The COVID-19 pandemic brought on many sudden, unexpected changes, and among them the meteoric rise of digital as a primary means of communication. Online member communities sprang up faster than ever as they became a primary way for association members to connect with each other (and with their associations).
This made findings from the Higher Logic’s annual Engagement Trends Report even more intriguing in 2021. We wanted to see, given the unprecedented societal changes by the pandemic on business and daily life, what trends in community emerged over these last 18 months.
- What do engagement rates look like for communities that were created pre- and post-pandemic?
- Is there a correlation between an organization’s size and how many of its users are active?
- Do changes in the industry impact online community engagement, and if so, how?
You’ll find that many communities were born, or experienced high usage growth, driven by the upheavals of 2020 and 2021. This calls for subsequent strategic planning to apply order to any chaos heading into this next year.
To give you a quick look at what we found in our 2021 Engagement Trends Report, we’ve outlined three trends that jumped out at us. (Of course you’ll want to get deeper insight into these trends, along with some best practices on how to respond to them, in the full report!)
Communities Don’t Build Themselves —They Need a Strategic Plan and Dedicated Management
Trend One: Old and New Communities Saw Similar Rates of Engagement
When it came to engagement rates during the pandemic, did it matter how long a community had been around? Was there some kind of advantage to having established your online community long ago? Did new communities struggle to build engagement during the pandemic?
In our research, we looked at two groups, communities launched before March 2020, and communities launched after.
What we found was there was no significant difference between the two, when we looked at engagement levels from November 2020 to August 2021.
This tells us that when a community started in relation to the pandemic did not really make a difference where engagement rates were concerned. This can actually be interpreted as good news for both groups. Engagement was not negatively impacted by the pandemic for established communities, and engagement ramped up quickly and positively for new communities during the pandemic.
Which should leave us all pondering —what about next year? Our full report offers engagement guidance for community builders who find themselves in all three situations:
- Community was started before the pandemic
- Community was started during or after the pandemic
- You have not yet started a community
Trend Two: Smaller Organizations Tend to Have More Active Users
Is there such a thing as community that’s too big? Is there some breaking point at which members find the group too small to provide volume and diversity of input, or find the group too big and difficult to navigate and separate the signal from the noise?
In our research, we looked at level of active users against organization’s size (determined by revenue).
What we saw was that the less revenue an association has, the more active users it tends to see in its community.
Was this a big surprise? Not really, for the following reasons:
- Organizations with less revenue tend to be a little smaller in size. Thus, they have fewer members in their community than an organization with more revenue (and more members). This smaller community creates an environment in which it’s more likely those members know each other. This, to a certain degree, removes any reluctance to actively participate.
- On the other hand, a bigger organization brings a level of anonymity that reduces many members’ motivation to invest and engage. They may feel their voice is unnecessary. Larger organizations are more likely to have non-members who have community access but who don’t participate.
The size of a community directly informs the online community strategy you’ll be crafting for the coming year. Our full report offers specific strategic guidance for community managers of both large and small communities.
Trend Three: Industry Changes Can Impact Community Engagement
Is one industry vertical more susceptible than another to swings in engagement when major change impacts the industry?
In our research, we examined industry verticals such as government, hospitality, retail, etc. at the various points of November 2020, December 2020, February 2021, May 2021, and August 2021.
What we found was that industry fluctuations and seasonality both appear to impact community engagement. For example, from November 2020 to August 2021, which encompassed the pandemic affects on their industries:
- Retail saw a decline in engagement
- Real estate saw no effect on engagement
- Science and Engineering saw an increase in engagement
In other words, there was a lot more to learn and talk about in certain sectors during the pandemic while other industries, like retail, stayed steady. That said, what industry wasn’t affected by the pandemic? Indeed, we saw engagement in 2020 change dramatically thanks to this unexpected external force. In March 2020, 81% of Higher Logic customers had a significant uptick in engagement. And from March to November 2020, there was a 33% increase in usage and new members on our platforms.
The Most Important Finding in the 2021 Report
Creating a strategic plan to increase member community engagement should not be delayed or dismissed.
“The more engaged your membership is, the higher your renewal rate is going to be. The 11 months leading up to renewal time, that is when that decision is made. What has gone on for the past year informs the answer to the question: ‘Is this membership valuable enough to my career to continue?”
Wesley Carr, Director of Stakeholder Engagement, Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS)
Education, information sharing, member-to-member support; these have always been the reasons to maintain a strong community. The pandemic, however, has only made the value proposition more obvious. Therefore, now is the time to align internally around your community’s central purpose. And that means strategy.
What Building a Community Strategy Looks Like
Who: Cory Elford, Manager of Communities and
Membership Marketing for Meeting Professionals International
Challenges: Not all of MPI’s 200 sub-communities saw engagement. And with no interface or UI update since launch, it was hard to promote the value to new and existing members.
Goal: The pandemic made Cory realized the emphasis needed to shift from education to the value of networking.
Step 1: Research.
Cory got the good, the bad, and the ugly from community chairs about each community. She then zeroed in on the consistent themes based on the feedback:
Step 2: Implement.
- Deleted communities that hadn’t been active in over a year.
- Redesigned the community interface.
- Automated more personalized communications, unique to each community, to enhance the member experience.
- Restructured the community governance model.
- Created a Community Advisory Board to oversee all their communities.
Result: Communities have seen a 22% jump in active users since November 2020.
Take advantage of our full report, where we dive into these trends in more detail, and with strategies to increase your engagement!
Want to learn more? We shared more detail about the report and trends in a webinar, where you can hear more about crafting deliberately thought-out, documented community strategies.
Beth’s marketing experience encompasses more than twenty-five years of marketing strategy and member/customer engagement in various industries, including puzzles and games, training, education and aviation.
In addition to marketing, Beth has worked in event management and web development, wearing a variety of hats in different positions. She has also been an adjunct professor of marketing at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.
Beth received a Bachelor of Science degree in Merchandising from James Madison University, a Certificate in Event Management from The George Washington University, and a Masters of Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Phoenix. She has earned numerous awards for her marketing, including two Top Digital Marketer of the Year awards.
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