First steps to building a membership organisation

4 Roads LTD

In this second of our membership organisation blog series, Darren Gough, Community Management Expert and Founder of Island23 Limited discusses the first steps to building a membership community for your organisation.

Where Are You Now?

A membership organisation or association looking to utilise the competitive edge of a year-round engaged online community will usually start in one of the following positions.

Your membership list is your bread and butter, coupled with your brand website but neither of these things represents an actively engaged online community.

Position 1a: You Have A Cheap or Free Bolt On

You may already have something up and running. It might be a simple forum style platform that is a free or open source that has been tacked onto your main website and isn’t really doing too much.

Position 1b: You Have An Enterprise Level Solution

It’s also not unusual for organisations to have invested in an enterprise solution but to have deployed it under the “build it and they will come” concept.

Position 2: You Have No Online Community Solution

The more likely scenario is you are interested in selecting a community platform and aren’t sure where to start.

There is a myriad of options on the market, ranging from free to significant six-figure investment and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the vendor list.

In all options, it’s a common misconception that technology is the answer.

There is no doubt there are some incredible platform vendors on the market to suit all budgets, membership levels and technology stacks.

There is, however, some work to do beforehand.

Where many organisations go wrong is failing to understand and prioritise what their members want to do first.

A good online community is built in slow, measured steps that form a roadmap that aims to solve challenges, problems and provide value that is unique to YOUR members.

Pro Tip 1: Speak To Your Members

Spend time building a qualitative and quantitate data set of what your member needs are.

Run surveys to get an overall sense of what is important, but also identify specific members who might be available for a short call to answer some questions around their requirements.

It’s incredible how many online communities there are, even today, that don’t take time to connect directly with their members.

In a digital age, having a human-to-human call not only goes beyond the general trend data, but it also shows your members you care.

Members are much more likely to recommend you to other potential members through this personal touch.

Organic growth can be vastly more effective than a generic email.

Pro Tip 2: Involve Stakeholders

Once you are able to identify common themes and member needs from your initial work, ensure you capture the input of as many key stakeholders as possible.

Don’t ignore departments because they “don’t seem like this is for them”.

You will be amazed how responsive and happy the legal team, for example, could be to be involved.

Pro Tip 3: Clarify Your Vision Roadmap

Using your member and internal stakeholder feedback, build a clear vision for your community that reflects common goals and objectives.

It’s natural that the business and the members won’t align exactly.

Your internal roadmap might look a little different from your member feedback.

It’s common for your most senior management to have pressures of running a company (costs, shareholders, ideas, etc) that give them a different outlook.

However, to outstep your competitors understanding that giving members value that is specific to them is your key to success.

The importance of the work you did in Pro Tip 2 (involving all teams) becomes intrinsic to success at this point.

By bringing the whole company into the process, you have advocates for your vision that can support and help drive the roadmap to sign-off.

You have compelling member feedback to underpin and justify the need for an online community that the whole organisation understands.

The Fallacy Of Metrics

As part of the community roadmap, it’s inevitable the thorny issue of metrics or ROI (return on investment will crop up).

Naturally, as a membership organisation, the process of growing your membership list in parallel with retaining current members is your lifeblood.

However, with the community, it’s very easy to get caught up in big numbers without really understanding where the value is.

Your members will stay, and provide word of mouth recommendations when they are given value they cannot get elsewhere.

A member who posts 5 times a day, every day is great.

A member who posts once a week but is intrinsic to a community who come together to create value through problem-solving, expert insight, relationship building and other actions which create year-round value is the very key to growth and retention.


Ensure your goals are set around unique value for members that they cannot get elsewhere. Your roadmap comes before any technology decisions and should be built from a combination of data, and real member feedback supported by internal stakeholder input.

In our next blog, we’ll examine the role of technology and the importance of the community team in more detail for sustainable growth.

4 Roads have worked with a plethora of membership organisations and has been responsible for some of the largest community deployments across the globe, creating communities consisting of millions of members.

Contact us to find out how an online community could help you get closer relationships with your members.