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23 Aug. 2018 | Comments (0)

The 2018 Excellence in New Communications Awards were presented at a dinner and gala in New York City in June. The full case studies are published in the latest SNCR 2020 paper, which you can download for free here. Below, we feature the winning case study from The American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).

The issue being addressed

The American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) needed a strategy to expand their footprint and diversify revenue streams to ensure relevance and resilience in the future. They were also, like many professional societies, seeing membership numbers on a downward trend. ASPB engaged the renowned innovation firm IDEO to help strategize new ideas for diversifying revenue. The original strategy revolved around the ideation of individual digital products to be developed and sold, and that strategy was refined to become more cohesive and long-term by launching an inclusive, global online community called Plantae, accessible to all plant scientists that would also be leveraged as a channel for revenue-generating products.

Through Plantae, ASPB launched a series of valuable, unique, and ultimately revenue-generating products and programs through a collaborative development process with community members. Not only are these products intended to produce income from product sales and/or sponsorships, but they are crucial to community engagement. These products currently include a weekly scholarly article research roundup, the TapRoot podcast, Plantae Seminar Series, Job Board, Teaching Tools for educators, and an online course.

The Plantae team developed an innovative Plantae Fellows program to help with the effort. Individuals must apply and demonstrate an interest in science communications and community management, and once accepted they could pick from a list of tasks—curating and summarizing innovative plant science research, championing an online network, writing blog posts, or assisting with other Plantae products. At the end of their “term,” they receive a certificate of completion and a letter of recommendation, as well as additional visibility in the community. Often times the fellows go on to other volunteer activities with the organization. There are currently thirty-two Plantae fellows, a team of committed individuals critical to Plantae's success.

One of the unique elements of the Plantae strategy is that it is intended to leverage strategic partnerships with other overlapping science organizations. Because plant biology is a very broad discipline, there is a lot of value in cross-disciplinary collaborations and connections. There is no other platform available for this purpose, nor do most associations take this approach. Plantae is currently free to join for anyone in the plant sciences.

The target audience

  • Plant scientists, engineers, agricultural technologists, particularly early career
  • Plant science students
  • Plant science educators
  • Researchers in industry

The solution

The result of this strategy was the development of, a global online community for plant scientists where engagement revolves around high-quality content products like online seminars, a podcast, a career center for scientists, and other content products of value to the plant science community.

The goals for Plantae are to:

  1. Provide an online home and voice for the global plant science community and related peers;
  2. Increase ASPB's footprint and raise awareness and visibility for the organization;
  3. Increase engagement with the organization and long-term loyalty to the ASPB brand; and
  4. Leverage Plantae as a channel to deliver monetizable products, programs, and services.

The strategy is simple: An engaged community is more likely to purchase products, programs, and services.

If we engage the community and build relationships through consistently providing value, we will generate loyal customers. Value is provided through research and information products, learning opportunities, career tools and resources—all delivered through Plantae.

The cycle looks something like this:

  1. Organize the community structure to encourage collaboration and discussion around specific topic areas and user types.
  2. Engage the community by promoting interaction around distinct content types, particularly those with time-limited boundaries (e.g., seminars).
  3. Activate word-of-mouth growth, with existing users inviting new users to join these activities.
  4.  Build relationships with the community by getting the most active users and groups more directly involved in growth strategy.
  5. Develop and deliver valuable tools, content, resources, and experiences with input from the community.
  6. Monetize (sell) high-value tools, content, resources, and experiences as products to the community.
  7. Sell sponsorships to corporate partners seeking access to specific audiences and/or specific topic areas.
  8. Develop new and/or improve existing products over time, based on customer behavior and feedback.
  9. Establish strategic partnerships with other related organizations to use Plantae in similar ways, develop revenue and cost-sharing agreements.

The key to this strategy starts with engagement and participation because these are critical to relevance. Without relevance, it will be difficult to attract customers to products and services. It would also be difficult to attract sponsors and strategic partners. Engagement in online communities comes in many forms and can be measured in various ways through the platform’s metrics. Each type of action can have a low (not visible except through analytics), medium (responsive) or high (creative) “weight” to it, and a combination of all types of engagement is critical for success.

The solution deployment

To support the Plantae initiative, the decision was made to make substantial improvements to ASPB’s internal data and technology infrastructure that included the development of a comprehensive data strategy, a CRM system, a job board platform, and a CMS. ASPB initially engaged with an online community platform as well as some system integration services that did not end up meeting their needs. In 2017, the online community platform transitioned to the current platform, Breezio. Breezio is a new platform that has emerged from the scientific sector and is built around live and asynchronous collaboration between users and includes a "light" learning functionality. This functionality—which includes being able to comment inline on documents, see other people doing the same in real time, instantly launch chats and video chats with other users, participate in online classes, etc.—is beginning to create the basis for a robust community of engaged participants. The Plantae ecosystem now includes three platforms: a community platform, a blog/content site, and a job board.

Measures of success

The current iteration of the platform launched in June 2017, so we are only at the beginning of this journey, but we are tracking active users and engagement metrics. The real measure of success lies in the revenue from product sales and sponsorships, as well as continued increased engagement. The energy we put into the site is more about nurturing the community and listening to users’ needs instead of promoting and pushing out messaging about what’s on offer. While Plantae is live, active, and accessible, currently, we have not yet “launched” it in a big promotional way. We are still in the stage of seeding the site with content, organically growing the community, developing strategic partnerships, and offering a foundation for plant science-related groups and organizations to use.

  • About the Author:Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…

    Full Bio | More from Alex Parkinson


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