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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.

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.

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.

Can Small Online Communities Survive

19 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Conference Compression Factor

20 Mar

There’s a lot of attention these days focused on improving the conference experience. The widespread availability of all types of information on the internet has eliminated the advantage that conferences once had as the prime sources of specialized content. And the rise of social media has created numerous other venues for professional networking. On the whole, I would say that these competitive pressures are healthy. They are forcing associations to devote a lot of effort to improving the outcomes that conferences deliver. Take a look at Jeff Hurt’s blog for a wide variety of ideas on improving conferences.

Sometimes though, the urge to increase value leads to an attempt to increase the quantity of information delivered. I call this the conference compression factor; more sessions, more speakers, shorter time slots, and anything else that can help squeeze things in. Not only is this not helpful, it’s not necessary either. Conferences are typically 2 or 3 days long. That represents less than 1% of your attendees time during a year. What are they doing for the other 99%? Are there no opportunities for learning or networking on an ongoing basis?

Of course there are. In fact, the same technological trends that have put pressure on associations to improve conference experiences can be harnessed by the association to provide educational and social opportunities year round. I think that warrants the same degree of focus and effort that is currently being applied to conferences. This is yet another instance of the “blended socialization” that I’ve raised in other blog posts.

What does this mean in real terms for associations? Many associations have Facebook pages already, or participate regularly on Twitter. But my intuition is that these platforms don’t really have the right set of features to sustain an online community focused on the collaborative development of knowledge and ongoing professional development. Almost all of the public social media platforms are geared towards more ephemeral interactions; what is happening now, what is interesting today. They’re a great way to share news and updates. But have you ever tried to work collaboratively on a document in either system? They’re just not built for it.

Obviously I am biased. I work at a company that develops an online community platform designed specifically for associations. But I really do believe that the traditional strengths of associations mesh perfectly with the capabilities that online communities provide. I see an online community as a powerful way to deliver value to members, potentially even more valuable than an association’s annual conference. So, while I encourage association leaders to continue to strive for the best in their conferences, I encourage you to consider what your members are doing during the rest of the year and how you can strive to make the best of that as well.

Online Community – Who Cares!

15 Mar

Associations care deeply about member engagement. Particularly with the advent of social media, I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that lack of member engagement is the death knoll for an association. But I often meet with associations who have very little interest in developing a rich online community for their members. I find this puzzling because in my experience, both personally and professionally, those types of communities drive a very high level of engagement.

Why this dichotomy? Three possible reasons came to mind relatively quickly:

#1 – Bad Experience. If you’ve every participated in a dead or dying community, you can quickly get the feeling that online communities don’t work. If you happen to harbour any suspicions about whether people really are willing to interact in meaningful ways online, then this sort of experience will definitely confirm them. Or you might have spent some time looking in on a community that did not match your own interests, and come to the conclusion that there just wasn’t anything of value to be gained from participation.

Communities are like music. Pick any particular genre, and you’ll find people who think it’s “crap” and other who just can’t get enough. Some forms are more popular in general, and some music really is so bad that almost no one will listen to it. But just one amazing experience; music that somehow manages to bring joy to your soul, is enough to offset the bad. Communities are like that. Once you have experienced one which “works,” you will always seek out those experiences in the future.

#2 – Lack of Experience. If you’ve never actually participated in an online community, it really can be hard to understand what the fuss is all about. I think it is fairly natural to be a little suspicious that human interaction can be squeezed down an ethernet cable. It can be difficult to imagine the richness of experience that is possible in online environments. And the current social media platforms that most people are familiar with (Facebook, Twitter) have a reputation for supporting interactions that are superficial in nature. You’ve probably heard someone say they don’t use Twitter because they’re not interested in what other people were having for lunch. In an association context, we have a strong desire for our communities to support more meaningful interactions than that.

To quote Jimi Hendrix: “Are you experienced?” If you haven’t had the opportunity to participate in a healthy online community, you really should try it out. My own experience is that communities of like-minded professionals can be incredibly valuable. If you get it right, an online community for your association can be the centerpiece of your organization. It becomes the embodiment of what your association really is: a collection of like-minded individuals who come together for their mutual benefit.

#3 – Too Much Experience. The notion that you have “learned too much” about something doesn’t actually seem to make sense. But it’s possible to have experienced a number of online communities and formed the impression that they’re roughly all the same because there are common elements that are present in almost all online communities. There is a tendency to assume that an online community is just a place where more or less unstructured discussions happen. And it can be hard to envision how that sort of interaction is going to lead to the sort of engagement that you want with and among your members.

While discussion does form the backbone of virtually all online communities, there is a much greater variety of activity that is possible. For example, I have seen online communities that included activities such as: virtual book clubs, Q&A sessions with acknlowledged experts, informal training, mentoring, and collaboration on producing reports, articles, policies, etc. Those sorts of activities strike me at least, as aligning closely with the core mission of most associations.

To wrap up, there are a lot of reasons why an online community might not seem like a particular priority for your association. But I hope I have given you a sense of why it might be worth looking into. As I mentioned above, I think that associations are primarily about “community” by their very nature, and so the potential value that an online community brings can be substantial.