October 22, 2014
Membership department vs. community management department
By Andy Steggles | 12/24/2013

Associations are starting to realize that the traditional membership department is changing rapidly and for some, the focus has moved from membership to community.

Many organizations have contemplated investing in an online community platform for their members but struggled with the concept of spreading already stretched staff resources to support such an initiative. Or they launch an online community that they think “lives” in just one department, or that they must hire or outsource staffing for what they believe is a complex new role that requires an entirely different skillset than existing staff possess. It’s no wonder that the concept of online community and online community management remains daunting to so many organizations, and why so many invest in the software but balk when it comes to devoting adequate resources to ensure its success. Just what kind of staff resources should an association expect to commit to when implementing an online community?

The common job description ascribed to managing an online community is “community manager,” a title that is new to the association world and which means different things to different people. In the for-profit world, the title “community manager” can include responsibility for marketing, customer service, management of public social media channels, webmaster, graphic designer, content creator and/or curator and just about any other skill thrown into the mix, depending on the company hiring for the role. In associations, community management is a newer discipline and is often handled by volunteers or handed to the staff who is perceived as willing or able to manage the new responsibilities that go along with the purchase of online community software. Little, if any, thought is given to what qualities or skills a successful community manager should possess.

So what skills should that person have? The first thing to understand is what are the community manager’s responsibilities. At first glance, it might seem like a new breed of job with little or nothing in common with traditional association staff roles, but there is a surprising similarity between a community manager and someone who works in an association’s membership department. For example, some of the more basic community management functions include:
• Managing bounced emails
• Welcoming new members
• Recruiting new members
• Converting prospects into members
• Helping members log in to the community platform and manage their profiles
• Dealing with members who are unhappy with the software platform or need help figuring out how to use it
• Helping members derive value from their membership
• Supporting chapters or other components and their officers.

Where the roles of community manager and a traditional membership manager might differ gets interesting. For the most part, a traditional membership person might have wanted to do these emerging functions but didn’t have the tools. For example:
• Identify members with the lowest level of engagement and encourage them to engage more, thus ensuring their continued membership.
• Recognize and reward members with the highest level of engagement (marketing). Think digital rewards like badges as well as programs that recognize and reward members who engage in the online community with discounts, special opportunities or other ambassador-like privileges.
• Ensure all members receive personalized attention. An example of this in an online community would be ensuring that each message posted receives a response. The last thing you want is to hype your community as a place members can go to access industry expertise only to have their questions met with crickets.
• Where necessary, moderate a discussion or person to ensure the quality of the online content remains high.

Also, in an era of “big data,” an online community offers a treasure trove of data. A seasoned community manager will be able to track and report measurable objectives and results. For example, some of the more common online community statistics tracked could include:
• The number of members with a “completed profile”
• The average member’s profile completeness percentage
• The number of members who have logged into your website in a given time period
• Average number of messages posted per member
• The most active members based on contributions, page views or some other metric
• Number of first time posters to your discussion groups
• Number of member directory searches and/or connections established
• Ratio of lurkers to contributors
• Total member engagement score.

So when considering who is going to manage your new community initiative, consider what you already do and which tasks would generate more ROI for the organization. Do you have several member service representatives whose main responsibilities lie in answering phones and/or email? Consider offering them additional training in community management, data tracking and reporting, or content curation. Don’t have extra staff capacity to dedicate to community management? What about supplementing existing volunteer leaders with new volunteers who are active participants in online communities themselves and understand the basics of community management? Or tasking volunteer writers and editors with content creation and curation as well as other community management functions?

In some instances there may be more work, in others there may be less. Associations are trying to identify traditional member management responsibilities that are time-consuming and provide less value with community management-related responsibilities that can provide more value both now and in the future. Even where there is more work, there is usually an opportunity to prioritize. Yes, online community does require the investment of staff resources in order to be successful, but you may be surprised how easily an existing position or volunteer role could be repurposed to bridge the gap between the way you’ve always managed membership and the future where the online community will play an increasingly important role in member acquisition and retention.

What do you think? Is today’s membership department tomorrow’s community management department?

Steggles is president of Higher Logic, Arlington, Va., a social media provider to associations. Contact him at andy@higherlogic.com.


Association TRENDS