Virtual chapters sound like a great idea, don’t they? After all, associations are already virtual experiences for members who don’t go to your in-person events. For these members, their entire association experience is online.
In our last post, we explained how a hybrid chapter enhances the local chapter membership experience by offering a blend of in-person and online benefits. Now, let’s look at several associations that use a virtual chapter to solve their membership challenges.
How virtual chapters meet the needs of members
Virtual chapters offer what every member seeks: education and networking. However, instead of attending a local chapter meeting, virtual chapter members go online to take advantage of these benefits—and that difference is crucial.
“Virtual chapters offer a certain amount of flexibility to those who aren’t (geographically) close to a traditional chapter or whose schedules don’t allow them to participate in traditional chapter activities,” said Scott Wadle, program director of council and chapter affairs at the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA).
Virtual chapters are a solution for members who are challenged by local geography or busy schedules. “We have professionals in locations that are really difficult to reach—rural environments or places where people are spread out, like Alaska and Hawaii,” said Rick Grimm, CEO of NIGP – The Institute for Public Procurement. “Hawaii is a unique situation—imagine going from island to island for a lunch meeting.” NIGP now has a virtual chapter for members in Alaska and Hawaii and is considering one for Montana too.
Time is every member’s most precious resource. You probably have members who work from home to avoid awful commutes. Virtual chapters are a solution for members who live in congested areas where it takes too long to travel to local chapter meetings. They also serve members who can’t take time away from their busy work or family schedule.
Some members may live near a local chapter but aren’t home frequently enough to participate in chapter activities. A member of the National Investor Relations Institute’s virtual chapter (NIRI) said,
“I travel frequently as many [Investor Relations] professionals do, which makes it difficult to attend in-person chapter meetings. Fortunately I can regularly attend NIRI virtual events from wherever I am.”
Virtual chapters are also a welcome option for people who have trouble getting around or are homebound because of disabilities or other personal reasons.
In some industries, members have a desire for community and conversation with their peers, but not with their local competitors. For more than two decades, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has organized Builder 20 clubs, networking groups comprised of 20 professionals from across the country who are in the same building specialty. Traditionally, these groups only met in person, but now they supplement those meetings with web conferencing and online forums.
Benefits of virtual chapters for associations
Members aren’t the only ones who benefit from virtual chapters. Virtual chapters help your association expand its reach to prospects who don’t live near a chapter or can’t participate in local chapter activities. They increase inclusivity by providing educational and networking opportunities to those with accessibility issues.
In areas that don’t have enough members for a local chapter, a virtual chapter serves as a stepping-stone to official chapter status and a foundation for a hybrid chapter experience. Virtual chapters allow more professionals to take part in the association experience.
6 membership benefits of virtual chapters
Virtual chapters must offer the same practical and emotional experiences that members of local chapters enjoy: knowledge and relationships, but also a sense of belonging, contribution, and self-actualization.
#1 Monthly meetings
Like their geographic counterparts, virtual chapters use web conferencing platforms to offer monthly webinars—the online version of the lunch and learn meeting with a speaker. Keep in mind the old saying, “the best learning happens in the hallway.”
Make sure these meetings are interactive, not passive, experiences. Build in opportunities for members to ask questions, share stories, and get to know each other. Encourage them to turn on their webcam and use video instead of only audio. They’ll feel more of a connection when they can see each other.
Post webinar recordings on the website for those who can’t attend in real time. Provide CEUs for live participation and/or viewing the recordings.
Besides webinars, you could try a monthly book club. Members of the virtual chapter of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals (NAPO) earn CEU credits for attending theirs or listening to the recording.
In addition to their monthly meetings, NIRI’s virtual chapter hosts advocacy update calls and informal chat sessions focusing on hot topics.
#2 Discussion forums
In between monthly meetings, a virtual chapter’s online community is the place for knowledge sharing and relationship building. Associations use a variety of technology tools to host online discussions, including online community platforms like Higher Logic and collaboration platforms like Slack. Before selecting a tool, think about where you want members to hang out. If you want them on your platform, don’t push community-building elsewhere, for example, on Facebook or LinkedIn.
#3 Mentoring programs
Many associations, like the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), have developed virtual mentoring programs that could serve as a model for virtual chapters. Mentoring programs build cross-generational relationships while helping young professionals get ahead in their careers. Instead of meeting in person over a cup of coffee, participants stay at their desk for that coffee and meet online using a web conferencing app like Zoom or Skype.
Scholarship programs are especially helpful for young professionals and professionals in transition. You can see the NIGP virtual chapter’s scholarship program overview, flyer, and application on their website.
#5 Online resources
Behind the members-only login, members of virtual chapters access recordings from past events, archived newsletters, and their online community. NIRI’s virtual chapter also has a Virtual Vault on their website, a members-only repository of issue updates, best practices, resources, and other materials on investor relations topics. “Just like a real vault, we include only materials with true value.” Think about unique digital resources a virtual chapter could provide.
#6 Special in-person events
The desire for face-to-face interaction doesn’t go away when a member joins a virtual chapter. Some members are willing to travel to meet new friends and acquaintances in person. Think of these opportunities as bonus experiences.
The Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst Association (CAIAA) has regional networking events for its virtual chapter members in areas that haven’t yet established physical chapters. Every year, the members of NIRI’s virtual chapter meet up at the Lounge Lizard Soirée Party at NIRI’s annual conference. Consider hosting a virtual chapter lounge at your annual events.
Scott Wadle of MOAA said.
“Virtual chapters represent the future of where our chapters can go.” As more members go online to experience the benefits of membership, your virtual chapter will serve as the test lab for the future association and chapter experience.
The conversation doesn’t stop here. Get together with fellow CRPs to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by virtual and hybrid chapters. Join us April 22 in Washington DC or April 25 in Chicago for a special workshop: Virtual Chapters & Online Communities: Should We or Shouldn’t We?