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.

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.

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.

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.