Online community engagement as a strategic tool: Mission possible

14 December 2020

The hands-on reflection of this blog post distils a couple of key success factors from a mature example of a digital journey of the alumni community of the College of Europe, a leading postgraduate institute for European studies.

The author addresses the value and applicability of the online community as a capacity-building tool for international entities, the vital nature of data, security, and the overarching online psychology pertaining to the vibrant online community and smart stakeholder engagement strategies. So, what are the challenges and opportunities related to launching a virtual community that will benefit you?

Online communities are almost as old as the Internet itself. The first discussion boards, online forums, and early versions of social networks have flourished unnoticed by the public up to the 1990s. What started as a new means to connect early adopters from around the world, often bound by common interests, quickly developed into a day-to-day part of  life with all its virtues, but also its downsides. Professional and interest online communities, albeit not characterised by the same explosive growth, are equally diverse. In fact, many organisations nowadays embed online communities. However, many of them, if not most, struggle to attract and retain users. 

This trend is applicable to international entities, both internally and externally, which are seeking to augment their toolbox with state-of-the-art platforms, or expand their ecosystem, develop partnerships to foster innovation, research or mobilise resources in support of their policy or membership goals. The underlying question here is what underpins the success and value of an online community.

Of course, what success looks like stems from each organisation’s goals and intention when building such a community. Some may have very specific targets, such as resource mobilisation (e.g. talents, funds or data), stakeholder engagement, or management. Others are less specific in their goals. They ‘just’ want to provide a virtual home for their community and foster its growth or inclusiveness. Yet, taking a step back, the ambition comes down to the same for all of them: a growing and vibrant community leveraging digitalisation. In other words, this means membership growth, interaction, and opportunities to reap personal benefits – all while increasing the added value of the network as a whole and thus for the organisation. 

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Sharing first-hand insights from such a digitalisation journey, the aim of this reflection is to distil a couple of key success factors from an example of the online alumni community of the College of Europe, a leading postgraduate institute for European studies.

In 2017, the College of Europe Alumni Association had administered an online community for almost a decade. Born in the early 2000s, the website suffered from the same malaises as many similar communities: it was essentially a website built on top of an alumni database with outdated data, no interaction, and limited added value for members. While a reality check may have been harsh, it paved the way for a new, dynamic, and intuitive platform that finally caters to the needs of the community. 

For the College of Europe alumni community, with more than 15 000 members at present, the case was not clear-cut. One could argue that an actively managed e-mail distribution list and a regular newsletter could have done the job. Still, the potential of a new technology platform, and the benefits it could bring to the alumni community prevailed and proved extremely fruitful, allowing the global community to widen and deepen in terms of engagement, influence, and benefits.

As of 2017, this non-profit organisation took a bold decision, given the limited resources and too many competing opportunities for its potential active members, to embark on a digital endeavour. Three years later, there has been a significant increase in active memberships and resources. Namely from some 1000 registered members, the community now counts almost 7000 active members.

So, what are the challenges and opportunities related to launching a virtual community that will benefit our organisation? The goal of creating a genuine online community is about data, stakeholders’ analysis, and a clear business case rooted in a sound raison d’être that allows high-quality user experience, participation, and cooperation.

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Firstly, before opting for a platform, an organisation needs to determine what it wants to achieve and what will serve those needs. In many cases, an independent platform will not be the right choice. In particular, smaller communities may be better served by a simple mailing list or by creating subgroups on larger professional platforms such as LinkedIn. Many organisations underestimate the advantage of a ready-to-use system where virtually everyone has a profile and visits daily. Taking a page from biology: an online community needs to have a sufficient size to sustain itself. In other words, it is worth evaluating whether a stand-alone solution is required given that it can: a) be costly and work-intense to maintain, and b) run a high risk of turning into a virtual ghost town that serves no real purpose. 

Preparing for a virtual community means having a clear business case, and mapping, in detail, each stakeholder: the end user, and the internal and external stakeholders engaged with such an online community, as well as related value propositions. The question of the value proposition is an essential one, providing an answer whether the establishment of a virtual community is the right tool and framework as a means to a specific goal, including the level of investment envisaged. This is the raison d’etre of an online global community that determines the degrees of the success potential and value. 

Another important aspect is data, its governance, and access to it. A vibrant and fruitful virtual online community is safe, respects privacy, but at the same time is transparent in relation to its members. 

Hence, the initial analysis should also be looking at what is of interest and how to make it accessible, safe, and gradually automated, in order to optimise resources and empower the community to fulfil its aspirations. In the case of the alumni community, the exponential membership growth was possible due to a number of its characteristics:

  • Global nature of the community that is in principle united around shared identities and advocacy, which could be objectively and subjectively reinforced in the virtual arena (shared identity online and offline)
  • Interest in the community to be able to reach out easily to different members and connect wherever in the world one is (data access and protection)
  • An empowering potential for members to reinvent themselves, offered by virtual community participation (opportunities for realisation, identity reinforcement)
  • Have access to relevant or exclusive information – both professionally and personally.

To this end, unless there are strict security policies that would not go beyond static interfaces, working with companies (including exploring what start-ups in the field have to offer) will pay off. An organisation needs to be ready for a transition and prepare for it. For instance, start-ups in this field can provide the necessary flexibility and dynamics to accommodate stakeholders’ needs, creatively promote participation, mobilise and inspire ideas, whilst diminishing the maintenance and engagement costs by providing different AI-driven features.

Once the technical implementation is completed, smart curation and engagement strategies, as well as automated onboarding of new members and socialisation, are  aspects to look into. Continued regular communication, and online and offline happenings and initiatives, will allow for rolling out updates of the database and access to data, which then feeds into wider data-driven processes such as reporting. This dynamic generated self-enforcing forces, as well as flywheel and network effects: more content meant more interaction; more happenings brought more fresh data, which meant better reaching the community, and leading again to more interaction.

In case of the alumni community, the platform augmented its resource mobilisation capability, as active members can join expert pools to mentor, and choose between full memberships or simple memberships. Linking diverse campaigns (or specific marketing) to reduced membership fees has proven to work extremely well over the three years of experimentation, generating important resources for the non-profit entity running the platform. Lastly, the more virtual a community becomes, the more it needs bonding or opportunities to meet (in person).

Specifically, on community curation, the outreach of the managing organisation grew importantly, providing a performant and free platform for subgroups organised around interests or geographic locations. The key driving factor in bringing additional members to the community was regular communication in official languages linked to offline opportunities and events, which was possible thanks to the existing contact database which is both a prerequisite and a subject of constant updating requirements.

Lastly, an organisation needs to identify and leverage buy-in and enabling factors, as in the case of the alumni virtual build-up journey, where the following are instrumental:

  • Fresh design with easy-to-use features that people know and like to use
  • Actively engaging the community
  • Content, content, content

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If designed, fostered, and sustained effectively, i.e., backed up with sufficient resources, engagement strategy, and expertise, a vibrant online community can become an agile capacity-building instrument and, hence, feed into new strategies and policies. Yet, organisations need to connect the dots before setting off on an online community journey, and analyse the appropriateness of such an endeavour for each category of stakeholders against the popularity of this community-management solution. 

Taking stock of the alumni online community experience, there is no doubt online communities are powerful and potentially a strategic tool of our times. Once there is a clear vision and mission for an online community, the bottom line for turning it into a powerful and empowering tool is understanding the overarching psychology, together with an agile mindset that is open to innovation across technology, data, and the procedural and people dimensions. An online community is, in a way, a living organism, anchored to a varying degree in physical reality. 

An intuitive and inclusive nature of such an interface, the simplicity of data access, security, and privacy, work in favour of bringing in diverse groups of stakeholders, while taking into account the different abilities, generations, genders, and cultures wishing to unite around a shared identity and purpose: an online community that empowers the need to be trusted by its stakeholders.

 

Ms Michaela Anna Simakova is an international affairs professional and shaper, a diversity and inclusion advocate, an alumna of Sciences Po and the College of Europe, as well as the former president of the College of Europe Alumni Association. Since 2016, Michaela has been working at NATO and has covered horisontal policy areas such as human security; Women, Peace and Security; and the NATO Building Integrity good governance programme. Most recently, she has been working on innovation, as well as private sector engagement and partnerships, including the nexus of gender and technology. More information here.

 

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