Co-founder of The Community Roundtable, Rachel Happe, writes about the value of online communities in that holy grail of business publications, Harvard Business Review. Calculating the ROI of Customer Engagement makes a great case for the concrete value of online communities… a case which also happens to dovetail with a lot of my own thoughts on the ROI of online community for associations.
Her article focuses on customer engagement, which also happens to be central to associations, except in the association world we call it member engagement. In her article she says, about engagement (emphasis mine):
“We know that customer engagement matters. Yet much of our thinking about engagement remains simplistic. Most current definitions of engagement are bimodal – someone is either engaged or they’re not. But this is a limited view that hampers our ability to manage engagement in meaningful ways.
A more sophisticated understanding of engagement allows community managers to effectively influence and change it, and even to calculate an ROI for engagement.”
Engagement is a word that is used a lot in the association sector yet all to often it’s used in the abstract, as in it’s something you definitely want members to be but let’s not focus too much on what it actually means because… well, we’re not entirely sure on that part.
Engagement, for associations, is often correlated with transactions–did members attend an event, or purchase a product, or participate in a webinar? Or maybe it’s less transactional but still tied to an action, like serving on a volunteer committee or following the association on social media channels.
As Rachel points out, engagement isn’t just a black and white concept where people are either engaged or they’re not; there are “a number of behaviors within the broader umbrella of engagement that need to be understood and measured… Engagement is a set of behaviors, not a switch.”
She goes on to say that engagement, in and of itself, isn’t a quantifiable business metric; it needs to be calibrated to business goals which can then go on to be measured. But it’s not even that simple. Engagement isn’t an on or off thing; it’s also a set of behaviors that progress over time, deepening an individual’s engagement and subsequently increasing that value.
Online communities are a natural place to learn about engagement and how it continues to deepen and strengthen over time as people become more comfortable and connected. Her article focuses on brand customer service communities where a distinct case can be made for the value of community, right down to an actual equation. Where her article got really interesting to me is at that equation level; specifically, one of the parts of her equation: “Networked Value of the Answers.”
She defines this networked value of answers as “The geometric value of making an answer available to the entire community forever (i.e. cost avoidance, productivity and opportunity identification).” This part is the crucial part for associations, in my opinion, and where the value of community for associations digresses a bit from the value of community for brands.
In the case of customer service communities, for every question a customer is able to either answer for another customer or answer for him/herself by searching past discussions where that question was addressed, that non-transaction ties directly to the cost savings associated with the fact that a customer service rep did not have to spend time helping that customer. That savings can be quantified in dollars and cents; contributing to the community’s return on investment calculation.
For associations, the value is a little less linear, but equally important because that geometric value of answers becomes member value–that elusive thing that attracts members in the first place, then keeps them paying dues, year after year.
This concept of the value of making an answer available to the entire community forever goes hand in hand with the concept that member engagement deepens over time. Combine the two and it’s hard to deny that investing in an online community is one of the smartest things an association can do today to start nurturing that value–value that will not only pay off right away in ways I’ve written and presented about before, but also in terms of developing, over time, that rich networked value of answers that continues to grow and become increasingly valuable over time.
I’ll save the details on this last part–specifically, the long-tail value proposition of this “networked value of answers”–for another post. But the basic premise is, while it may seem like a great idea today to rely on free public platforms to host your association’s community, or keep that old listserv chugging along, both of these things are actually jeopardizing what will someday become one of your association’s most valuable–if not the single most valuable–assets.