Community building is more than just bringing people together and hoping they click. It is about fostering the relationships within that they are building something of greater value together. The digital space is a great magnifier for building those communities. In this episode, Marjorie Anderson, the Founder of Community by Association L.L.C. and the Director of Community at Product School, joins Megan Martin to share with us her thoughts on the power of community building and utilizing digital. She discusses how their growth strategy plays in the association or membership organization space, what inclusion and community mean, and how the trial-and-error approach affects community building. Follow along to this conversation as Marjorie highlights the importance of community building.
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The True Power Of Community-Building: Growth, Inclusion, And Technology With Marjorie Anderson
We are glad to have Marjorie Anderson as our guest. She is such a rockstar and the founder of Community by Association. I have a fun story to tell about Marjorie. First, introduce yourself, Marjorie. Tell us about you.
Thanks for having me, Megan. I am Marjorie Anderson. I am the founder of Community by Association, which is an organization that exists to help associations, nonprofits, and social impact organizations think deeply about online communities, and how that engagement feeds into their mission as an association, nonprofit or social impact organization. I have been working within associations for fourteen and a half years. I'm also the Director of Community at Product School, which is not an association, but the way that they operate reminds me of one. I have been a community professional for nine years, and it's work that I love doing.
My fun story here for our audience is Marjorie and I have been working together for probably 6 to 8 months on different projects and various things, but we have never met in person, not even one time. I wanted to mention that because that is the power of digital communities. You and I run in similar circles in this community space and in the association space in general, but we have never met in person. I would consider you a friend now because of all the things we have done. I have always very much valued our time together. Hopefully, one day soon in the near future, we will be able to hug and see each other in person.
I say that because digital communities are so valuable. Relationships can be developed, escalated, and made stronger with digital in mind to only enhance the in-person. I have an events background, and I have leaned into the community because they enhance the event world that I came from. There is much power in connecting online and taking that in person. You and I are the perfect examples of how digitally we can expand the region that we're connecting with regularly.
There is real power. People underestimate the power of digital communities and what can be accomplished there. People come together in those spaces as a sat for loneliness a lot of times. They end up finding people and connecting with people that they never ever once thought that they would ever be able to connect with. Great friendships and relationships are born out of that.
There is a definite power in community building. We can't gloss over the fact that that sort of magic happens in those spaces. It is as important to building community or more. It is the center of building community. What comes out of those relationships and how people come together is what proves-out that value. It is always people first.
There's a definite power in community building, and we can't gloss over the fact that magic happens in those digital spaces.
Coming and thinking about the association space in that and being people first. That is why a lot of nonprofit social impact associations exist. It is to provide education, networking, and connect people across an industry or an area of interest or whatever that might be. You mentioned growth strategy and organization mission when you are introducing yourself. My first question for you as we are diving into this topic is, how does community play into that in the association or membership organization space?
My philosophy since founding Community By Association has always been that the missions of associations, nonprofits, and social impact organizations are all community-centered. The way that they think about the reason they exist as an organization is based on the needs of people. Whether you are a professional association that has formed to help specific people within a specific industry come together and share best practices and learn, or you are a nonprofit that is specifically centered around building up some community in areas where there might be a lack of resources so development is scarce, or whether you are a social impact organization who is coming together for something that has a larger mission, those are all community-centered mindsets to me.
What I have found interesting is that sometimes in these organizations, when you think about formalizing a community program, all of that is lost. The reason that you came together and you formed this organization was to serve people. It is centered around building those people up, bringing them together, and making sure that they have the information resources and people at the ready to help either make them feel less lonely in the world, help them build up their communities or what have you.
When you are thinking about, “How do we formalize a community program to strengthen that?” It's like, “I don't know how to justify that,” when at the center of what you do is that reason. My goal is to help bridge that gap so that it is a no-brainer that, “This makes sense, and here is how we are going to do it. Here is how we are going to extend the value that we provide as an organization.” Also, make sure that from an organizational and business value standpoint, we are seeing that value realized for us as well because we are doing that work.
We sometimes forget that, and associations are getting a bad rep with Millennials and Gen Zs. They don't understand the point of them, “Why would I be a part of it when I can just get the education from YouTube or TikTok these days?” I learned so much from there, but I would never replace my membership in some of the organizations that I'm a part of because of that community factor. You make a great point about organizations that keep putting community and digital community on the back burner, even though it is vital for them to accomplish their missions.
It has been interesting watching the evolution of this come to be now because, during the pandemic, it shined a huge light on associations. Their memberships are declining because they are not showing their value. If I'm not connected with your organization or other people who are members or part of that social impact group, why would I keep coming? I have to have that human connection to it. One of the taglines that Juno does and our mission is advancing the world for good through human connection. At the end of the day, that’s what advances everything we are doing. I love that it is critical to the mission of these organizations. They are sitting on a potential that they don't even know.
By not realizing that and tapping into it, it feels like it's hard to justify the investment. At the end of the day, it's important to your business operations. It is as important as your membership program, volunteer engagement program, and chapter program. Think of chapters as your in-person communities. You do the same things online. You would want to make sure that you are investing in those appropriately as well. When you think about all of the other activities that you do as an organization, it's all central to community building. This is no different.
Thinking about community building a little bit further, DE&I or inclusion and diversity are quite a big topic these days. We have been sweeping it under the rug for a long time. Organizations are starting to think about that now and think about how that plays into community strategy. When you think about inclusion and community, what does that mean for you?
When I think about inclusion and community, one of the things that organizations get stuck at is the diversity piece. Especially if it's a global organization, you will hear, “We are diverse by nature because we got members from all over the world.” At the end of the day, what you are thinking about is, do those folks have a voice?
When you're thinking about building community in your community, are you ensuring that the programming that you have, whether it's webinars or virtual events, includes captions on the videos? Do you ensure that your speaker lineup is diverse in nature and that they have the same amount of air time as anybody else? Do you ensure that you are showing a full representation of the people within your community? Are they all US-based? Is your program all US-based if you are in the US? Are you ensuring that you are offering programming in other languages? That is what inclusion looks like or examples of what inclusion looks like in online community spaces.
One of the things that end up happening is we get caught up in the “standard mode of operation” for running an online community and what that looks like based on what we hear everybody talking about. We don't think specifically about what our community needs are and what our commitment might be to DE&I within those spaces. It's not about whether or not you got enough black people who are speaking on a panel or you got enough women.
Those things are important but we tend to be myopic in our view of what that looks like. We forget about all of the other ways that DE&I and inclusion show up in those spaces. That could be from folks who are neurodiverse to people who may have visual impairments or hearing impairments, to the representation of a global face, whether you are a global organization, even down to the photos that you put within your online community. If you are showing a stock photo of people around a table collaborating, do all of those people look the same or can I see myself in that stock photo?
When you are thinking about inclusion, it's not only those things that are over but it's also those things that we don't necessarily think about in terms of how people interact in that space, what they see when they come to that space, even down to your onboarding processes. Whatever that looks like, we have to be incredibly intentional about what that looks like for us because it won't always show up inherently. We got to be thinking intentionally about what that inclusion looks like, and how that needs to be addressed for the community that we manage.
It goes even further than that. It is how we deliver some of this opportunity or content that is out there. Some people learn differently. I have two people on our staff. One is audio-video focused. Anytime I need something from him, I send a video, “Here is the update and the three action items I need from you.” I have another colleague that is words and wants emails or Slacks or whatever. I have to change my delivery format based on how they best consume that information.
It's no different for your membership. Some have to be in writing and some have to be in videos. Not everybody wants an hour-long webinar. Some people want twenty minutes. You are repurposing that content to reach people where they are. It also adds to inclusion, and how you are allowing people to access your community. I'm generally a pretty introverted person. I'm not going to be the first person to raise my hand to answer a question or jump into a conversation. I might be online because I'm safe behind my computer. In a room, I'm not going to be the one standing up in a line of people to ask a question on a microphone in front of a whole room of people. That is like standing on stage naked to me. I would rather avoid it like it’s not happening.
We have to meet people where they are and diversify what types of content we are putting out there, how we're putting it out there to meet people where they are, and how they like to consume and what they want to consume. That is all part of it. My favorite analogy for this is it is always nice getting included and being invited to the party, but just because you invited me to the party didn't mean you included me. If I got the invite, that was great, but until I feel comfortable and those are my people and that is my space, I'm not really included in that party.
I can walk through the door, but if you never greet me or you never show me where the snacks are and introduce me to people who might help me feel comfortable in the space, did you think about inclusion or did you just invite me to the party?
People are afraid of trial and error. Especially when it comes to DE&I and building communities, a lot of it is trial and error, finding that right format, finding where your people are, how they want to be fed that information, how they want to digest it, and how you feel about encouraging people to get experimental and be okay with trying something new or looking at something differently. That can seem scary. How do you feel about the trial-and-error approach when it comes to community building?
You have to. You are not going to always get it right. That is the thing that can hold organizations back from learning from their community, what their needs are and what they want. You have to do some trial and error. That is the only way you are going to know, aside from talking to community members and asking, “What is it that you are looking for from experience? What is it that you are looking for from a community from us? How would you define that?”
Without that trial and error piece of it, you run the risk of never getting it right. Sometimes what that trial and error tell you is that the way that you are thinking about it is not the right way. You need to try something else, or that community means something different for folks versus what you have thought you need to do.
Without that trial and error piece, you run the risk of never getting it right.
One of the things that end up happening is we get stuck in the standard mode of operation for building community. Community building is going to look different for everyone in the way that that shows up, and organizations are going to look different for everyone, even from an online perspective. We need to lean into what is going to work best for us. Start with best practices, but see what is going to work and what’s not going to work from a programming perspective, community building perspective, and experience perspective.
In doing so, make sure that you build change management and good communication practices into that process. Nothing is worse than being in a space where all of this weird stuff is happening, and you were like, “What is going on?” From a community member standpoint, you were like, “What are you guys doing? I am not clear on the direction.” If you involve them in that process and you got a good change management and communications process along with that, the sky is the limit. Try out stuff, see what works, see what doesn't, listen to your community, and take it from there.
Going even a little step further, do you involve your community in those decisions? A lot of organizations want to be the man behind the curtain and roll out these programs or new content or new engagement techniques, getting experimental, but they don't bring their community members with them. They rolled it out and they were like, “This was a total dud. How is it a dud? We can't even figure out why.” What do you say to the groups? Do they bring their members with them? Do they make them part of the experimental innovation process?
One of the things that are important that I heard back in 2020. I was involved with the founders of an organization called People & Company. They have since moved on to Substack. The founders of this company wrote a book called Get Together. The foundation of that book is building community with your community members. It is not that, “I have a vision, and here is how I'm going to execute it.” It's, “We got something here. Let me talk to the people who would be involved in this space and see what they think.”
If you got 10,000 members in your association, you don't have to go out to all 10,000 members and get their input. If there are people who are invested and interested in seeing this materialize and mature within the organization and they want to be a part of it, ask for their input, “Does this make sense? If we build this experience this way, what do you think would happen there?” As you go along and people start to experience it, start to ask more people, “What do you think? How does this feel to you? Does this make sense to you? How would you rather interact with this content? How would you better like to ask questions or connect with people.”
Understand that there will be people who will be like, “This sucks.” Lean into that because that is going to help you build a better experience. You don't want to just hear from the people who think it is a great idea, but understand where the pain points are as well and try to address those the best way that you can. Build with your community. Building something specifically for your benefit is not building a community. It's building an audience, and there's a stark difference in what that experience looks like.
Building something specifically for your benefit is not building a community; it's building an audience.
That goes back to our discussion a few minutes ago about inclusion. The more your members feel included in the decision-making and included in the content that is coming out and how it's getting delivered, the more they are invested and are more likely to keep showing up. They are telling their friends to show up. It is much more inclusive. How do you want to answer questions? How do you want to be involved? You are including them in the process, and they feel like they are a part of that decision-making. You are building something just for me. Even though it's not just for me, I feel that way. Once I'm feeling connected to it, I'm much more likely to take action, be part of it and be an active member as opposed to a lurker in the community because it takes both.
The other piece to the community is so many people want to go on that commitment curve, and they want to move every single member of their community from that passive lurker member to an active one who is on committees, applying for the board, speaking at your conferences and all over the chat, answering everybody’s questions and being helpful. Not everybody can be that. From my perspective, people need to understand that having lurkers and power members, it takes both of them to have an active community. What are some of your thoughts on that, and how it is okay not to always move everyone through that commitment curve as they are joining your communities?
Not only is it not okay, but we have to remember that not everyone wants to go through that commitment curve. There are communities that I am a part of where I am an active lurker. I will go in, consume content, and participate in some of the programmings, but I'm not in there answering a bunch of questions. I'm not asking questions, but because of the value that I get out of that community, I still tell people, “Check this out.” It is because there's valuable information and content there for me. I can be a silent advocate, but I don't necessarily need to be the person who raises my hand at every volunteer opportunity and wants to apply for the board.
There is value in that because those are the people who are going to continue to bring people along with them. That doesn't mean they are not getting value out of the community. It looks different to them. People are complex. Not everyone is going to want to be at the head of the class in terms of what their advocacy looks like for the community. You are going to have people who are middle of the road, people who aren't your lurker, but they are not going to want to sit on the board.
Maybe they want to be able to help answer questions, moderate within the community, or contribute content, whatever that looks like for them. Making it easy and understanding how to meet the needs of people along that curve is key. It’s not just moving them from one part of that curve to the next. What you do want to do is as people exhibit behaviors in the community and they start to interact within that space, learn from what that behavior is telling you.
If you are starting to see people who maybe have come in and are passive with their participation but maybe they are starting to raise their hand for more leadership positions, keep your eye on those folks. Maybe those are folks that you want to tap for helping with programming, being a volunteer moderator, or something like that.
That is data that we don't think to pay attention to because there is no dashboard for it. Sometimes there isn't a dashboard for it, but if you are doing community management well, then you are starting to understand what those behaviors look like, who is exhibiting specific behaviors, where they are along that curve, and what is the sweet spot for them to keep them engaged.
That helps you to understand from a community standpoint, “What do I need to do from a programming perspective to meet the needs of these folks? What do I need to do from a community management and experience perspective to meet the needs of these folks? How do I collaborate across the organization to make sure that I am providing opportunities to not only help them along their community journey but along their journey with us as an organization more holistically?”
There is so much value in seeing what that journey and those behaviors look like to people that are forcing them to move from one end of the curve to the next. It is not only a disservice to you as an organization, but it alienates your community members. If people feel forced to move from one end to the next, they are going to stop participating altogether because you are not listening to their needs.
Forcing members to move from one end of the curve to the next is not only a disservice to you as an organization, but it alienates your community members as well.
Without saying it, you touched on a little bit about measuring your community and the impact that it's having. It's honestly one of the hardest things to do. How do you measure being inclusive? It is hard to measure engagement. There are tons of metrics out there. A lot of times, your board, your executive director, your boss, whomever that might be that you have to report to prove that impact, it takes both qualitative and quantitative data, even though some of that leadership were like, “How much money did we make off of it? How many people are joining? What is the exposure like? They want hard facts and numbers. That is not always easy to do. What have you found in a good balance of listening to your community, taking some of that quantitative data in there, and then putting it to a number that you can present to your boards?
It is more about the story that the community tells versus the number. There are numbers that you can certainly pull out. There are conversions. How many people are returning to the community and engaging with the content? Are they sharing it out? Those types of things. That is only going to tell you so much. When we are thinking about community analytics, a lot of the time, we depend specifically on what the platform that we are using for the community tells us about the community.
That will give you some information, but there are more information and ways to grab data that we don't necessarily think about that tell us the full story around how people are interacting and the value they are getting out of the community, and what it's providing to the organization. Whether you have a formal platform that helps you evaluate this or if you have to do it manually or there is a survey or something in between, the voice of customer information and data is incredibly impactful to me when you are building an online community.
You are trying to tell the story around what the value is. What ends up happening in these spaces is that people are organically having a conversation about their experience that they are not only having within your community, but they are having with your organization. They are either saying, “I went to XYZ conference and it was amazing. I met so many people. I just wish we had more breakout sessions.” That is information that your events team is going to want to know that is going to help them build a better event.
They may say, “I renewed my membership dues but I don't understand what value I'm getting out of my benefits. I wish it had X, Y and Z. That is good information for your membership team to have.” They may be saying, “Here is what I am seeing in my part of the world around this particular thing. There is a conversation happening about it. If your organization is building out thought leadership and research around it, that may be information you're not capturing in a formal survey. If you are hiring someone like Boston Consulting Group to come in and help you figure out what the state of the industry is.
Not all of that information is going to be captured in formal research. Lots of it is going to be captured within the community because that is where the conversation is happening. If you are tuned into that information, it can help you not only tell a story, it can help you not only grab the numbers that you need, but it tells the story around. People are enthralled with the new certification that we rolled out, but they are having trouble understanding how to book their exams. These people who have been with the community for the past two years, we can see that they entered the community and purchased a membership.
As a result of their interaction within the community, we can see that they have renewed because of that interaction versus they are just renewing because they pay those dues. It may take some time and some figuring out how to tie those data points together, but if you're doing some active listening and understanding what is happening in the communities, it's not hard to tell that story to show the value that it's proving.
We talked about a lot of planners thinking about the platform that they are using for the community. That is going to tell their story. It is going to give them all the metrics, but what role does technology play in this, not just from the reporting data standpoint, but connecting people and building a community digitally online?
I am of the belief that technology is only as good as strategy is. First and foremost, if you do not have a strong community strategy, do not start with technology. What happens is you get this piece of technology and you were like, “We're going to have this great community because this is the best piece of tech out there. They are the industry leader for our particular sector,” but you don't have the experience down. If you got a clear strategy around what your community is supposed to be, who it's supposed to serve, and how you are going to do it, what the technology does is it helps you provide an experience that helps meet the need of that strategy.
Technology is a great way to not only help connect people in the online space but it also can help provide a great overall digital experience for people who are interacting with your organization. Something that you will want to think about is, does the technology give me a well-rounded view of the behaviors that are taking place within that community? Does it give me data or can I get data out of it that gives me a well-rounded picture of what that member journey looks like and how we can better serve folks through the community based on that journey? Does this technology allow me to scale my community if I want to? If I don't want to, does it at least allow me to meet the needs of the members and if those needs shift, shift with them?
Those are some of the things that you should be thinking about. There is a laundry list of other things that you should also be thinking about when it comes to technology. It plays because you're building an online community space, it's not just about people being able to ask questions or get their questions answered, but what is the experience that you are trying to deliver to those folks and how easy is it going to be for them to be able to interact within that experience?
One thing that you don't want to do is you may get the best piece of technology out there, but if people don't understand how to use it, even if you got the best onboarding program out there, what is the point? If it doesn't provide or feed data out to the rest of the organization about giving you a well-rounded view of who these folks are and what their needs are, what good is that piece of technology?
If you decide to leave that technology at any point in time for whatever reason and you can't get your data out of it, what good is that piece of technology? There are lots of factors that you have to consider. At the end of the day, it has got to support the experience that you want to provide and that people are looking for. If it cannot, then you should be looking for something that can.
The ease of access is the first barrier to entry. If it is hard for me to access your community or hard for me to get to the resources and the people I'm looking for, I'm just going to log off. We all have such short attention spans. Much of the rest of our lives are spoon-fed to us of, “This is what you should watch, and this is what you should buy.”
For crying out loud, the grocery store knows everything I'm buying and sends me coupons for the stuff I buy now. If my community is hard to get into or hard to find the people or the resources I'm looking for, why am I even here? Technology is the tool for that connection. You can't hang your hat on it because, at the end of the day, you can make technology pretty much do whatever you want it to do to accomplish whatever goal it is. If you don't even know what you are trying to accomplish, what good is the tech to get you there?
You are spending a whole bunch of money and you were like, “The community doesn't work.” It does but did you think a little bit more deeply about this?
Quite honestly, I could keep going forever and ever. I love chatting with you every single time we get together. If there were one main point or one big piece of advice you would give to an organization thinking about going into this space, and thinking about inclusion and their community and their growth strategy for their organization, what would that one piece of advice be? Where do they start?
Start With Why is the name of Simon Sinek's book, but it is also true for building community. Before any association or nonprofit organization thinks about building a community, understand and think deeply about why this community needs to exist, who this community is going to serve, and how you are going to do it. If you can't answer confidently those questions, stop yourself in your tracks until you can. What you are then doing is setting yourself and the community up for failure.
At the end of the day, the community is about building relationships and trust. If you get it wrong, you will fundamentally disrupt that relationship-building and trust process with your members, which could destroy their faith and trust in you as an organization holistically. Make sure that you are solid on why that community needs to exist, who is it going to serve, and how you are going to do it before even thinking about bringing someone into the conversation to help you do that.
The second piece of advice is if you are going to build, make sure you hire at least a community manager to help you get that done. If you can't hire someone, bring on a community consultant that can at least help get you set up for success so that when you are ready to make that hire, you got a great chance of having a successful program.
We are talking about impact. You want to know, is your investment worth it? What is the impact that community has on your growth and your organization? If you don't know why you are doing it, how do you show success? How do you show growth? How do you measure and prove the impact the community is having on your organization if you don't know why it exists in the first place?
It is impossible to measure something that you just threw together and you were like, "We do it because we do it." How do we know it is working? Marjorie, as always, I love our conversations. Thank you so much for joining us. We knowledge bomb everyone with community and inclusion, and what all that means. I want to thank you for your time, knowledge, and expertise in this space.
Thank you for having me. It is always so fun talking with you. I can't wait to do it again.
Thanks, everyone. Make sure you subscribe and tune in. We will see you in the next episode.
About Marjorie Anderson
Marjorie Anderson is the Founder of Community by Association L.L.C. and the Director of Community at Product School.
She is an experienced community management professional with expertise in building a large global community for associations. She is skilled at developing cohesive community strategies that connect to organizational goals and consider the full user experience across an organization's digital ecosystem. She has successfully led efforts to obtain buy-in across the business to highlight the value of the online community program, enabling the creation of holistic programs that connect community members to each other and the products/services within the organization.
Community is less about the technology you use to bring people together and is more about the people you are gathering with. As a community management professional, Marjorie advocates for the work and skill that those in this industry bring to gathering others together around a shared purpose and how that brings value to organizations.