Archive | May, 2012

Calling All Association Community Managers!

29 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting and Growing a Small Online Community

23 May

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

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

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

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

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

A Day in the Life of a Small Online Community

14 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engage Members by Getting Out of the Way

7 May

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

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

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

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

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

Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom – The Hierarchy of Learning

2 May

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

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

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

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

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