A member forum that empowers its participants to communicate with each other provides a benefit that improves member retention without creating something else you’ve got to fulfill. When done correctly, there will still need to be some oversight and engagement by members of your team. However, you’ll be able to rely on your members to set the agenda and provide the bulk of the content.
Here are my observations, based on my own experience and what I see working for my clients.
Private Facebook Group
If most of your members are already on Facebook, the benefit of a “members only” private Facebook group is that popular member posts will show up in each member’s newsfeed. This is the epitome of showing up where your member is already spending their time.
As a member organization, you have unprecedented access to your members’ attention. There’s never been a platform that puts your community in front of your members with so much pervasiveness.
The downside is that you don’t own your member forum or the content. It’s subject to Facebook’s Terms of Service, which may limit what you are able to do with posts within your other media. More importantly, Facebook has repeatedly made it clear that they reserve the right to change the rules of the game. For example, after years of companies promoting Facebook’s fan pages, Facebook’s algorithm changed, requiring business to pay to promote their posts, in order for any significant number of members to see them. While there’s no reported plans for such a change to Closed Groups, you must consider the long-term vulnerability of growing a community on some other company’s platform that they provide for free. They may change their terms of service with little notice.
I often get asked about LinkedIn groups. In my experience, LinkedIn groups have all the downsides of Facebook groups without the upside of excitement. While LinkedIn may work fine if your members are on the site frequently, for most, Facebook is the most addictive option with better engagement than LinkedIn.
Google Groups is an online application that allows anyone to create a free discussion forum. Like ListServ (mentioned below), Google distributes member posts via email. Google Groups provides users with several options of how they’d like to receive new posts: They can get an email each time anyone posts, an email at a selected interval each day, or a once-daily email with abridged messages.
The two downsides of Google Groups are also additional negatives for private Facebook and LinkedIn groups.
The first downside is your member will have to have a separate Google user ID and password. While this may not be a problem for most of your members, for the members who don’t have this, it can often be a larger customer service issue. Second, there’s an additional manual process to add and remove members. On your own member forum, you can automate member access. Members may use the same user ID and password they use for your membership site to access your member forum.
The primary benefit of using Google Groups over private Facebook or LinkedIn groups is that members may browse previous posts. In Google Groups, it’s a lot easier for users to search previous discussion threads for information and answers to their questions. If they can’t find what they’re looking for, they can then post a new discussion on the forum that will bring value to everyone.
This is the original member interaction tool of the Internet. ListServ provides members with the ability to send a message to all ListServ members by sending an email to the email address of the ListServ. In addition, when a member replies to a ListServ email, it’s automatically forwarded to all ListServ members. ListServs are an improvement to a large group email because they permit you to administer the list, add, update or remove email addresses as appropriate.
I see very few ListServ groups today as Google Groups provides superior access to previous posts.
Using captive platforms hosted on your own membership site, members can browse posts within the discussion categories you establish, create new posts, or comment on existing posts. The original downside of operating your own forum was that members had to revisit your website in order to see if there had been any new posts. Today’s fully featured forum platforms allow your users to sign up and receive updates with options similar to Google Groups.
Just a few years ago, I had to invest in extensive developer programming to create a fully featured platform out of an off-the-shelf solution. Today there are dozens of platforms. If your website is built using WordPress, there are many plug-ins to choose from.
Some of these captive platforms allow you to send posts to a Twitter feed or Facebook page using an RSS feed. I’ve established these feeds on separate accounts so that members can receive abridged posts on Facebook newsfeeds or through Twitter. This provides some of the functionality of hosting these forums on Facebook while maintaining ownership over your data.
In the end, there are many member forum options to fit your members and your program. Choose the solution based on your needs, administrative capabilities and budget constraints.
I hope this information provides you with some insight into the options and beginning operations of member forums. I welcome any additional questions or feedback from your own experiences. You are welcome to email me at RS@AssociationMarketing.com.