Tips for Building Membership Engagement


In our recent Membership Knowledge Hub survey, participants suggested that the number one topic we should focus on in the Hub was helping small membership organizations “Attract members and keep them involved.” In response, throughout November 2012, we offered a number of blog posts on the theme of “engagement.” So we decided to capture some of the membership engagement tips we’d compiled. This article will offer an overview of ideas for building member engagement: on your website; through online communities and via social media.


First - what does “engagement” mean to you?

As we noted in a recent blog post, "What does member engagement mean to you?", “engagement" has become a bit of a buzzword for companies, non-profits and membership organizations alike. But it also seems that the term “engagement” means different things to different folks.  For-profit marketers and social media managers often use the term “engagement” when referring to how an individual is engaging online – in terms of website visits, page views, email opens, social media mentions, “likes” or “follows.” But while building a robust online community is increasingly important, that is only part of the engagement equation for membership organizations.

For associations, clubs and other membership organizations, members are their reason for being, so getting and keeping members truly engaged in the organization is critical for survival. In his post, Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 7: Engagement Pyramid and Cycle Michael J. Brennan offers a simple equation for looking at engagement:

Engagement = Relationship + Action

As Andrea Pellegrino (Demand Perspective Blog) reminds us, “It’s All Engagement…every customer service inquiry, complaint, voicemail, email or other message. Every website visit, page click, email open and click-through…is engagement. Every online search that turns up your association or one of its products or services or initiatives…is engagement. Every forum where the issues that concern your members and industry are discussed (even if they are not yours) is engagement.”

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Leveraging the “Engagement Touchpoints”

So if “everything” is about engagement, what member “touchpoints” should you focus your attention?  That will depend on your members and their preferences for communicating with your organization as well as their online and social media habits. But here are some tips for building engagement through:

  1. your website
  2. your online communities
  3. social media

1. Engaging members through your website

In a recent post – If You Build It Will They Come? – we suggested that while building your online community is only part of the engagement equation, the reality is that “your website is still your primary identity online.” Your website is where your members go for information and insight; where they can participate in your online community; where they can register for events; manage their membership profile and even their yearly renewal.

This is where the membership equation (above) really rings true – you want to build the relationship and encourage action with every website visit and as often as possible, to ensure you’re providing tangible member value.

If you’re just getting started – here are some resources:

For some small or fledgling member organizations, the first big challenge is to actually build a website! So, if your organization is just getting started in developing a website or looking at a wholesale “refresh”, here are a couple of resources that might help:

  • Help with managing website development:

    The Nonprofit Website Handbook is a comprehensive, “how-to” resource that offers an overview of the website design and development process. It was written and designed by Yesenia Sotelo, founder at SmartCause Digital (a web development and digital strategy firm).  They also offer additional resources, such as the Website Launch Checklist - here.
  • Help in making your website "awesome":

    John Haydon's post Ten Ways To Make Your Nonprofit Website Simply Awesome outlines “10 must haves” for “awesome” nonprofit websites. While all 10 of John's “awesomeness-building” tips apply to membership websites as well, these 5 are particularly applicable:

    1. Professional design
    2. Intuitive navigation
    3. Answers to common questions
    4. Strong SEO
    5. Sharable content

      You can read John Haydon's post for details on all of his 10 “must haves” and you can check out his other free website resources and tips - here.

  • Help with website building solutions or platforms:

    We created a guide - Membership Software Selection Guide - to help associations, clubs and other membership organizations choose the best system to suit your specific needs in building a membership website. It offers advice on how to define your needs; what to take into consideration; how to create a short list and evaluate your options.

Fresh content is key to get members to your website and keeping them coming back

The key goal for any membership website is to get members to the site and keep them coming back for more. This means offering the right content – fresh, up-to-date, targeted to your audience and easy to find – to keep them engaged and to ensure they experience membership value.

Developing fresh content:

In terms of how to approach content development, our recent post – 3 Tips for Keeping Your Website Fresh – suggested that small organizations just getting started with website content development take “a meal planning approach”. In other words, when thinking about scheduling content for your website, think about what news you’d like to dish up each week or month and map that to your organization’s activities and information. What content do you have on hand and what do you need to develop?  What ingredients do you need to shop for (develop, re-purpose, etc.). Start with a realistic and manageable time frame for planning - can you schedule one or two months of content?

In her post, 7 “Best Practices” for True Member Engagement, Anna Caravelli (The Demand Perspective) suggests that to ensure “your members use your site as an integral part of their daily life,” your staff and/or volunteers should consider developing new daily or weekly routines to promote connecting with members. Caravelli suggests that to ensure that “your discussions and concerns focus on understanding members” you develop routines such as these:

  • Weekly “make them happy” meetings for all staff:  staff compares notes about what they heard from or learned about members; bring up member concerns or business trends; work on solutions or new ideas about how to better serve them
  • Individual departments that interact with, serve or develop products for members have an abbreviated meeting on this topic daily, before starting work.
  • Weekly Click Through's: “Assemble the appropriate teams (e.g. program developers, marketers, member service staff, social media staff etc.) to click through areas of your website to resolve problems, test new features and simply make sure everything makes sense from a customer’s perspective.

In her blog post – What They Want to Hear Versus What You Want to Say – Kivi Leroux Miller also offers some suggestions around content development strategy. She notes that when you’ve identified information you want to provide members (e.g., “your own agenda”) but you realize that there is other content that members want; you find a way of balancing the two agendas by “put[ting] some cheese sauce on that broccoli”. Kivi suggests:

On a quarterly basis … come up with a list of topics that you want to cover in your educational programming or communications, whether that's new blog posts, website downloads, webinars or training videos. You’d pick the top five topics. This is the broccoli.

Next, you’d look at sources that give you clues about what the locals are interested in right now. You could look at recent keyword searches that brought traffic to your site, as well as searches within your site. You’d also look at comments on your blog and Facebook page. Since you regularly present webinars, you could look at the chat or evaluation surveys from those for comments. You’d compile this information into a separate top five list. Remember, this list is based on popularity with your target audience, not on what you want them to know. This is your cheese sauce.

Kivi Leroux Miller also offers guidance for developing website content in her blog post, Content Strategies: Mapping and Merging - including tips on creating an editorial calendar.

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Ensuring content is targeted to your audience

While offering fresh content is a priority, it’s also important to ensure you understand your audience and are offering the content they need and want. One strategy you can employ to help define your target audience is to develop user personas.  John Haydon offers a helpful blog post - How to Create User Personas for Your Website - that explains how this works.  Haydon suggests“[d]eveloping user personas [fictitious characters that represent the various different types of people that visit your website] for your website will help you design a website that resonates with visitors, motivates content sharing, and converts ...Personas will also help you optimize your website for search because you have a better understanding of the keywords they’ll use in search engines.”

Ensuring content can be easily updated

While developing fresh is important, another key consideration that goes hand-in-hand with this is ensuring your website can be easily updated. In our post – Tips for Keeping Your Website Fresh – we noted that many small organizations rely on volunteers or staff with limited digital skills to update content on their website. This means that you need to ensure you have a user-friendly platform or content management tool to make their job easier. Otherwise, fresh content may be put on hold while you wait for a “techie” volunteer or an outside service provider to upload the content to your site. This may leave you feeling like “the victim of a "hostage" situation with [a] web developer. ...And what starts out as fresh content ends up a little stale by the time your supporters see it on your website."

In a recent post – Can Moving to the Cloud Impact Member Engagement – we suggested that if your website content is being created by a number of volunteers, board members and/or staff, you might consider using cloud technology so that they can all create and share documents online. In addition, if your website is managed through a web-based or SAAS system (such as Wild Apricot) that offers easy-to-use content management systems, you can offer a number of content providers administrative access to upload content to your website to ensure it remains fresh.

For example, you could have one volunteer responsible for managing the member’s forum, and another could be your blog writer, posting frequently on your blog.  The Chair of your event could have access to administer the event registration and post event details on that area of your site. This way, you can offer up-to-date web content on a regular basis, without having to be “held hostage by your web developer,” waiting for an external provider or a busy volunteer to post the content to your site.

Ensuring members can easily find what they want!

It’s not just about the type of content, you also have to take a step back and take an objective look at your website to ensure members and new visitors can easily find what they are looking for. The technical word for this is “intuitive navigation.” Be sure your navigation menu is simple and easy to use so visitors can easily search for topics. To ensure your website is user-friendly or offers an effective “user experience”, you can refer back to your “user personas” noted above.  Think about how a typical member might use your website – what are they looking for regularly? What do you want them to discover? 

2. Enabling two-way communication and content promotion through online communities

Engaging members on your website starts with offering fresh, useful content that is targeted to your audience. But keeping them engaged and participating involves - at the very minimum - alerting them to fresh content and enabling two-way communications.

  • Alerting them to fresh or new content:

    You can keep your members informed of fresh content by including information in other channels, such as:

    • regular updates in your newsletter: be sure to include a regular section and/or news article with updates on new content with live links to the new web material
    • any publications you create and/or send to members:  for example, you can include an update to the bottom of any “member updates” or any regular email to members or include the link to your blog, member’s forum or other news page at the bottom of all outgoing emails.
    • in face-to-face meetings: e.g., have the Chair of the Board and any meeting Chairs alert assembled members of new blog posts, articles, etc. that might be pertinent to the meeting.
    • via social media: Social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook are also great ways to keep members informed of new content. For example, we alert our followers when we’ve added a new article in our Hub and/or blog post by Tweeting, and posting on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+. Find ways to leverage and promote new online content to get and keep members actively involved. 
  • Enabling two-way communication:

    Your website should be the "mother ship" of your organization's online community. But information shouldn't just flow out to members; you need to promote two-way communication opportunities as well. This means opening channels so members can also communicate with your administration and leadership too.  This can be done through:

    • online forums: here's a resource that outlines How to Start an Online Forum
    • a blog: create a blog if you don’t have one and if you do, be sure you enable members to comment on your blog posts;
    • online surveys: you can conduct regular surveys to elicit member input or you can simply pose mini surveys or questions on your website or Facebook page to get conversations started. And once you get some two-way conversations going, be sure to respond to and promote (and amortize) feedback and comments by noting these in blog posts, twitter and in your newsletter as well.
    • via social media: e.g., encouraging communication via Twitter or Facebook - e.g., ask questions and listen to member's comments; post mini surveys on Facebook 

3. Engaging Members Through Social Media

We noted earlier that the term “engagement” often refers to how an individual is engaging online - in terms of website visits, page views, and social media mentions. And while we cautioned that social media participation is only part of the member engagement equation, it is increasingly important to enable and promote two-way social media engagement with members.

As we note in our blog post – Are You Engaging Members Through Social Media? – each organization’s social media strategy needs to be determined based on your particular goals. But here are some ideas to consider as you develop the social media component of your member engagement plan.

Show and tell to engage

While many non-profits are successfully raising awareness of their missions via social networks, membership organizations can also build engagement with both existing and potential members by showing and telling via social media. As Debra Askanase has suggested, “photos and videos have become key social currencies online.” Of course, it’s more than simply posting images for folks to "like" or "re-pin."  The ultimate goal is to draw members to your website, where you can truly engage them and demonstrate member value. Here are some tips on how you can consider drawing members in using visuals.

Pinterest - more than pretty pictures:

So how - you ask - can a membership organization leverage photo and video sharing for member engagement? In a Movie Monday video - Is your nonprofit organization using Pinterest? - Noland Hoshino explained “why Pinterest is such a great tool for storytelling, for driving traffic to your website, for engaging supporters, and for finding out who exactly is sharing ("pinning") your pictures and videos.”

Hoshino suggests that Pinterest’s open system offers a great way for a non-profit (or membership organization) to post numerous photos - “a whole storyboard” - about your organization which can be viewed by anyone online, not just those who have signed-up (as with Facebook). The key benefit is that when folks view your images in Pinterest, they are linked to the original source - your website! Each image pinned on Pinterest includes a “backlink” to the original source location, which drives increased traffic to your site and also increases your chances of ranking higher in search engine results.

A secondary benefit of Pinterest is that you can find out about your supporters or members by using the source to see who’s pinning or re-pinning images. The more you know about who your supporters are and how they connect with you, the easier it will be to truly engage them.

So if you haven’t considered Pinterest until now, Hoshino suggests that you think of it this way - while Google is all about searches, Pinterest is about inspiration. And in our hyper busy world, people can check out a visual that tells your story, even quicker than reading a 140 character tweet.

What about Facebook? Do images rule there too?

The short answer is yes! As Facebook guru, John Haydon, suggests, “[p]eople love pictures. People upload more than 300 million photos to Facebook every single day! Facebook users love liking, commenting on, and sharing photos more than any other type of content on Facebook. So posting photos automatically gives you an advantage in the EdgeRank game.”

In his post - Creative Ways to Use Photos To Increase Engagement On Your Facebook Page - Haydon offers “six ideas to help you get more from the photos you post on your Facebook Page.” Along with using Pinterest, Haydon suggests: posting large photos and “posting photos as links to gain EdgeRank advantage over other types of content."

LinkedIn can provide recommendations and help with your Board

But engaging members on social media is more than just about images. With networks such as LinkedIn, you can raise awareness and build membership through peer recommendations. As we noted in a blog post a while back - Is Your Organization LinkedIn Yet? - while LinkedIn started as a social media tool used by individuals to network, find a job or further their career, some of the recent enhancements at LinkedIn might make it a better fit for your membership organization.

Creating LinkedIn Company pages

Recently, LinkedIn launched re-designed company pages that offer a new look and additional functionality. The LinkedIn Blog offers details and a video you can watch here. If your organization hasn’t developed a corporate page on LinkedIn, you might want to re-consider.  After all, we know that word-of-mouth and recommendations can have a strong influence on individuals’ decisions to purchase products and join organizations. As we noted in a recent post - Can LinkedIn Recommendations Grow Your Membership? - a recent MetLife/Ipsos survey found that: “[recommendations from friends, family and colleagues appear to have the greatest influence over a person’s decision to join. Nearly one-third (28%) of association and affinity members said that such recommendations were the most important factor impacting their decision to join. It was also important to many members that the association be well known and have a good reputation.”

When you have a LinkedIn company page, individuals can write recommendations about your organization, which in turn can drive membership growth and might also impact retention. Wild Apricot learned first-hand the impact LinkedIn recommendations can have.  With our focus on small nonprofits and local associations, we recognized that one of the best things for any company – particularly a smaller one – is good word-of-mouth from current customers. So to leverage positive customer feedback, we encouraged customers to post reviews on our LinkedIn page.

Another new feature that might draw you to LinkedIn is Board Connect. LinkedIn suggests this enhancement will help organizations “deepen relationships and cultivate connections” which should help you identify and attract volunteers and board members.

Re-defining engagement at your organization

We hope this article sparks some ideas to help your organization develop member engagement strategies that meet your specific needs. Once you create a framework and establish routines for identifying and developing fresh content for your website; connecting with members through online communities and social media, you can build on this foundation over time to both retain existing members and attract new members.

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Tips for Building Membership Engagement by Wild Apricot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.wildapricot.com.

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