events and meetings because we get to shake hands, discuss, exchange ideas etc. Many members form connections and friendships that last a lifetime, create business and career opportunities, and advance industry or profession. This is arguably the main value members derive from Associations. So how can that connection be effectively replicated online? 

A Replicable Strategy for all Associations

While in-person events and meetings will continue to play an unsubstitutable role in the future, there are ways to replicate networking, collaboration and dialogue online. Your member portal serves as a content hub for members to download exclusive information, attend events etc, What if members were able to message each other? What if they were able to create discussion topics themselves and join in on the discussions of others? What if they were able to comment on a webinar, ask each other questions, share ideas? What if they were able to join groups they are interested in? And most importantly, what if they were able to do this themselves, at any time, without your team having to create an entire event for it?

To provide an example, we’ll take the International Seed Federation. They already have a member portal that they use to share documents and exclusive information. Being such a member-centric Association, they were looking to elevate their member experience online, by turning their Member Area into a vibrant interactive platform. This way, their members can connect with each other in a multitude of ways. This approach can be adopted by any membership-based organisation, by either building interactive features themselves or choosing a platform provider. 

To gain an idea of what these platforms look like, you can go ahead and visit SparkBlue, the member engagement platform of the United Nations. The platform is mostly open to the public (excluding some groups which can only be accessed by members), and you can see features like discussions, comments, events etc. 

In general, a huge number of Associations at this point depend on online events as their single source of online engagement. Their communication teams have to constantly increase the number of events, hire new people and struggle to come up with compelling topics multiple times per month. The core issue in this scenario is that their team is doing all of the work by themselves. The key is to involve your own members in the creation process. 

By empowering your members to share ideas themselves, leave comments, exchange knowledge and message each other, Associations open up an entirely new world to their members. One where they don’t have to travel to an event to meet their peers. One where they don’t have to watch recordings later because they had to send their children to football practice. One where they can remain connected, engaged and growing, with a community of like-minded and respected peers who share the same views, values, and industry.

For more community engagement ideas, please download the guide by clicking on the image below:

Community Engagement

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