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For associations that are able to appropriately leverage their power, technology tools can strengthen the connection to members who use the tools. Connected, engaged members see the value in association membership and renew – and often recruit – membership year over year. Engaging members online goes beyond just having a certain number of “likes” on Facebook, or a set number of your Tweets re-Tweeted. Online discussions in which the members interact with each other and staff provide valuable ideas for conferences, content for publications, and generally useful feedback about what the association has to offer.
But user-generated content does not make the communications team’s job easier. An editor may gripe that it is easier to research and write an article than it is to pour through mounds and mounds of comments and posts to pull together a good piece, but the extra effort is always worth it. As an added bonus, readers are lured to the publication to see if their comments were used. There’s a lot of “want to” around social media in associations, but not a lot of strategy. Most take either the “diving in because the presenter at this conference said we absolutely must” approach.
As it relates to written content, the quality of discussion board and listserver comments is superior to the quality of social media comments. On discussion boards and listservers, comments are likely to be well-written, thought out responses to a real problem members are facing. There is a greater sense of genuine community-building, contrasted with the quick, lunchtime diversion posts on social media. While there probably will be more comments on social sites, these comments are not likely useful.
Social sites can, however, be a great benefit for data and images. For instance, photo sharing is increasingly popular, and members can often offer great photographs that might become into an article, stand alone photo, or accompany an article. Photo essays are also popular. Features such as “Your Year in Photos,” in which all of the entries are from members, can be fantastic additions to the association’s publication. Similarly, social media is an easy way to poll members, a way for them to express themselves with a click a radial button. Social media polling can be used to gather feedback on a particular subject, data for a chart, and so on.
When launching into the Web terrain, use the “sandbox theory” - it’s much better to go where everyone’s already playing than to venture out alone. If a majority of your membership is already on Facebook, posting discussion questions on LinkedIn may prove useless. However, if your membership largely uses Twitter or LinkedIn, then expending effort on Facebook is not the best use of your time and staff/volunteer resources.
One major benefit of fostering an active online community is that members will generally self-police and identify bad seeds. The notion that someone can say something negative about the association online is terrifying to reluctant CEOs, but what better PR than to have members swarm to defend your association and its benefits to one disgruntled poster? Take the time to seed discussions across platforms to boost response rates and reward people for responding. Keep in mind that member publications cannot be entirely member-driven; know how and when to best steer conversations.