ICAEW - over 3 years experience in online communities

The Institute of Chartered Accounts of England and Wales (ICAEW)  is well known as one of the UK's "Superbrands"  - a professional membership organisation with over 136,000 chartered accountants worldwide. Through its technical knowledge, skills and expertise, it provides leadership to the global accountancy and finance profession. At the end of 2007 ICAEW decided that it wanted to provide an online community facility which would support its members with content and discussions for the various regions, special interest groups and faculties.  Unlike many organisations they were early in recognizing the shift from traditional broadcast media and marketing to the new approach of engagement and having a direct conversation with their customers, partners and members using social media.   Although it has a large in-house IT department, it decided to take a web-based SaaS approach using WordFrame implemented and supported by D2C.  John Pearce, ICAEW's head of digital communications, says,

"At the start we were piloting a new concept for us and we weren't sure how successful or quickly it would be adopted by the members.  The SaaS and cloud computing approach meant that we could do a rapid pilot, focus on the community objectives rather than technical or capacity issues, and then scale up as the members came on board.  After 6 months it was already exceeding expectations."

Now that the online community has been running successfully for over three years John knows that they are engaged with members that didn't usually speak to the Institute or get involved before.

Using WordFrame to build community  
The community is designed to be a place for ICAEW members and interested members of the public to debate, learn and develop understanding on topical issues in the accounting and financial industry.  Site visitors and members learn about what the ICAEW is doing and for them, comment and contribute ideas.  They can start their own discussions or contribute to the burning topic of the day  The community is organised in  to groups which can be private to the members or open to the public.  Each one has a forum area for questions, a blog for longer posts, and the ability to connect to other members in a social network.  There are groups for:
  • Tax News
  • IT Counts - covering the latest IT issues and ideas
  • Careers
  • Student Community
  • Talk Accountancy - for accountant issues in business and practice
  • Talk Charity
  • Moorgate Place - the blog from CEO Michael Izza on topical issues
  • Tourism and Hospitality
  • Talk Insolvency
  • Financial Reporting Faculty

The story so far
ICAEW recognize that a steady flow of good content is one of the keys to the success of any online community.  They have seeded the conversations with high quality material from subject experts, writers and bloggers and take care with the regular contributors   They've made use of related Twitter feeds to promote the community content, and to spark external conversations around key topics, and then highlighted and summarised those exchanges back inside the community.  In terms of the structure of the site, John explains:

"We've slowly developed and improved the design and functionality of the community site over time.  Some of that has been the flexibility of the platform and some of that has been specific developments we asked for.   We're delighted with the support we've had from D2C and the responsiveness of the WordFrame development team."

John recognizes with hindsight that he might have done some things differently.  They might have invested more in content or community management.  More importantly, most of the groups were private at the start because ICAEW were trying something new and some of John's colleagues weren't comfortable with the potential risks. Now they see that a more transparent and open approach works, providing you have the proper controls and monitoring in place.    Even the charities group is now open to the public.  John went on:

"The cultural shift internally has been slower than I would have liked, but over the last couple of years things have moved fast.  Even after three years we are still only at the beginning.  It's important to continue what we are doing as the community is only going to get bigger and more strategic.  We're very glad we started when we did."