Online Communities for Engagement

The key to engaging members and constituents is through building a private community that gives an organization both control and room to grow with deeper connections and constantly improving technology. This is our belief at Higher Logic.

According to Forrester, branded communities will be the next big thing. A recent Forrester survey shows that U.S. online adults who want to stay in touch with organizations are almost three times as likely to visit a site, as they are to engage on social media platforms like Facebook.

The dictionary definition of community includes the quality of distinctiveness. A community will not be satisfied with just any experience, but requires a distinctive and original experience that allows everyone to better function, create and innovate. Guiding community members to an experience that offers more than a one-way exchange of information will deliver value far beyond expectations.

A primary reason online communities usurp most social media channels is data: an organization owns all of its data and can build better tracking systems through an online community. A strong community platform will offer organizations the right technology for keeping up with its data. We believe in three technological pillars for all communities to ascribe to: automation, mobile and responsive design, and accessibility.

Community Automation

Since it’s important for any organization to prioritize member loyalty and retention when it comes to community membership systems, many membership departments are shifting to marketing automation, which not only allows them to personalize interactions with members, but also reduces excess effort for onboarding and retention.

However, not every organization needs to rush out and integrate a popular marketing automation system to get this done. Online community platforms provide similar capabilities. We believe there is no better system to use than the place where your members are already collaborating, networking, and connecting.

Community managers are simply membership managers who have learned to work smarter versus harder. Using automation technologies often found in both your community platform and your email or AMS provider, it’s possible to provide members with a deeper, more meaningful experience by focusing on specific campaigns and using appropriate key performance indicators (KPIs) to gauge success.

Some platforms include automation rules for community messaging and email schedules, as well as a reply by email functionality that allows members to interact in community discussions directly from their email providers.

Onboarding communications should be governed by automation, not by manual labor. Most should be controlled by some kind of logical workflow, and emails should be dynamically generated. This means that community managers can provide greetings, rewards, compliments, and alerts without labor-intensive actions or 24/7 monitoring of community activity. After all, curating onboard messaging through automation is just as important as creating the material.

Mobile-Friendly Community

About 60 percent of all online traffic now comes from mobile devices. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. search requests came from mobile devices during the fourth quarter of 2014.

Google wants its users to have that seamless online experience in clicking through any mobile link, so it’s made some algorithm changes to improve SEO for websites that are mobile friendly. Make sure that your community platform is fully responsive and mobile friendly.

A fully designed website that adapts to virtually any context delivers a compelling user experience, no matter what the product or industry. Regardless of which operating systems members are using to access the organization’s site, your community platform should recognize the device and respond instantly.

Here’s what organizations should strive for:

  • Accessibility and Design: Make the organization’s content available to as many users as possible, whether it’s checking all embedded media or providingalternate content for users with visual disabilities. No matter what device is used, a user should have an easy time finding what they need, and the material needs to have a consistent look and feel.
  • Usability for you and your members: Once users arrive at the organization’s website or community site, what are their experiences like? All content should be easy to understand and concisely answer key questions. This is an opportunity to remind members that the website offers a seamless, informative experience.
  • Back-end usability counts, too: It’s just as important to have a user-friendly back-end. An easy and simple CMS (content management system) to manage website content and make updates as the community grows goes a long way. Pick the right CMS that’s intuitive and makes it easy for non-technical users to quickly create and update content to accommodate your evolving needs.
  • Engagement: Use community as a hub to collaborate, connect with members and drive engagement. Even though building an online community might not seem like a priority when revamping a website, it’s a great way to galvanize a greater audience, increase membership and drive revenue. Consider enhancing the website with a suite of community tools to help create compelling user-generated content, increase SEO and drive engagement.

Community Accessibility

Accessibility should be more than a consideration – it should be a guiding principle. We are now at a stage where interacting with others through web content across devices is standard. The accessibility challenge of today reflects our highest priority for all users – engagement.

What is really important for community members is not just reading web content, but interacting with its creators and building upon it – at the office, on the couch, or in line at the supermarket. Diversity makes the online experience better. We want everyone to engage.

Perhaps most important to website accessibility is starting with a good baseline. It should ensure usability on mobile and touch devices, ensuring that it will work with every web page on your site, and should implement the best available practices for accessibility.

Of course, there is no substitute for testing. Our partnership with a great organization like the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP, made its website, and others, as accessible as possible. Different users use different assistive technology tools – readers, magnifiers and more-specialized tools – based on individual needs. IAAP and its partners have facilitated broad testing across assistive platforms, which has proved invaluable.

Community Engagement with Better Technology

Online community engagement will significantly improve when an organization uses technology and data tracking to its advantage. Community platforms should be kept at the forefront of improvements like automation, responsive design and accessibility for all users. These systems benefit an organization and its members by streamlining both engagement strategy and tracking abilities, giving all community members the room to grow and develop distinctive experiences.


Andy Steggles is the author of Social Networking for Non-Profits, published by ASAE, focusing on how to increase member engagement in a mobile and web 2.0 world. He is the President and Chief Customer Officer of Higher Logic, a social media and mobile software company serving associations, nonprofits, franchises and member-based organizations worldwide. Prior to joining Higher Logic, Andy spent ten years serving as the Chief Information Officer at the Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS) where he headed among other things, their social strategy initiatives.


This article is reprinted from Vol. 2, No. 3, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!

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