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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.

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.

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.

Blended Association

8 Mar

Are you a blended association?

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

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

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

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

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

Blended Socialization

6 Mar

Murray Goldberg and I were participating in the #assnchat Twitter chat this week, which was all about “reinventing associations.” A lot of the conversation was centered around the impact that social media is having and will continue to have on associations. And while social media itself is a somewhat recent phenomenon, particularly with respect to the level of adoption that we’re seeing now, it springs from a more fundamental human desire to meet people, collaborate, and learn from each other.

The challenges that social media pose for associations are somewhat ironic — after all, associations came into being precisely because of the desires of like-minded individuals to come together, get to know one another, and share information. Of course, prior to the widespread adoption of computer-based communications, this meant that associations became very good at establishing and maintaining relationships primarily through face-to-face interactions. So, they became skilled at putting on conferences, setting up local chapters, bringing in speakers, etc.

Unfortunately, the hype associated with social media has tended to devalue the importance of face-to-face interactions. This situation reminded Murray of the way that technology adoption occurred in education. A very interesting result from the research Murray did into educational technologies is that the best learning outcomes occur with a combination of online and face-to-face learning, which is sometimes referred to as “blended learning.”

So, I think now is the time for associations to become the champions of “blended socialization.” Rather than abandon their strengths in face-to-face interactions, they need to extend and connect them with social media. Just as with learning, I am sure that the outcomes will be far better than what is achieved by social media alone.

Private Social Network: An Oxymoron?

12 Jan

There are a number of vendors out there (and AssociCom is one) who provide private social networking tools. Sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living, I get a puzzled look of the sort people get when you talk about something like bureaucratic efficiencies. If they’re feeling conversational, I might get a question like: “Isn’t social networking all about finding and connecting with people without regard for traditional boundaries or affiliations?”

In short, private social networking sounds like an oxymoron. The notion of private runs at odds with everything that is supposed to be good about social networking. So, why would ever use such a phrase?

The answer lies in the fact that social networking or even more broadly, social media , encompasses a variety of goals and behaviours. Some of these benefit from a very open community in which you want to maximize your exposure to different people and different sources of information. Others actually benefit from more closed communities. For example, a learning community focused on a particular profession benefits from a high level of specialized knowledge in its members.

So I think private social networking does make sense, and it’s definitely not a replacement for public social networking, that is, sites like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, even if you have access to a private social networking site, I’m sure that you will continue to interact on public social networking sites with people who share your work interests.

What then, is the value in an association creating a private social networking site for their members? There are three advantages that come to mind immediately:

  1. First, as noted above, your association’s private social networking site can bring together a set of people with highly specialized knowledge. This allows the technical aspects of discussions to operate at an elevated level because there is a presumption that the audience is familiar with the core components of the field. A set of experts discussing a particular topic is an incredible learning resource for others.
  2. Second, as befits the moniker private social networking, the discussions remain within the confines of the association. There is less need for concern about how it will be perceived by the general public; although of course, there is never any perfect guarantee of privacy, any more than with other information which is shared with the membership in general. Still, my experience is that discussions can be more open and frank.
  3. Third, a private community provides an excellent channel for getting feedback from your existing members. Since the community is composed, by definition, only of members of the association, you have a platform to interact very directly with them and get a much better sense of their needs and how the association could more effectively serve them.

Overall then, not only do I think private social networking makes sense, I think there are strong motivations for any association to make it a part of their overall strategy for communicating with and delivering value to their members.

Social Capital

5 Dec

The term social capital gained popular currency when Robert Putnam wrote his book Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The book is well researched and very pertinent to associations because it refers to networks of people and their value:

“Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a university education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so do social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups” [from Wikipedia]

Putnam looked at all types of political, civic, religious, professional and even informal social networks, groups and associations. He noted that professional associations  roughly doubled in size between 1945 and 1965 but then the twenty year boom suddenly slowed, halted, and in almost all cases reversed. Many associations continued to grow but effectively lost “market share” as the mean membership rate as a percentage of number of professionals in the field dropped after 1990.

At the end of the chapter “What Killed Civic Engagement? – Summing Up” Putnam said “Work, sprawl, TV, and generational change are all important parts of the story, but important elements in our mystery remain unsolved.” The book was widely read and it’s author was  consulted by Presidents and Prime Ministers.

But that was ten years ago before the explosion in virtual/online communities such as Facebook. Could virtual/online communities be the social networks that revitalize civic engagement and social capital? Some more recent studies: