Building Community On Your Website

Finding ways of increasing member/supporter engagement was identified as a top priority for small membership organizations in our recent Small Membership Insight Survey. We also had survey participants ask their membership peers questions such as: How do you use your website to engage members more? It starts with a conversation

One way to build engagement and keep members and supporters coming back to your website, is by creating a sense of community – one that starts a conversation that engages visitors by offering valuable information and ideas.

The February issue of Fast Company magazine offered “The Art of Dialogue” – a series of interviews with iconoclasts on the topic of conversations in the age of information overload. In the article, Ev Williams suggests:

“There’s a word that comes to mind when I think of the word conversation, and that is engagement. When you’re having a good conversation, you become engaged with that other person. And once you become engaged, you can learn something.”

Our survey findings also indicated that the key reason folks join membership organizations is for networking. If your members are anything like our survey participants, they likely have a multitude of questions they’d like to ask their peers. And while this networking can take place through face-to-face meetings and events, it can also occur through two-way communication opportunities on your website. After all, in a conversation, you’re not talking at someone, information flows back and forth. This means finding ways of starting, monitoring and promoting conversations on your website that enable networking and learning rather than simply announcing events or promoting programs and services.

It means becoming a hub of two-way information sharing

In looking at The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies a while back, we noted that LinkedIn had made it to #30 on this list because “the professional social network “transform[ed] itself into a must-visit hub of information sharing” by “letting members curate daily news roundups to showcase their expertise.” Membership organizations also need to find ways to become the hub of two-way information sharing for their members.

As a post on the IT for Change blog suggests,

“A strong community is built around shared values, engaging discussions, a place to “share”. In an increasingly online world it can make good sense to look at how your nonprofit website might help to build that community.”

Your website should be the “mothership” of your organization’s online community – so information shouldn’t just flow out to members, you need to promote two-way communication opportunities as well. And as you look to recruiting and retaining Gen Y’s digital natives, you also have to ask yourself:

  • What does your online community offer that they can’t get elsewhere online?
  • What will create a sense of belonging; a desire to get involved and network on your website?

It involves developing content with value

While we all know you need compelling content to get your member’s or supporter’s attention, the nature and quality of the online conversation is critical in building community. Along with networking, the other top reasons members join organizations were identified (in our survey) as professional development and learning best practices in their field. This means that the content you offer as conversation starter needs to have value for your members to drive engagement and build community.

In her post, Building Community With Value, Mackenzie Fogelson (The Daily SEO Blog) reminds us: “With value, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so you’ve got to know what constitutes value for your audience.”

To keep your constituents engaged, you’ll need to have a keen understanding of their current challenges, interests and passions. But the good news is that once you get the two-way conversation started, you’ll gain additional insight that you can then apply to create deeper community bonds among members.

But Fogelson also cautions organizations to “focus on the customer [member] vs. focusing on you.” To keep members or supporters coming back, you need to be sure you aren’t broadcasting to your audience, but offering valuable information they are interested in engaging around. While your website content needs to include information about the programs, services and events you offer, in the spirit of community and conversation, you also need to enable information exchange and sharing.

Start by looking at whether you can enhance existing web tools to build community

Along with identifying the type of content your members will find valuable and engagement-worthy, you also need to consider their online habits to determine how to best encourage two-way communication. Yet while the tools or vehicles you use will be dependent on your members’ preferences, you might want to start by looking at enhancing the content and capabilities of web tools already in place, such as:

  • Your blog:
    • can you enable comments? If so, are you asking questions that encourage interaction?
    • consider asking members to write posts and share their questions and comments
  • Forum or bulletin board:
    • if you have a forum that is languishing, assign a new moderator and get the conversation started by having a few volunteers share their questions or challenges
    • ask your Board or Communications Chair to become more active on your forum or bulletin board to offer a new member perspective
  • Conduct regular polls or surveys:
    • you can use polls to ask questions and start conversations as well as enable the sharing of information and opinions among your members
    • surveys offer another means of having members provide anonymous comments, questions and information that can then be shared online – and this information can then drive new content elsewhere on the website
  • Enable and promote social sharing
    • while a “like” alone doesn’t build community, you want to be able to share comments and information offered through Facebook posts and Tweets, for example, some website platforms allow you to embed your Twitter feed into your website
    • embed social sharing buttons or widgets (e.g., Facebook “like” buttons, Twitter widgets, Google+, etc.) on your site, so your members and supporters can share information and start conversations via social networks

These are simple ways of encouraging a more active community on your website. And once you get the conversations started, be sure to share and amortize this information across all of your online platforms – e.g.:

  • use a blog post comment to start a forum thread or conversation
  • take the question or comment included on a recent survey to create a blog post or forum message to which more members can respond
  • share a comment from a Facebook poll or LinkedIn post on an online forum – to connect members across the social networks

Find ways to keep the conversation going

Keep the conversation alive by writing newsletter articles and news announcements that lead members back to your online forums and message boards – continuing to build community off- and online.

This article was originally published at and is reprinted with permission.

Lori Halley
Wild Apricot