Archive by Author

Calling All Association Community Managers!

29 May

In a recent blog post, Maggie McGary notes recent statistics showing that 31% of associations have private online communities, but she rarely encounters people who refer to themselves as community managers for their association. This definitely aligns with my own experience in trying to connect with association community managers in social media. There are various places where association folks hang out, like the association Twitter chat (#assnchat Tuesdays @ 2 pm Eastern) and the community manager Twitter chat (#cmgrchat Wednesdays @ 2 pm Eastern). There are also a number of influential blogs written by association professionals (e.g. Lowell Mathew’s blog, Ben Martin’s blog) where the association community can be found.

But I just haven’t found the places where association staff discuss the day to day issues that come up in managing an online community for their members. When I tune into #cmgrchat, for example, a lot of the discussion is centered around brand-oriented communities. While some of the situations, tips, and techniques from those communities are relevant, there are characteristics of association online communities that are unique to the association context, and there are issues that I see coming up over and over again that simply aren’t addressed in conversations about B2C communities.

Perhaps this is because community management isn’t really happening for all those private online communities run by associations. I certainly hope that is not the case, because it wouldn’t bode well for their longevity. Any online community that is going to survive needs management from time to time. Whether that is bringing interesting content to the community, helping recruit new members, or moderating conflict in the community, at some point the community will stumble and need some assistance.

Perhaps association staff who support their organization’s online community don’t see themselves as community managers. That would be unfortunate because I think that collectively they have a lot to offer each other. As I mentioned above, I think that managing an association’s online community has a number of challenges that are unique to the association space.

In order to try and help out on this front, AssociCom has been running a community for association community managers for a couple of years. Up until now, it has operated mostly as a content repository for interesting white papers, articles, and blogs oriented to association community management. Most of the content has been curated by myself and my colleagues at AssociCom. This week, however, we’ve upgraded the site and it now has a forums area which we would love to see become a locus of activity and support for association community managers.

So, if you are involved in working with association’s online community, even if you don’t think of yourself as a community manager, please have a look. I believe that everyone involved in association online communities has something to share, and I hope that we’ll be able to capture that.

Starting and Growing a Small Online Community

23 May

Today I was interviewing Eliese Watson, the founder of Apiaries and Bees for Communities, about her experience in launching and growing an online community. Her online community got started about a year ago with about 50 users and has since grown to about 200. I’ve written a separate post about the typical types of activities on her site, but suffice it to say that the community is quite active.

Two things came up in the interview that I thought were significant. The first relates to what motivated her to create the online community, and the second concerns how the community has had to evolve over time. With regard to the launch of the community, in some sense it was driven by necessity. Apiaries and Bees for Communities is a membership organization with a strong history of face to face activities such as meetings, mentoring, and hands-on demonstrations. Eliese found that she was acting as the conduit for a lot of information flowing between the members. In some sense it was almost obvious that she needed to have some way for members to interact directly with each other. An online community for her members was the solution.

Because the online community was solving a problem that her members had; that is, the need to coordinate with one another and to share information, it was quite successful from the start. Given the challenges that we sometimes see in getting online communities established, I think this is significant. Just because you have a membership organization doesn’t mean that an online community for those members will naturally succeed. There has to be some problem that the community addresses that will make members take the time to visit and participate. Eliese knew that her online community would succeed because she knew from first hand experience that members needed to communicate with one another.

The second point that came up in the interview that I thought was interesting was how the community has evolved. As the online community grew and became more visible, it started to attract a wider audience and a wider range of opinions. The level of activity on the site increased, and some of that activity was not at the level of civility that Eliese wanted. Because of the level of activity and also because some of the harsh commentary was directed at Eliese herself, it was challenging for her to moderate. Eliese responded in a way that not only helped restore civil discourse, but also contributed to the growth and ongoing health of her community. She reached out to some of the more active and respected community members and asked them to come on board as community moderators. By allowing members of the community itself to step forward and take on leadership roles, Eliese has not only eased her workload, but she has helped create a stronger sense of collective ownership of the community, which I think will serve it well as it grows.

Eliese’s experience shows that small online communities can indeed thrive, but it takes planning and it takes the courage to allow the community to evolve over time.

A Day in the Life of a Small Online Community

14 May

I’ve written a couple of other blog posts recently about small online communities and why I think they are both valuable and interesting. Today I want to give you a more visceral sense of what it’s like to participate in a small online community. Although I’ve called this “A Day in the the Life” it’s actually more like a week or so, and I also want to talk a bit about the evolution of this community over time.

The community in question is, like many small communities, dedicated to a fairly specific topic; in this case beekeeping in a community setting. The online community has been running for a couple of years now, and has recently seen some strong growth. Since January of 2012, the site has grown by about 50 members, and is now nearing 200 in total. During an average week about 20% of the total membership visits the site, and there are about 12 contributions of new material to the site, which includes, comments, announcements, documents, etc. Activity levels can be quite variable however, with some weeks having almost no new material and other weeks with a flurry of activity.

What does this activity typically look like? As noted in my previous blog, the vast majority of the activity on the site is discussions. The discussions, unsurprisingly, are typically focused on the details of beekeeping. For example, recent discussions have included queries about where to obtain specific pieces of equipment, offers of equipment for sales, and details about how certain regulations are applied. However, there are also discussions that bridge the gap between the online community and the face-to-face one, such as organizing a potluck dinner that will be combined with some a training session.

Interestingly, the site’s members also make fairly significant use of direct member-to-member messaging. This facility is rather like email, but makes it easy to refer to content from the site in the message being sent. In fact, the total number of these private messages exchanged is roughly equal to the number of discussion postings. So, even in small online communities, personal networking is a significant factor.

About 15% of the contributions to the site are not discussions, but either documents or shared links. For example, a new set of the government’s beekeeping regulations were recently uploaded to the site. While not the focus of the community, this type of social curation does help build up a body of knowledge that is useful to the community. Many of the documents on the site have been viewed 200 to 300 times, which is quite significant given the size of the community.

I’d be very interested to hear from others about their experiences with small online communities. If you belong to or know of any small online communities that are unique or interesting in some way, please share them with us.

Engage Members by Getting Out of the Way

7 May

Everybody wants engagement. Engagement is a good thing. The trouble is, I’m not sure that we all agree on what engagement is. This means we sometimes work at cross purposes in trying to achieve engagement, and can fail to achieve anything.

When I ask most association executives what they mean by engagement, roughly what I hear is that it means members are paying attention to what the association has to say and are actively providing some sort of feedback about it. This seems perfectly reasonable. After all, why would anyone argue against providing information to your members and soliciting their feedback.

And, in fact, I won’t argue against it. What I will argue, however, is that engagement is not just about the interactions between the association and its members. In fact, I don’t even think it is mostly about association/member interactions. It is primarily about your members interacting with each other.

Why is this the right focus for engagement? Because the fundamental reason for the existence of associations is the need for peers in a field, profession, or market niche to come together and benefit from each others experience, knowledge, connections, and opportunities. The members of your association belong not because they want to interact with the association, but because they want to engage with each other. The fundamental goal of the association is to serve that need.

So, when you are thinking about trying to increase the level of engagement at your association, start with considering what would most effectively bring members together to discuss or debate an issue, or how you can create contexts in which members feel drawn to share their experience and knowledge with others. Find the members of your community who can reach out and bring others into the conversation. Your job is to lay the foundations for interaction, and then get out of the way, and let the members create what they need.

Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom – The Hierarchy of Learning

2 May

The internet has profoundly changed the manner in which information is created, published, and disseminated. For virtually every topic imaginable, you can do an internet search and come up with not just one or a few relevant items, but a veritable cornucopia of opinions, guides, tutorials, examples, and even further questions. Sometimes you find just what you need and you’re off to accomplish whatever brought you to the web in the first place. But I’m sure you’ve also had the experience of coming away from such a session with more questions than you arrived with; different questions, often questions reflecting a deeper understanding, but more of them nonetheless.

At this point in its evolution, the internet is very good at delivering information, but not as good at delivering knowledge. Knowledge is information that is both filtered and modified by context and experience. For example, I can easily go and search for information on how to insert an image into a Word document, but there are a number of ways to do this, and knowing which is most appropriate depends on a fair amount of contextual information about the type of document you’re working on, how the image is related to adjacent text, whether you need a caption, whether you want that caption to appear in a list of figures, etc. Experience with placing images in Word documents is what enables one to know what questions to ask in order to clarify the context in a way that actually leads to a solution.

This is just one example, but I imagine that you have had similar experiences yourself. You search around on the web for the answer to some question, you find various answers, and you experiment with them until you find something that actually solves the particular problem that you had. It’s not that the internet wasn’t useful; it was incredibly useful in providing potential solutions, but you still needed to learn how to apply that information to your specific situation.

This leads me to postulate that knowledge = information + context specific experience. I’ll even push on this idea a bit more, and postulate that wisdom = knowledge + global experience. What I mean by this, is that knowledge is about being able to assess the details of the situation you are in and come up with a solution. Wisdom is being able to look at not just the details of the situation you are in, but the wider scope of the various factors that led to that situation and being able to consider alternatives. To return to the example of embedding images in a Word document, wisdom would involve asking questions like what goal you are seeking to achieve through the document you are producing, and considering whether there are other tools (e.g PowerPoint) or even other approaches (e.g. screen capture) to achieving that same goal.

So, in the internet age, how do we move from simply finding information, to acquiring knowledge and even wisdom? Social media and online communities are excellent vehicles for this process. They provide us with a way of connecting to other people who have related experiences, and they give us the opportunity to share our experiences and learn from theirs. In particular, I think that smaller online communities related to associations, trades, or groups can be especially powerful in this way because the participants have enough of a common context to be able to quickly understand the problems/experience that others bring to the table. These communities effectively become informal communities of practice that can be highly effective at helping members move from information, to knowledge and wisdom.

Discussion: The Heart of Small Online Communities

24 Apr

The notion that discussion is the foundation of community is not a new one. In fact, it’s fairly consistent theme with the some of the most influential bloggers dealing with community management, including Richard Millington over at FeverBee and Patrick O’Keefe at iFroggy. Despite the fact that it’s a topic that has been written about extensively, it’s  important enough that I think it’s excusable to be repetitious.

Beyond that, however, I think it is incredibly important for small online communities. Much of the excitement and attention in community management these days is focused on brand-related communities and particularly the B2C space. There’s a lot of discussion about user generated photos, art, and video. There’s a lot of excitement about contests and gamification. And there’s plenty of advice and strategy around content generation and planning. But as someone whose primary focus is on smaller online communities, and specifically communities run by associations or clubs, I often feel that much of this is not relevant, or at least is not where the primary focus should be.

The communities that I am most interested are more about sharing information and learning from one another. Discussion is clearly the most important type of interaction in this environment, but even I sometimes overlook it. At AssociCom, we think think we have some pretty good tools for content aggregation and social curation. These are necessary tools if you have a community in which information sharing is going to be a significant activity. So when describing AssociCom to people we often put a lot of focus on these. However, we sometimes fail to point out that even for information sharing, it is generally not the sharing itself that makes the community vibrant, but the discussions that spring up around that information. And this really is reflected in the way that we built it because content items actually serve as the locus for discussions; we just sometimes forget to point out to people how significant that is.

Coming back around to what this all means for small communities, I think the greatest challenge that small communities face is getting started. I’ve seen my share of small communities that were founded with the best of intentions and enthusiasm, but which have struggled and sometimes simply faded away. If you are thinking about creating an online community for your association, group, or club, you need to be able to answer these questions:

  • What sort of topics are going to be discussed?
  • Who is interested in discussing these topics? And the answer to this question needs to be specific people who you know are enthusiastic about those topics.
  • How am I going to get those specific people involved in the community and starting those discussions?
  • How am I going to make others aware of those discussions and encourage them to participate?

If you have good solid answers for these questions, I feel fairly confident that you can create an active online community that will be of tremendous value to your organization.

Can Small Online Communities Survive

19 Apr

In a world where behemoths like Facebook and Twitter dominate the social media landscape, I frequently run into the belief that small online communities are not viable. This is reflected to a certain degree in the 1-9-90 rule of contributors vs lurkers, which would seem to suggest that you need hundreds, if not thousands, of community members in order to have a handful of reliable contributors.

However, there are numerous examples of successful small communities. For example, Apiaries and Bees for Communities, based in Calgary Alberta, has a thriving online community consisting of about 175 members (and growing). In a recent blog post, Rich Millington of Feverbee (which is an excellent site for information and advice on managing online communities) talked about successful and unsuccessful hyperlocal communities, which by their very nature tend to be small.

So, small communities can be successful, but they can also be challenging. It’s important to recognize that the 1-9-90 rule is really about averages, not about individual human behaviour. In fact, a report from IBM, looks at the factors that affect an individual’s likelihood to contribute and how that evolves over time. What’s most interesting to me from this study is that a person’s greatest rate of contribution tends to be right when they join the community. This is the opposite of many people’s intuition that members often lurk at first and then slowly begin to participate. Another conclusion from the report falls into the “Doh!” category; people tend to contribute to communities that involve topics they are interested in.

So what does this means for small communities? I believe, and this is certainly consistent many of the communities that I have been exposed to through working with them, that success is primarily a matter of who you can attract to your community. Rather than trying to pile on as many members as possible to achieve the mythical “critical mass,” you need to seek out those individuals who have a deep passion for what your community is about. And I believe that you need to approach them as individuals. Don’t use a form letter to invite them. Find out a bit more about who they are so that you can make it clear to them why they would be interested in your community. Bringing on just a handful of these passionate contributors can be the difference between success and failure. And because contributions do tend to drop off over time, this is not a one-time effort, but something that you need to build into the ongoing plan for the development of your community.

I want to close off by noting that the issue of small communities often comes up for associations who are thinking about building an online community. Associations actually have an advantage in this area because they have always had to deal with the issues of volunteer recruitment and management.  Taking advantage of those skills to bring “power contributors” into your community is surely a significant step on the path to success.

From Authority to Enabler

13 Apr

Association executives are often proud of the role that their association has played as a trusted source of information for their members. And rightly so because associations have developed finely tuned systems for producing excellent content. The trouble with this model of the association is that the internet is radically transforming not only how content is produced and disseminated, but perhaps even more fundamentally how trust is developed and maintained. In the age of social media and crowdsourcing, the notion of a trusted central authority is becoming, at best, quaint.

Does that mean that there is no longer a role for associations? I don’t think that is the case. But I do think that associations have to transition from being authorities to being enablers. This entails understanding what your members are trying to achieve or what they need, and determining if there are ways that you can facilitate that. Since that advice is sufficiently general as to approximate being useless, I thought I would provide some specific examples of what I mean by being an enabler.

  1. eLearning – Most associations have a strong history of helping their members to develop within their professions. If your association serves a profession with both broad and deep technical needs, then it is likely your members are looking for ways to learn new technologies or improve their skills in their area of expertise. For many professions, there will be online course providers who have developed the types of training that your members are looking for. You can be an eLearning enabler by seeking out these providers, licensing course materials, and aggregating them into a cohesive offering for your members. For an example of this, have a look at the ACM’s Professional Development Center.
  2. ePortfolios – For many professionals, the work that we do becomes the intellectual property of our employers. This can sometimes make it challenging for an individual to demonstrate their past achievements. For example, if I have made significant contributions to a particular software package, I would like to be able to show prospective employers that software, but in many cases I won’t be able to because of licensing restrictions. An association can be an enabler in this scenario by creating a trusted environment in which employees could showcase projects that they had worked on. The association would need to work directly with employers so that they would be willing to allow their products.projects to be showcased there.
  3. Mentoring – Another approach to continued professional development is through mentoring. An association can act as an enabler in this situation by creating the infrastructure that would collect information about potential mentors and mentees, assist with the matching process, and provide a forum tracking progress in the mentoring relationship. Additionally, the association could provide online tools for mentors to share best practices, useful documents, etc. Have a look at MentorNet for an example of how such a system might look.
  4. Best Practices – Whether it’s a task that is part of our day at work, or a problem that we’re trying to solve for a project that we’re working on at home, a lot of what people are looking for on the internet are ways to solve their problems. In particular, they are often looking for guidance about the best way to approach a problem or task. An association can act as an enabler in this context by providing an online platform for the exchange of information and the ongoing aggregation of best practices as identified by their members. For example, consider the knowledge base developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
  5. Local Meetings – Even in a world that seems dominated by the internet and social media, people still like to get together and discuss topics of mutual interest. Have a look at Meetup.com to see just how much of a driving force this remains — at the moment when this was written they were helping to organize 280,000 monthly meetings. And if Meetup.com does such a good job, what role is left for the association? Well, it turns out that there are still challenges in organizing a local meeting, and a significant one is simply finding space in which to hold a meeting. So, an association can act as an enabler in this circumstance by working with the community to build up a library of organizations/companies who have space that they are willing to allow to be used for professional meetings.

That’s just a few concrete examples. If you get to know your members and their needs, I’m sure that you’ll uncover many more. And this is where the future of your association lies — in helping your members achieve their goals. So start looking for those opportunities to be an enabler.

Why Email Isn’t Dead Yet

4 Apr

There’s been a lot of talk about the death of email. The general theme seems to be that young people don’t use email anymore, they just communicate through FaceBook or Twitter or some other social media tool. And while I agree that social media tools are in fact better for some types of social interactions, they won’t kill email. The reasons are two-fold: First, some interactions are inherently individual-to-individual and that is a mode of interaction that email supports completely naturally. Second, and more important, email software has evolved to be inherently user-centric. That is, email software is excellent at letting me do what I want with email, and letting me do it in a straightforward way. Here are three examples of this:

  1. Deletion – I just got a message from my the HR department. It’s full of the usual badly chosen metaphors and bland exhortations to seek excellence. They think this is important and, if it were left up to them, I’d continue to see it and absorb its profundities forever. But in the land of email, I’m in control. I can just delete that message and it need never trouble me again. Email lets me decide what is important.
  2. Organization – How I organize email is totally up to me. I’ve seen people who just leave everything in their inbox and depend heavily on the markup that indicates whether they have read a message or not. I like to create folder hierarchies, and file emails away into what I consider to be the “right” place. In GMail, you can create various tags and use them to help you structure email. GMail even has some heuristics built in to try and identify important emails. There are lots of different email clients out there, and they support a wide diversity of individual approaches to managing email. Email lets me organize things the way I want.
  3. Tasks – Most email clients make it easy to flag emails or turn them into tasks with reminder dates and various other features that help one priortize one’s day. I personally use my inbox as a task management system. As soon as I have finished with an email, I file it away somewhere (often the circular file). So all that’s left in my inbox is stuff that requires me to do something. You can tell how overloaded I am just by looking at how many items are in my inbox. As with organizing email, there are many email clients that support a variety of personal styles. Email lets me prioritize my activities the way I want.

I think these capabilities are significant. I haven’t seen any social media platform that gives me as much control as email does. Social media has its place. It’s excellent at supporting group communication. It works well as a way of highlighting new information and encouraging discussion. But it hasn’t killed email and it won’t until it delivers the sort of user-centric experience that email provides.

Conferences and Blended Learning

27 Mar

One of the most interesting results to come out of the early experimentation with online learning systems was that students performed best when the learning environment consists of both face-to-face and online components (e.g. Murray Goldberg’s initial work with the system that would become WebCT). Intuitively, this is because these different components allow students to approach the learning experience in a manner that is consistent with their own needs and learning styles.

What does this have to do with associations and their conferences? Well, one connection is completely obvious: The conferences that an association puts on are often the focus of the professional development activities of their members. That is, to a large extent conferences are learning experiences for attendees.

A lot of effort has been placed on improving the learning outcomes achieved at conferences. Presentations have shifted away from droning talking heads to more interactive experiences. But given the limited timespace in which a conference occurs, it’s essentially impossible to encompass the full range of learning contexts. This isn’t a drawback, it’s an opportunity.

The opportunity is to use the conference as the keystone event of an ongoing learning process that occurs throughout the year. To achieve this, one must follow the precepts of blended learning that I referred to at the start of this post, that is, provide both online and face-to-face interactions that keep professional development moving forward all the time. Here are some more concrete ideas that have proven effective in my experience:

  • Use online tools to help plan for and evaluate your conference. In particular, you can start to identify trends, new technologies, etc. that are of interest to your members, engage with them online about these, and then plan out your conference to focus on those areas that generate the most interest.
  • Use an online community platform to create book clubs that focus on new articles, blog posts, and books that have been referred to at your conference. Online community platforms make it easy to share information (such as blog posts) and provide an opportunity for everyone to get involved with the discussions since the interactions are not constrained to a single time or place.
  • Find members of your association who are passionate about particular topics and organize short lunch or after-work seminars for them to share their knowledge and experience. Passionate professionals are often deterred by the logistics of arranging such meetings, so having the association deal with that aspect will be appreciated all round. Try to find members whose interests relate to topics that were popular at your conference.
  • Set up a mentoring program with both online and face-to-face components. Either your AMS software, or an online community platform can serve to help organize both mentors and mentees, and assist in the matching process. Private online discussion areas can help foster mentor/mentee interactions, or can just help them organize times and places to meet in person.

These are just a few of the possibilities that exist.

Everyone who has ever been to a conference comes away with the feeling that there just wasn’t enough time to really dig into the most interesting material. Discussions get cut short, questions go unasked, activities don’t get the time they deserve. But it doesn’t need to end there. Pull those discussions, questions, and activities into an online environment in which they can thrive beyond the time and space boundaries of your conference. Blending the online and face-to-face experiences of your members will deliver better outcomes, just as blended learning does for students.

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