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The Race for Online Presence

21 Feb

As content becomes more and more digital and moves into “the cloud” (my wife hates that buzzterm but I have nothing better right now), all sorts of organizations are trying various ways to establish their brand on the internet. Search engine optimization was a big business and as online purchasing grows being the top search engine find is crucial for those selling. However, not so much for those providing news and information . . . or for associations providing specialized information, networking opportunities, training and certification.

People do not join associations based on a Google search. They may find an association they are interested in and then ask colleagues about it but they are more likely to be introduced by those colleagues. Before the internet, new members were invited to a meeting or attended a trade show or conference. That is still true, but we can now add that they might read a blog posting or email.

How does an Association get and keep an online presence? A good looking web site can’t hurt, but people have to find it first and then keep coming back. What keeps them coming back? Good content, actually great content, because you are competing with professional content providers. How do you get great content? You can have your staff try and link to or republish what they find on the net or write original pieces but that is an expensive way to create content and you have to hope your staff know what your members want.

Who knows what members want? The members.

Socially Curated Content
Which is a fancy way of saying let your members post what they want to post. They can put up the latest web site they have found, the latest gossip/insider information/rumours they have heard, a recent report they read, a neat picture they just took, videos . . . whatever turns their crank. Then let your membership sort the wheat from the chaff. That is social curation. They will determine what is pertinent and interests them by collecting it in the community library, by discussing it, by asking questions about it . . . and the buzz ensues. If the community is set up so other members see/hear the buzz, they are attracted and the buzz gets bigger. Items which are not pertinent or of interest or generally not noteworthy are ignored and the gems are collected. By keeping track of who brought the gems to the community in the first place, thought leaders are identified. When questions are asked, the best answers can be rated and the best answer providers will be noted. To do this, you need a community with a library that allows members to discover content, connect with others, share within the community and features that enable reputation ratings, relationship browsing, collecting library items and generally fostering a dynamic community.

Association 2.0 – Establish your Social Capital
The result of social curation is social capital. Well, actually social curation identifies the information gems, the gems are what attracts members and gets them to engage with one another, form groups, collaborate on projects, likely eventually meet face to face at a conference or meeting and enables the formation of relationships. The relationships are the social capital. Relationships are the glue of associations and from a members perspective brings benefits as small as a friendship or as large as a new job . . . or perhaps it is the other way around.

Who Will Get There First?
The fact that many of the public communities are failing to engage your members likely has to do with what the were designed to do. A Facebook group for a professional association is not likely to engage members; it was designed for college students to socialize and despite subsequent additions/changes is still primarily social. However there are large public sites like LinkedIn that could eat your lunch in the long run if your members decide that they like to congregate virtually there rather than with your association.

Start Your Community Now Before Someone Else Does
The most important thing to do is start and start now. There are small communities popping up all over the net. Start now, start small and grow your social capital. After all it’s almost springtime.

Don’t Bug Me – I’m Busy

19 Feb

Why would a busy senior executive engage with an online association community? For that matter why would anyone take the time?

  • Time Saving and Fewer Emails

Probably the biggest time saver is to have control over the information coming to you and being able to choose when you receive it, as well as what you receive. Wouldn’t it be lovely if all groups, associations, companies; in fact everybody, posted any communication that did not require an immediate reply and was not absolutely time sensitive on a site that could be searched. Then you could find what you need when you needed it without wading through copious emails with subject lines that do not reflect the content. You have quicker access to information and no searching through emails.

  • Problem Solving

Solving new problems or old problems with new solutions usually involves new information and ideas. If information and ideas are persistent and searchable then you have the ability to easily access information and ask questions. Having that information in your community that deals with your interests makes the search easier and increases the likelihood of coming across new ideas that pertain to your interests. It also makes it more likely to find a subject expert.

  • Networking

Networking has always been a prime benefit of associations and one of the most popular association activities . . . now online. Studies show email time spent is down and social media up.

When I was President of the Vancouver Chapter of a large association of engineers we had a huge problem trying to get engineers with young families out to meetings. It was not that they were not interested; they simply could not get away. Only the grey/no hairs would show because their families were all grown up. Also the further away a member lived, the less likely they were to attend events. An online community alleviates many of these issues and allows interested members to engage.

  • News

A well-designed community can strike a nice balance on the News – Gossip – Rumour continuum so that members feel safe enough to share the latest insider information without blasting out unsubstantiated and reckless rumours from behind some anonymous username. Members will watch those in the know and those with insights on current happenings that affect them. Finally, who wants yesterday’s news? Well designed communities allow members to choose immediate, daily or weekly updates for individual topic areas or groups that interest them.

  • Productivity/Effectiveness

The ability to easily collaborate and make things happen is productive and the ability to do that at any time asynchronously is effective. Many efforts, especially volunteer efforts, bog down because of the simple difficulty of arranging for busy people to get together.

  • Status

Members can improve their status in an online association community by contributing. Increasing your status outside your own company is difficult. However, some effort and time spent online within a professional association community will be noticed. A new person in the community can get known within the industry and can show off any specialized expertise. Perhaps there is a job for someone with specialized expertise and in any case it is nice to be appreciated by your peers. Some communities have reputation algorithms or star rating systems. AssociCom has both and you can choose what fits your association community.

  • Honesty and Trust

A study last year showed that 65% of professionals using peer to peer networks trusted them more than traditional news and information aggregators. Association online communities, handled properly, encourage honesty. AssociCom’s reputation, ranking, polling and flagging/adjudication systems enable community participation in a democratic fashion that both reduces staff time and assists administrative decision making by indicating how the community feels about specific issues.

  • Age

Many Association executives I have talked to think having an online community will attract their younger members who are used to communicating via social networks, but that that their older members will not use an online community. Right about younger members, wrong about older members. Your older members may surprise you. Retirees age 65 and older are the fastest-growing group of social networkers on sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

Social Networking is More Than Having a Good Time

13 Aug

Social networking is more than being social or having a good time. Social networks and online communities can be and to this point, are often about having a good time or staying in touch with friends and family. After all, Facebook, because it is so huge and so recognizable, has come in many people’s minds to define social networking. Another factor in the misperception of the meaning of social networking is that the word social often is used in a “having a good time” way; as in a social occasion. Actually though, the definition of social is “Of or relating to society or its organization”. Organizing society is a little more serious than having a good time.

Online communities have a serious purpose in communicating and educating. A recent study called “The Social Mind Research Project” shows that highly educated professionals who actively participate in social media networks, spend approximately 40% of their time online interacting in peer-peer communities. That is more than friends (31%) and family (13%). These professionals are leading the way. They are getting the information they need online in peer to peer communities.

Traditional media is giving way to socially curated online content from online experts. One of the reasons I joined AssociCom was that during my eLearning studies, it was becoming clear that professionals, in fact anyone with access to a computer, could engage in the tried and true, old fashioned strategy, when facing a new situation, challenge or problem, of simply asking someone that they know and trust. By going to the right community, anyone can ask or read the latest expert opinion online 24/7/365. The most largest online communities may now be social, but professional online communities specifically designed for support, discussions, reference and communication about specialized topics and interests are developing fast.

A further finding from the same study that may surprise you, is that nearly 80% of the online community participants, participate in online groups to help others by sharing information and experiences. This is a huge finding and I hope will reassure those that are having problems with getting engagement on their Facebook sites, that lack of participation does not necessarily mean lack of interest. It may be a lack of design features that allow people to share with colleagues such as persistent searchable information, privacy or focus.

Many large associations that can afford it have seen the writing on the wall and have started their own online communities. They vary in private/public openness and some are perhaps more portals to sell or renew association memberships, sell eLearning courses or order association materials than allow members to communicate and share information.

We will see more member oriented online communities that allow and encourage membership participation in their design as design is informed by experience and research. MIT published an excellent book “Building Successful Online Communities – Evidence-Based Social Design” that relates directly from sociology studies to design claims. My favorite approach is the study of Social Capital and online communities . . . but I have blogged about that before.

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.

Use Social Capital to Measure Social Media

26 Apr

It seems there is a rush to spend money on social media and therefore a need to justify social media expenditures by return on investment (ROI). Of course measurement is necessary, but please use the right measurement. ROI is not the right measurement for most social media efforts. Here is a post by Helen Reynolds that proposes measuring influence.

It seems that ROI is trotted out as an all-purpose measurement tool for anything. It has become a buzzword because businesses use it to calculate a stream of financial returns on an investment. ROI uses dollars and is simple to calculate. It is commonly used in MBA school for figuring returns on capital investments such as factory additions.

Social media is about networks, relationships, reputations, expertise, writing ability, influence and even humour. Dollars may enjoy common use but they are not the right measurement for social media. Let’s take a clue from the Social in Social Media and use a measurement from sociology rather than business. Ever since Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, there has been a great deal of research into social capital. Social capital is about connections within and between social networks.You can measure relationship strength, communication frequency, group ratings, perceived expertise and many other measures that are a much better than dollars and have a great deal more content validity.

Associations should be as concerned with measuring the social capital of their association as they are measuring their financial capital, perhaps more so because in the final analysis for an association, it is the social capital that creates the financial capital, not the other way around.

 

Blend and Extend Your Conference

26 Apr

Blend Your Conference

Blended eLearning is combining virtual with face to face learning. You can now create a blended conference by including virtual components with your face to face conference. Have a face to face conference and an eConference at the same time. Let members that can not attend in person, attend virtually. You could select the presentations that make sense to do online and offer exhibitors a virtual exhibit as well.

Extend Your Conference

Imagine the possibilities if you combined an online community with mobile communications to effectively extend your conference beyond that precious few days when attendees are face to face with presenters and exhibitors.

Attendees and Virtual Attendees could:

  • Before – set up vendor appointments
  • Before – ask a presenter a question
  • Before – see who else is planning to attend a presentation
  • Before – organize a round-table or attendee driven breakout session
  • After – review the Twitter feed for a session
  • After – connect with session attendees or a round-table interest group
  • After – ask a presenter a question they did not get a chance to ask at the conference
  • After – look forward to reconnecting at the next conference


Exhibitors could:

  • Before – announce new products and services they will be showing
  • Before – organize a contest
  • Before – find out who is planning to visit their booth
  • Before – find out what questions attendees want to ask
  • After – review the Twitter feeds for their booth hashtag
  • After – contact attendees that checked in to their booth
  • After – follow up on attendees questions
  • After – connect with key decision makers via the online community
  • After – look forward to signing up for next year’s conference


During Your Conference, Trade Show, Seminar or Event

Attendees will do what they have always done and meet face to face; but now they can make better use of their time and connect more easily. Virtual attendees will be able to attend online and connect with presenters, exhibitors and other attendees. Attendees and virtual attendees will be able to organize their time during the show and see what’s popular at the show in real time during the show for an improved, more effective and efficient show experience.

AssociCom plans to extend our online association communities to conferences with a mobile app specifically designed for use at conferences. We’re planning for a launch this summer. We are always interested in your thoughts and what features interest you so please comment below. Thanks.

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.

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