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How to create a members only section that people will actually use

If you work at a membership-based organization such as a professional society, trade association or nonprofit, the situation below may sound familiar:

Your members have periodically asked you to provide them with ways to collaborate with each other.  You decide to act on the request and build a new members only section on your website with frequently requested features such as a member directory, member profiles, message boards, group chat and document library.  You launch the new section and get good initial feedback.  But after a few weeks it becomes clear that no one is using the new tools and after a few few months it is a complete ghost town.

You bought the groceries and cooked the meal, but no one is coming for dinner.

In my experience, this is the rule rather than the exception.  The features that sound the most exciting in theory are often quite different from the ones members will actually use on a daily basis.  Perhaps more importantly, your member’s only section is competing for attention against the likes of Facebook, Slack, LinkedIn and Pokemon Go.  Getting people to make your site a part of their daily or weekly routine is a tough ask.  

To help prevent you from wasting blood, sweat and tears building something no one will use, below are some lessons I’ve learned building members only sections for clients.  

(1) Listen to your members

A lot of expensive and unneeded features that get included in members only sections are the result of anecdotal requests (“Board Member A thinks Feature X would be really cool”) and/or poorly constructed membership surveys.  Asking members what features they want is a vital part of the planning process, but you have to ask the right way.  You need the right mix of quantitative and qualitative research.

Don’t just send an open ended email survey asking members what features they would like to see.  Instead, develop a list of features you are thinking of adding and ask members to rank them in order of importance and/or to tell you how often they would use each of them.  You need to a way to prioritize features into “must” and “nice to” haves.  

Be sure to send the survey to all your members, and not just a small subsection.  The needs of your most involved members are going to be different from those who are less active.  Don’t let the loudest voices drive your development priorities.

Lastly, supplement the email survey data with qualitative research.  Interview a few members over the phone or in person to get a sense of how they are using your current members only section (if you have one) and/or how they would use the new features you are contemplating.  Interview members from a variety of backgrounds and engagement levels.  These interviews can be really helpful in understanding how members actually use your site and fine tuning requirements.

(2) Don’t recreate Facebook and LinkedIn

I have worked with a lot of clients who want to build advanced social networking functionality into their members-only site.  They basically want to create a “private” LinkedIn or Facebook for their organization, with groups, status updates, chat, message boards, etc.  

In my experience this approach is nearly always a mistake.  These types of social features sound cutting edge and exciting, but are rarely used in the context of a members only section.  Most of your members aren’t going to spend enough time on your site to support features like chat or message boards.  

If you do want to experiment with social features, a better approach is to try to leverage social networks your members are already using.  Start a private group on LinkedIn or Facebook.  Experiment with Slack.  Start an email discussion list.  These tools are more cost effective and likely to success than trying to build your own walled garden on your site.

Fish where fish are.

(3) Start small and expand

In software development, “the minimum viable product (MVP) is a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.”  In the context of a members only section, the MVP should consist only of the “must have” features you and your members have identified.  Start out by building just these features and then expand later based on your site analytics and member feedback.  This approach allows you to move quickly, and saves you time and money that might have been spent building features people won’t actually use.

As an example, we recently built out a members-only section for a professional society.  They started out with a long list of feature requests that included expensive social features.  After research and a series of discussions, their MVP consisted of the following features:

  • User accounts for members with different permissions based on membership level.
  • Members-only document library
  • Listing of members-only events and continued learning opportunities
  • Access to proprietary database showing overall industry trends
  • A really good search of all the members-only materials.

The professional society had a wealth of proprietary content that their members rely on in their day-to-day work.  Providing their members with a way to quickly and easily access this content was far and away the most important feature for the new members only section.  So for phase one of the project, we focused on doing that one thing really, really well.  We focused on the area where the professional society could provide its members with real value.  

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