Why & How to Create a Robust Online Member Community

Think about the experiences your association offers members that make them excited to return for more. Perhaps it’s your annual conference, where they come face-to-face with peers, learn from experts, and cultivate new skills. Or, maybe it’s your monthly meetings where members are prompted to have meaningful discussions about recent industry news. 


Now, consider the common thread in these experiences—the elements of social interaction and community that members feel within the group. To foster more of these meaningful conversations and relationships, your association can leverage online platforms to encourage members to converse outside of in-person and association-wide gatherings.


To get started, let’s explore the benefits online member communities have for associations.

Top Benefits of Online Communities

Along with providing members with valuable, positive experiences, these online communities can have an impact on your association’s retention rates, reputation, and financial success.


Here are a few noteworthy advantages of interconnected online membership communities:


  • Improved retention and engagement. These communities give members a way to connect, interact, and collaborate with each other, which keeps your association at the top of their minds. Their active participation and engagement with the association can increase their satisfaction and loyalty, boosting retention.
  • More marketing success. Over time, you’ll build a reputation as an association with many networking opportunities and success stories as a result of these communities. Then, you can incorporate these testimonials into your marketing strategy to recruit new members.
  • Increased member value. Online communities offer more value to members, increasing the likelihood that they will renew their membership. Specifically, members may direct each other to resources, offer career advice, teach skills and tips to one another, share professional contacts, and help their peers find jobs in the field.


Clearly, these communities can boost association revenue by improving retention rates and assisting in recruiting new members. Alongside these financial benefits, a more connected community can also garner more support for additional non-dues revenue streams like fundraisers and merchandise sales. For example, if your organization holds a peer-to-peer fundraiser, the online community can share their fundraising tips, encourage other members to participate, and track progress together.

How to Cultivate Relationships Among Members

Fostering community among your members shouldn’t cost your association much financially, but it can require a significant investment of time. Here are the strategies you can use to build relationships that translate to invaluable benefits for your association. 

1. Promote ways to engage.

You can spend hours or even days developing community-building activities and discussion topics you know members will get excited about. But, if they aren’t aware of these ways to engage, members won’t participate in them.


First, it’s key to use effective strategies for the best chance at high member participation rates. Fonteva’s guide to member engagement recommends several strategies, including:


  • Sending out surveys to better gauge sentiment for previous events or meetings as well as their reasons for joining (or renewing) as a member.
  • Segmenting members by their interests and customizing the activities and content based on data.
  • Improving your communication strategies so your messages are timely, engaging, and reach members through their preferred channels.
  • Offering many different ways to engage in order to appeal to each member’s unique interests, abilities, goals, and availability.


Once you’ve followed these strategies to create engagement opportunities members want to participate in, you’ll need to share about them. Consider advertising the opportunities using Google Ads and advertisements on social media. Your association can also communicate with existing members via email, member portals, your website, and any other channels you use. Carefully track the performance of each message you send so you can hone future communications to align with members’ preferences.


Make sure to convey the value and benefit of engaging with your online community rather than expounding on the activities themselves. This helps members better understand why they should engage and how participating will benefit them and their careers. 

2. Optimize your website or app.

Whatever platform members will be engaging on, whether it’s your association’s website, app, or other platform, should provide a positive user experience.


For an association website, carefully audit the following factors to make sure members can easily access, navigate, and engage with it:


  • Navigation: The core pages of your website should be linked in a navigation bar at the top of the website. This way, members can find pages pertaining to community-based content and activities in just one or two clicks.
  • Accessibility: Make sure all text is large enough and has adequate contrast against background colors to be read. Additionally, provide descriptive, alternative text for visual elements and add subtitles or written transcripts to audio content.
  • Content quality: If you are sharing resources, blogs, or discussion topics, make sure to have quality control checks in place. Each of these should be well-written, relevant, and thought-provoking.
  • Engagement features: Your website should have some kind of discussion forum with a high degree of interactivity. For example, members should be able to create their own discussion topics, reply to other members’ input, and leave comments on other threads.
  • Permissions: Check that every member is able to access and contribute to discussion forums and other community pages. It’s best to require a sign-in through your member portal to limit access to those with paid memberships.


Optimizing your communication platform can be a highly technical process that’s often helped by using a specialized tool. For example, many association management software providers offer website builders or templates as well as tech support to help you implement changes.

3. Provide additional value.

You know that a well-rounded online community with participation from your members creates value for you and them. But, you can motivate more members to interact with the community by incorporating additional benefits.


Alt-Text: This graphic depicts five common membership benefits associations offer.


In addition to providing a sense of community, NXUnite’s guide to membership benefits suggests that associations provide perks like members-only resources, early access to event tickets, discounts, and membership cards. Why not offer similar, exclusive benefits to those who are involved in your online community?


For example, you might offer those who contribute to a discussion thread about a given topic access to an exclusive webinar by the industry’s leading expert on that subject. These perks are an easy, ideally low-cost, way to motivate participation in your online community to help it grow to be a promising and valuable resource.


Creating a member-driven community with a culture based on resource-sharing and furthering careers adds value to membership with your association. Members will gain access to the expertise and professional connections of successful individuals in their industry, helping them advance in the field. In turn, your association gains satisfied, loyal members and inspiring stories to share with curious recruits.