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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.

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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.

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.

Discussion: The Heart of Small Online Communities

24 Apr

The notion that discussion is the foundation of community is not a new one. In fact, it’s fairly consistent theme with the some of the most influential bloggers dealing with community management, including Richard Millington over at FeverBee and Patrick O’Keefe at iFroggy. Despite the fact that it’s a topic that has been written about extensively, it’s  important enough that I think it’s excusable to be repetitious.

Beyond that, however, I think it is incredibly important for small online communities. Much of the excitement and attention in community management these days is focused on brand-related communities and particularly the B2C space. There’s a lot of discussion about user generated photos, art, and video. There’s a lot of excitement about contests and gamification. And there’s plenty of advice and strategy around content generation and planning. But as someone whose primary focus is on smaller online communities, and specifically communities run by associations or clubs, I often feel that much of this is not relevant, or at least is not where the primary focus should be.

The communities that I am most interested are more about sharing information and learning from one another. Discussion is clearly the most important type of interaction in this environment, but even I sometimes overlook it. At AssociCom, we think think we have some pretty good tools for content aggregation and social curation. These are necessary tools if you have a community in which information sharing is going to be a significant activity. So when describing AssociCom to people we often put a lot of focus on these. However, we sometimes fail to point out that even for information sharing, it is generally not the sharing itself that makes the community vibrant, but the discussions that spring up around that information. And this really is reflected in the way that we built it because content items actually serve as the locus for discussions; we just sometimes forget to point out to people how significant that is.

Coming back around to what this all means for small communities, I think the greatest challenge that small communities face is getting started. I’ve seen my share of small communities that were founded with the best of intentions and enthusiasm, but which have struggled and sometimes simply faded away. If you are thinking about creating an online community for your association, group, or club, you need to be able to answer these questions:

  • What sort of topics are going to be discussed?
  • Who is interested in discussing these topics? And the answer to this question needs to be specific people who you know are enthusiastic about those topics.
  • How am I going to get those specific people involved in the community and starting those discussions?
  • How am I going to make others aware of those discussions and encourage them to participate?

If you have good solid answers for these questions, I feel fairly confident that you can create an active online community that will be of tremendous value to your organization.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

11 Oct
Terry checked in at the Granville Island Public Market. Terry just enjoyed a latte. Terry is listening to King Crimson.

So much of social media is about transient information: where I am right now, what am I doing right now, what am I reading right now.

Many social media tools follow this paradigm: streams of information, timelines, ephemeral posts. The here and the now; as close to real time as you can get. One might argue that this is because old information is useless information. Certainly the pace of change, both in technology and even the world in general, causes much information to be out of date, and therefore less useful.

And yet, this is not universally true. Some types of information remain valuable over much longer time periods (unlike the details of the lunch I enjoyed today, which I am less likely to tweet about, rest assured). For example, many professions strive to develop a “body of knowledge” that represents the foundations on which that profession is based, and with which all practitioners within that profession should be familiar.

The problem is, the speed with which this body of knowledge is shared is so fast, and the amount of data so great, that is impossible for any one person. There is a need to provide ways to capture, organize, and disseminate the valuable knowledge that is created each day.

One technique that can be applied here is social curation, that is, using the collective wisdom of people to help identify, capture, and organize content. Associations are a natural fit for social curation. Their members tend to be passionate about the association’s mission, and they often have specialized knowledge and experience. They frequently find interesting and useful material in doing their jobs from day to day. What they need is a convenient and seamless way to come together and share what they already have.