For Online Engagement, Bells and Whistles Can’t Replace Listening

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October 29, 2012; Source: The Demand Perspective

Over at The Demand Perspective blog, Anna Caraveli asks a tough question: would your “members panic at the thought of your nonprofit going out of business because you have become indispensable to their success?” For many nonprofits, members would hardly notice. Caraveli profiles one organization that she thinks has succeeded in engaging its members to that degree: the Veterinary Information Network (VIN). This virtual professional network for vets has a nothing-to-write home-about website, yet the site has managed to attract 49,000 members and make a healthy profit—and it has done so by doing some things that run counter to much of the current advice and thinking about member engagement.

The history of VIN gives us a clue as to why it works so well. VIN started out as a pet care message forum with two founding vets answering questions. As more and more vets joined the forum, they “spent more time talking at a veterinarian’s level.” The vets moved the forum to a vets-only discussion. So VIN really grew organically out of the needs of its users, and has been smart enough to allow the network to continue to grow organically. Some of the takeaways from the article are these:

  • VIN focuses not on “selling” its services to its members, but on giving them the tools they need to succeed. VIN’s success may lie in the virtual network it has been able to create. While many vets find themselves isolated with no other vets in the same town, members can find people facing the same problems and information needs that they face. VIN does a few things to help them: it listens to their concerns and figures out new programs to serve them, and it lets them consult with one another about tough cases.
  • Engagement is not one person’s job, but is integrated into day-to-day operations. VIN has a weekly “make them happy” meeting where all staff offer ideas about what they heard from members that week. They bring up member concerns and try to figure out how to help. The founder himself reads many of the 2,000 messages on the forum every day and staff is encouraged to actively participate in conversations. One nice touch is that staff members often pick up the phone and call members rather than just sending them e-mails and surveys.
  • VIN uses its listening skills to figure out what its members need and then responds quickly. The VIN staff is encouraged to look for creative solutions to problems and then to take the lead as the “champion” of that idea. Whoever proposed the solution might be asked to form a team and make it happen. Sometimes members originate the idea and become the champion that converts it into results.

VIN seems to ignore a lot of advice about how to be successful, and yet it succeeds. While engagement specialists often discuss the need to create mobile apps, appeal to younger audiences and use graphics to keep member interest, VIN’s website is pretty sparse. It has created, in effect, the online coffee shop where its members feel comfortable sharing their experiences and connecting with other vets. Maybe all the bells and whistles aren’t always necessary. –Mary Jo Draper