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Member-Centric Associations

22 Mar

A member-centric association revolves around the individual member. It is after all, the member that most associations are pledged to serve. Obviously it is impossible by definition that an entire association revolves around each member but it is important, as much as possible, to make the member feel that way.

Associations must survive and often this imperative takes precedence. Practically speaking; the size of many associations, the staff/member ratio, the difficulty of determining member interests and that insidious idea that “I know what’s good for you” gets in the way of being member-centric.

Membership Data

Being member-centric assumes you know your members. What do you know about your members? Is member data self administered or staff administered? What member profile information do you keep? Is it current? Even more difficult; how do you determine member interests and how quickly can you track a shift in interest or spot a rising top of mind member issue.

A properly designed online community enables dynamic member-determined interests based on groups joined, library items collected, watched and viewed, comments, questions, polls and connections. You will have that information for those that are engaged with the community. Those are the people that are your trend-setters and thought leaders; so pay attention. Also, those are the folks that will lead your lurkers and semi-engaged members to increased engagement both by example and because their posts, comments and collections will induce responses, questions and replies.

Events, Conferences, Presenters, Exhibitors and Suppliers

Make sure to use your online community to extend your event or conference. Put up a member group for the conference, have groups for presenters and make the presenter the group owner. In the planning stages note what is going on in the community, ask what members would like on the agenda, run a poll. Allow presenters and exhibitors to join the community, form interest groups, answer questions and put their latest information in the library. This can all happen before the event and many groups will likely carry on after. The reputation system makes it easy to see who is bringing value to the community, labels allow suppliers to be identified, flagging allows the entire community to monitor posts and having your own private community means you control what goes on. Involving your members means you are member-centric and have a better chance of having an event members will relate to.

Association events are incorporating online webinars which is a good thing for those that cannot make meetings but there is nothing like being there and associations can use free or paid for event registration web sites (Eventbrite, Eventzilla, 123SignUp,) or put a PayPal button on the community home page to make it easy for members to register online for the annual conference or a local dinner meeting. Ease of member use is also member-centric.

Certification, eLearning

If you certify members or have an eLearning program you can use your online community as a learning resource. The library allows links to free and paid educational software. At the same time there will be growth of a socially curated body of knowledge for all members complete with links to other members, fellow students and thought leaders.

Continuing Education Tracking

Not only can your community be a learning resource; if your continuing education system does not track member qualifications and courses, or won’t talk to your membership database, you can use your member’s community profiles. They can be updated with courses passed, hours earned, grades and fields can be private or public. You could even use labels to identify members who have achieved a diploma or certification.

Email Marketing

Instead of irritating members with general purpose emails from staff that arrive in their inbox and can never be found again, it is much much better to use your online community. Members indicate their interests by the groups they join and staff can make announcements to those that are interested. Even better, your members can communicate with other members. The trusted responses/comments from colleagues will carry more weight with members. If you still feel it is necessary to mass message all members you can, but unless the message is pertinent to all, it is not very member-centric.

Awards Programs

Not only can you grant awards but you can label award winners so that all members will see them within the community. Then a particular member is the center of attention.

Publication Subscriptions

My personal feeling is that magazines are on their way out. Not completely, there will still be a hard core of folks that like their favourite magazine that they can curl up with; including me, but my association magazines as good as they are and as hard as they try to be relevant, suffer from the requirement that they have to be relevant to all members at the same time. My favourite magazines are specific to my personal interests.

There are better ways to communicate with your membership and more importantly for them to communicate with you. Also each member can choose how and when they get their information. That is member-centric.

Renewals, Donations, Purchases

A member-centric association will try to make membership renewals easy with online payment by credit card or PayPal. Donations and purchases can also be handled online. If you are very lucky, you will find there is a member that takes on a particular cause, or recommends a particular purchase. Again, member recommendations and the opinion of colleagues will carry much more weight that association exhortations.

Chapters, Committees

Each chapter and committee can have their own group with a group owner, logo, description, member list, comments, questions, announcements, polls and library items. Groups have everything they need to organize, communicate and collaborate. Group owners can make joining the group or adding items to the group library subject to approval and library items can be private to the group or public. Having chapters and committees run by members is not only member-centric but it allows engaged members to take a leadership position within the association.

There are likely hundreds of more ways that you can use an online community to make your association, guild, society or any other group more responsive to its member’s needs and interests. This is because your members can now express themselves; explicitly with comments and implicitly by what they watch, collect and join. They can do that without extra effort and while controlling their privacy. They will want to do that if their association is paying attention and being member-centric.

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.

Persistent versus Transient Information

9 Oct

Association Managers that are wondering why their members are not engaging on Facebook or any other online community that is primarily designed to be a social meeting place, may want to consider that online social communities are designed primarily for transient information and communication. Most do not deal well with persistent information because they were not designed for that.

Persistent information does not go away. It can be searched and collected. Think of a book in a searchable library that you can borrow from.

Transient information goes away after a short while, often because it is really only important at the time. Think of many Facebook comments on current news items or events.

Twitter, Facebook and other primarily social online communities are much like water cooler or coffee shop discussions on the latest sports score, recipe, vacation plans or whatever. The purpose of the software is to make it simple for people to express themselves with one click “likes” that are automatically shared with friends. These lightweight social exchanges are most often transient communication. They are not searchable and a couple of days later they run off the bottom of the page. Most people do not hesitate to engage with others when the topic is why the home team lost last night or what they think of the latest recipe craze.

Another aspect of transient communication is privacy and considered opinion. Most often, no one really minds these fast paced, multi party conversations being overheard. Also, there is not much thought or serious reflection in many bull sessions. That’s OK; we are social animals and this type of conversation satisfies many needs including getting to know people. We need to get to know people before we can trust them and we need to trust people before we deal with important issues or expose our innermost beliefs and value systems.

Once a level of trust is established, it makes it easier to discuss, comment on or question more serious topics. It is also easier to put yourself out there a little bit and make a personal pronouncement on something that is considered important or to share something that is valued with others. Comments that take more thought are correspondingly more valuable. Someone that puts themselves out there and poses a question that may expose a lack of knowledge is doing everyone a favour because if they don’t get it, they are likely not alone. The answer to that question likely has value to many.

Primary association benefits are networking and access to specialized information. Many online community platforms assist networking but what is needed for an association is one that is specifically designed to allow networking on a professional level and at the same time to store that persistent valuable information that the membership feels comfortable sharing with colleagues.

We can actually do even better than persistent information. Socially curated information is when you get an assist from colleagues as to what information is important. Think of perusing the books in the personal library of the thought leaders in your association. Then imagine that you can make notes in the margins without damaging the book, ask questions, make a comment or even set a poll that all the interested members in your association will see.

The Bottom Line

  • Members may not be interested in a purely social connection with their colleagues.
  • Association online communities benefit from specialized information that is persistent.
  • Encourage the creation and collection of socially curated information.

Be the Online “Go To” Place for Your Members

6 Sep

Ryan Holmes article in Fast Company was titled:

“The $1.3 Trillion Price Of Not Tweeting At Work”.

That got some attention! He was immediately assailed by Kevin Lenard of Toronto

who’s blog tag line is “a veteran of global ad agency networks cuts through today’s ‘social media’ hyperbole to explain why “Social Marketing” doesn’t exist and where the future of marketing and advertising is really going”

accusing him of social media hucksterism which in turn brought many supporters forward and the debate raged on . . .

Ryan used Twitter as the social media example because he started by pointing out only 20 of Fortune 500 CEO’s have Twitter accounts; however the article was really about social media in general. It seems many people still think that Social Media and Social Networking is about having a good time; perhaps because most people started using it for connecting with friends a la FaceBook but that’s another story.

One small thing I found interesting was this observation:

“Just cutting email out of the picture in favor of social sharing translates to a productivity windfall as more enterprise information becomes accessible and searchable, rather than locked up as ‘dark matter’ in inboxes.”

So simple, easily searchable information . . . how many hours have I spent trying to find a particular piece of information I remember reading somewhere in my email. It is hard for some to break the email habit for sharing information;  but it will happen because it makes sense and is more productive. McKinsey Global Institute found that productivity of interaction workers could be improved 20-25% through social technologies. They are spending 28% of their time reading and answering emails! When you add searching and gathering information, communicating and collaborating you are up to almost five hours of an eight hour day before they get to role specific tasks.

Providing software tools for your members that incorporate social technologies like an online community with a library like AssociCom, (there’s the plug) and moving away from using email is not really a radical shift for an association. It is no longer expensive either. So what is the hold up? Many associations, especially smaller ones with limited or no staff are so busy with ongoing problems of maintaining growth and in some cases surviving that they figure they can continue to do what they have been doing and simply add a Facebook account and maybe a LinkedIn group and they have the social media thing covered. Then they wonder why there are no posts on Facebook except from association staff and forums or groups are moribund. There are many reasons of course but one of the basic ones is that most people are more comfortable calling someone and talking one on one than speaking to an audience. Many of us have no problem emailing a person or a close group of friends but do not want to post our thoughts and opinions for the whole world to see. Using a public online community that is set up for keeping in touch or looking for work may not be enough to have your members discover, connect and share in a meaningful way. A more radical shift is required.

If you want a peek at some really radical association shifts and questions you can ask yourself that will challenge your association’s status quo; check out Jeff de Cagna’s Associations Unorthodox, Six Really Radical Shifts Towards the Future. (Thanks to Carol-Anne for that lead.) I like number four – Go All In on Digital (whoops, my bias is showing again.)

The Bottom Line

Argue all you want but:

  1. Networking and access to specialized information are core association benefits.
  2. Online communities make networking and specialized information more accessible.
  3. Associations must be the online “Go To” place for their members.

Sharing, Sharing, Sharing

16 Aug

I was a Scout leader many years ago when my kids were young. They are all grown up now but I still remember the Beaver motto – Sharing, Sharing, Sharing.

OK, you need a simple motto for 5-7 year old kids . . . but it is a powerful concept; especially if what you are talking about is sharing knowledge or expertise.

The rapid increase in the popularity of social networking and social media channels could have a huge effect on people, especially professionals and associations if people were generally willing to share their ideas and insights. I opened many a classroom training session with the statement “We all know more than any one of us” to encourage sharing and participation. Mentoring and apprenticeship have been fundamental and very effective forms of training and education since forever. Associations have a very powerful but often untapped asset in their members capabilities and expertise. Many associations have tried mentoring and even eMentoring with some success, but are people willing to share their knowledge online?

A recent study of 300 highly educated professionals who actively participate in social media networks called “The Social Mind” indicates that some are:

  • 80% participated in groups online to help others by sharing information ideas and experiences
  • they spent 40% of their time online interacting in peer-based communities

This is crucially important to associations. Senior staff of any professional association should take notice that motivated people are learning that they can have influence and can build a reputation beyond their workplaces in online communities of peers. In fact, all association staff need to realize the huge impact of social networking and how it may affect their jobs.

Forget the social in social networking; for associations it is mostly about networking. On a very simple level, people facing a problem, challenge or situation they are not familiar with have always looked for good information and someone they can go to that should know the answer. They could turn to a co-worker, colleague, boss, coach, supplier or anyone that is willing to help out or point them in the right direction. The first reaction is usually to ask someone close by but the advent of social networking on the internet means people are learning that experts and expert opinion can be accessed online.

Once your association or group starts to build an online body of knowledge that is seen by all, that has comments and questions associated with it, that every member can see who posted and what their reputation is, you have a constantly growing asset that is invaluable, especially to new members. And perhaps the best part, is that once started, this asset will grow without much staff time commitment provided you have systems that allow comments on posts and perhaps a flagging system that allows members to flag inaccurate or inappropriate items. AssociCom software even has an adjudication system that allows the membership to suggest actions and vote on flagged items. The administrators have the final say but the process is very democratic.

Despite Google’s best efforts pertinent information is often difficult to find. People need help to identify what is valuable. Being able to see what the high reputation experts are collecting and their comments on what others have collected is a form of social curation that is also very powerful and the subject of another blog here.

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.

Conference Technology

13 Apr

Conference attendees are getting more out of conferences with technology. Most conferences allow attendees to see online what presentations are available and what exhibitors are participating. At some larger conferences you can plan a schedule of what you want to attend. Exhibitors rent devices that scan attendee badges for lead collection. These technologies are intended to allow attendees and exhibitors to get the most out of their conference investment by an efficient use of time in meeting face to face, asking questions, getting answers and exchanging the latest information. Trying to maximize the benefits of  a conference can involve an exhausting few days for all concerned.

However, imagine the possibilities if you combined an online community with mobile communications to revitalize and effectively extend your conference beyond that precious face to face time. Attendees and exhibitors with their own web access device such as a smart phone, iPad or laptop could do the following before and after the conference and while attending in real time.

  • Plan which presentations to attend
  • Access  schedules on the fly
  • See who is planning to attend a presentation
  • Check in to presentations
  • See who else has checked in to the presentation room
  • Follow  the Twitter feed for the room
  • Communicate with interest groups, exhibitors and presentation attendees
  • See “What’s Hot”; the most popular presentations and exhibits
  • See what people are saying about presentations and exhibits via a Twitter feed
  • Organize an attendee driven round table discussion or break out session
  • See which people have checked in to your booth or exhibit without having to scan show badges


AssociCom plans to extend our online association communities to conferences with mobile conference. We are starting work on this application very soon and we are always interested in your thoughts and what features interest you so please comment below. Thanks.

Blended Association

8 Mar

Are you a blended association?

Murray Goldberg and Terry Coatta were participating an #assnchat Twitter chat about “reinventing associations” when Murray had a brain storm. Have you ever seen someone have an Aha! moment? Watch the sixty second clip here.

Kiki L’Italien was posing interesting questions about empowerment, speed of association change and actively reinventing associations on her Twitter chat. Murray and Terry were having a wide ranging discussion while watching the tweets come in. They were talking about association boards, associations being about relationships and how social media means that associations are no longer the sole custodians of relationships . . . when suddenly, it was almost as though a light bulb lit up over Murray’s head. He was struck by the parallel between the concept of blended learning which he is very familiar with, and what was happening with associations, and coined the term blended socialization.

Blended learning is when traditional face to face learning is combined with computer based eLearning. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but the interesting part is that when combined, the achievement of learning objectives is greater than either one done separately. The parallel for associations is that associations should be more effective at achieving their objectives by combining face to face and virtual relationships.

Blended socialization captures the idea that relationships are no longer just face to face and just as face to face and virtual learning bring complementary aspects to education; face to face and virtual relationships within an association can also complement one another. As Terry noted in the Blended Socialization post he wrote after the chat; the recent social media phenomenon has common cause with associations in that they both address the fundamental human desire to meet people, collaborate, and learn from each other. I noted in a previous post that association communications have evolved from meetings, through mail and magazines, to the age of moderation of online conversations, as most associations add social media to their communication mix. Associations should be able to achieve better engagement and better outcomes by adding an online component to member communications and enabling member to member relationships.

Achieving better outcomes, as always, will depend on planning, strategy and execution. Measuring the success of strategies however, will have to change. Now that communication is multi-directional, you can no longer rely on feedback metrics used for uni-directional communication such as readership. We will need some way of measuring success through engagement metrics that recognize many more bi-directional relationships. In future posts I will talk about how sociology and the concept and measurement of social capital can guide us. If you want a preview, have a look at some research on social capital and how it applies to associations in our library here.

Association Communication Evolution

15 Feb

Association communication has evolved over time as new technologies have become available. I call these eras – Meet, Mail, Magazine and Moderation.

Meet

A History of Associations identifies the earliest formal associations as medieval craft guilds and merchant trading groups. They communicated face to face because there were few other options.. The first scientific society the Academia Secretorum of Naples, was established in 1560 and the members met at Giambattista della Porta’s home. The Academy of the Mysteries of Nature was required by the Pope to close eighteen years later under suspicion of sorcery but the Royal Society of London which first met in 1660 has lasted a little longer. In 1662 it was first permitted to publish and it is still doing so.

Mail

Publishing technology allowed mass printing of documents. The availability of mail service enabled distribution. Members of associations no longer had to meet face to face to communicate. They could stay informed of association news and be part of the association without the need for travel. That in turn allowed associations to expand in size and geographical scope. Charles I of Great Britain established The Royal Mail in 1635 but it took a while to catch on. For the first two hundred years until 1840 it was considered expensive, confusing and corrupt. However, once established, it did allow most associations the capability of mass communication.  Many associations still use mass mail for raising funds and attracting members.

Magazine

The next step in association communication evolution was the magazine. Magazines were really a further development of printing technology but the reason I am calling it a milestone in the evolution of communications was the ability to advertize. Glossy, with pictures; magazines were a revenue producing mass media for larger associations. You did need a sufficiently large association and/or enough advertisers to be able to justify the editorial staff, pay writers and put out a magazine, but now there was a way to communicate that members considered a benefit of membership and magazines generated revenue.

Moderation

My fondness for alliteration leads me to name the new era of association communication “Moderation”. By moderation I mean moderation of online conversations. The term does capture the essence of the switch from top-down, one to many mass communication technologies such as publishing a magazine or newsletter, to the anyone can communicate, many to many communication possible with forums, wikis, blogs and online communities.

This is a fundamental switch but it is not an immediate switch. Just as mail and other communication technologies took time to be adopted so to it has taken time for people to have and use online access.

It is also not a complete switch. People will still meet face to face and some will meet virtually. People will still read their monthly newsletter or magazine and some will do so online. It is an additional channel of communication.

The bigger switch is in the culture of participation. We, of a certain age such as me, are used to being informed, not informing. That is why there is initially some reluctance to putting oneself out there by posting a comment or asking a question online. Many were initially a little reticent with Facebook, even when simply sharing vacation pictures or making some social comment on a favourite team or news item.

Making a comment about something important may take a little more courage. Private association communities where the comments are to colleagues feel a little safer but that will be the topic for another posting. Most important is that associations now have the tools to harness the power of the association’s biggest asset, its members and their knowledge. The new association communication credo may be “We know more than any of us.”

What is Next?

Associations are adopting the new communication technologies. For example, the Royal Society has adapted to the times. The 44 fellows (members) that are elected per year can be proposed for fellowship online via e-Lect.  Fellows no longer have to meet face to face; they can meet in the eFellow’s room. The Royal Society has also embraced other social media; anyone can respond to a Royal Society blog after logging in with Facebook or Google.

The challenge is to figure out what software tools to use to communicate and how to use them. Should you use public communities such as Facebook or have your own private community or both? That too will be the topic of a future blog.

This blog is available as a .pdf for download here.

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