Matt Cipriani, MLIS, is associate director of knowledge management and member engagement at the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy in Arlington, Virginia, and a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council.
Some associations that don’t have a place for their members to congregate online have realized during the pandemic that they really need one. If your organization wants to launch an online community now, follow a process that will allow it to thrive even after the current crisis ends.
In 2017, the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy launched AACP Connect, an online community platform for our members. I am glad we launched when we did. Three years later, our world plunged into a pandemic we are all living with every single day. And every aspect of our lives, including our work lives, has changed.
Our members began using AACP Connect at higher rates than ever before when we all locked down in mid-March. Why? Because they had an established virtual community they were already using for the past few years. Our members were able to jump right into a familiar place with familiar people to discuss new challenges and gain insight and knowledge from each other about how to navigate this new reality.
Since the pandemic began 11 months ago, I’ve seen a rush by many associations to launch an online member community to give them a place to network, idea share, and much more.
But I encourage those who have not yet launched this type of online community not to rush. Take your time, because the worst thing you can do is launch a platform that does not meet your members’ needs—or one with clunky or not-thought-through functionality. Also keep in mind that your online community can and should play a crucial role in member engagement and connection post-pandemic.
It takes time to build an online community for members. It must meet your member needs while offering intuitive navigation and functionality. Some of the most important elements to consider are:
Define your online community. There should be no one-size-fits-all definition for communities. An online community’s definition and use is unique and should be determined by what your members need and want. Consider surveying your members or holding online focus groups to determine what it is your members need in an online community.
The way our members network, connect, and share will forever be changed by this experience. Offering your members a virtual platform to continue sharing and talking year-round will benefit your organization and your members moving forward.
Timeline and budget. It takes roughly 12 months from start to finish to launch an online community. Not only are you paying for the monthly or yearly fees for this community, you need to also consider the integration costs between the online community and your AMS, the cost to launch the community, the staff time it will take to accomplish such a large task, and more. Take the time to develop a comprehensive pre- and post-launch communications plan that will guide you through the first six to 12 months of the launch.
Reporting. Set up a reporting system early to capture metrics that identify member usage of the platform. By creating a set of categories to monitor such as total discussions and replies posted, logins, and email open rates, you can track usage of the platform. Doing so early on will give you the ability to track trends and monitor engagement levels for years to come.
Even after you launch your community, there are two important questions to ask: Are your members truly benefiting from the platform? Is it worth the time, money, and energy?
One of the most important aspects of creating and launching a new online member community are the communication and marketing efforts. If no one knows about all the useful features, benefits, and overall point of the platform, who will login on day one and use it? Communicating to your members for months leading up to the launch of the community platform is key. You want to generate excitement around the platform so that when you launch, members will eagerly login for the first time, browse the platform, and begin contributing.
In our case, it was worth it in 2017, and it definitely is in 2020. Even once the pandemic is relatively under control and we can open back up, things will be different. The way our members network, connect, and share will forever be changed by this experience. Offering your members a virtual platform to continue sharing and talking year-round will benefit your organization and your members moving forward.