Ben Martin has pointed out an interesting scenario for ASAE, who just canceled a small program that is highly valued by the few members who have participated in it. ASAE’s Prometheus program is an open space event for senior association execs that is purposely kept small in size. This is a great opportunity to facilitate the formation of self-guided group while moving an unprofitable program off the books. Will they see it as an opportunity or a pain in the neck? I hope the former. (Read Ben’s post for an excellent summary of the situation.)

Hello! My Name is Big Association!

Listen to Ben’s gut: Who are you in cyberspace?

Given my propensity for transparency in social media, and what I perceive to be a backlash against marketing in the social networking arena, I think I would advise that individuals who want to involve their organizations in social networking view their participation as something they do as an individual on behalf of their organization.

When representing your association at a conference, you dont introduce yourself as your association. Why would you do this in a social networking setting?

In other words, if you want to represent your association in MySpace or Second Life, sign up as yourself with your own name, age, sex, marital status and weave information on your association throughout your profile. Be an agent of the association, not the association itself.

I have absolutely nothing to base this on except gut instinct.

My gut agrees with Ben’s. Social networking online is about individuals interacting. Therefore, you or your advocates must interact with others as individuals by being genuine and reasonably articulate about why your organization matters and why others should care.

You should only talk about the organization a little bit as well (this applies more so to avatar-based simulations). You don’t want to be the life insurance sales person at a cocktail party who refuses  to talk about anything other than securing your family’s future.

When a Lawyer Designs Your Web Page

ASAE just posted the sign-up form for using their networking application for the Annual meeting in Boston this summer. This is a pretty cool little application from IntroNetworks that maps the social network of attendees, attempting to facilitate more contacts.

However. There is a rather unfriendly disclaimer posted above the join button, which includes this paragraph (emphasis added):

Attendee acknowledges through use of the System that ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership are not in the business of creating or managing online communities and it is the sole responsibility of the attendee to adhere to recommended terms of use provided by ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership.

Really? ASAE isn’t in the online community business? I don’t agree with that statement, so I guess I shouldn’t enter the network.

This is what happens when a lawyer, who is paid to play defense, is given too much sway over what goes onto your site. What a horrible message for any association to put in front their most committed and active members.

I would delete the entire statement and replace it with this: We are in the business of facilitating your member community. We welcome you to our network and encourage you to use it to maximize the value of your Annual meeting experience!

Update: Peter Hutchins from ASAE posted in the comments that they are working on updating the page and have removed the paragraph I mentioned as a first step. Thanks for listening and acting, Peter!

Why Virtual Community Failed

I was thinking today about how so much of the Web 2.0 hype centers around baking customer communities right into the product. Given that, why did all the virtual community services and consulting firms implode as the bubble burst on the dot com boom? Those companies were some of the first to go.

My guess is that most of those services were positioned as add-ons to existing endeavors. Sell widgets? You need a widget discussion board on your web site! Peripheral stuff was the first to be cut as budgets tightened and these slapped on communities were easy targets for cutting.

What seems different now is that it is about building customer/member participation right in from the start and making the communities that form an integral part of the whole system. With that approach, I think online community should be a more enduring feature even if the web takes another hit.

(Be sure to check out Ben Martin’s comments about forming vs. finding communities. I think he is right on the mark.)

Ben gets del.icio.us

Ben Martin on how he has used the del.icio.us social bookmark service with his association’s volunteers to replace the traditional resource guide authoring process:

So, who writes these resource guides? Well, in my experience the links are harvested by association staff and/or volunteers, who also compose short descriptions for the sites they collect. They then write up the guides in MS Word, hand them over to a webmaster, who codes it into HTML and uploads it to the Web site. Then, the resource guide gathers dust on a static page. Perhaps it gets updated next year. Perhaps not.

Friends, there is a better way!

I agree that traditional resource guides, as traditionally authored, are inevitably stale and not too useful by the time they are published. The key to the approach that Ben describes is to trust your members to collaborate without an editorial filter. Upside: current, relevant, member-driven conent! Downside: letting go of the illusion of control. Hmm, maybe that is an upside too…

Rolling Support Forums Into Customer Support Escalation

David Weinberger had an interesting experience with Logitech’s support forums:

I posted a question to the Logitech customer forum because my new MX1000 mouse seems to pull downward— I have trouble getting it to point precisely where I want it, so I’m doing a lot of mis-selecting. Today I received an auto-mail message from Logitech telling me that they’ve noticed that no one replied to my question, so they’re escalating it to a human Logitech support person.

What a wonderful idea. I always recommend to my clients that they have their staff engaged in any communities that they host (which derives directly from David’s writing in Cluetrain Manifesto). Auto escalating posts that have no response in x amount of time is a brilliant idea. It gives the community time to serve itself and then makes sure they get a response from staff if the community is unable or willing to address the question.

Very simple but it makes sure the person who posted the question feels like someone is listening, which is a very powerful experience (as is the opposite if no one replies).

Well for Sale, Comes with Free Bucket

I’ve been a member of The Well for about 6 years (whoa, time flies). I was a bit surprised to see that Salon is going to sell it off. Here is the stated reason for the sale:

Hambrecht said that Salon intends to shift from something akin to a print magazine with articles posted online to a more interactive Web site. “Salon would like to focus on our base brand rather than divert our attention,” she said.

So, they want to be more interactive and their first step is to sell off their community service. Interesting move. Not logical, but interesting. I would guess the real reason is that they are tired of dealing with all the cranky members who have been starved for any attention from the corporate parent. I haven’t checked in to the Well for a few days since I was traveling. I’m sure there are about 5,000 posts to catch up on this already.

Association Entrepreneurship

Kevin Holland is continuing a thread of discussion he started a while back about how associations can easily be disrupted by a start-up who uses newly cheap relationship-facilitating technology to do better what you used to need a national infrastructure to do.

The tools available to associations now — open source! affordable! surprisingly powerful! — are overwhelming compared to the options we had ten (or five) years ago. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many are actually taking advantage of them. I still see a lot of associations who think of technology as “the database” (and maybe “the website”) being run by “membership” or “IT.”

What a dangerous error and huge lost opportunity. You wanna compete in a world where anybody can raise $100k and start competing with you, then realize that it’s not about managing data. It’s not even about managing relationships. It’s about being managed by relationships.

I totally agree with his premise. And I don’t think it would take $100k in most cases either. In fact, this very topic will form the basis of a scenario I am preparing for a session at the ASAE Annual Meeting next month. The session is titled “Missing Conversations” and is scheduled for Saturday August 13 at 3:30 p.m.

A related idea I came across recently was an essay by Paul Graham called Hiring is Obsolete. He says that the best way to get hired at big internet companies these days is to create your own start-up and prove the value of your ideas. If you have good ideas and can execute then you have a good shot at being acquired by an existing company. Bingo: dream job and a nice nest egg.

Associations can do the same thing with self-forming groups or competing organizations: Identify the highest energy groups out there and recruit them into your association. ASAE has done this to a certain extent with the GWSAE merger and talks with the Northern California SAE.

One benefit of that approach for the organization is that it pre-qualifies new membership segments/communities that can be brought into the fold. It may also identify a market for a new or exiting product that the association would never have figured out on its own. It basically solves the issues of large organization’s inherent inertia that dampens innovation. (See also the Innovators Solution for more on that theme.)

So what might this look like in action? A simple one is to hop onto Yahoo Groups and look for active groups with a related topic. Join the conversation as a peer (not as the National Mothership Who Knows Best). Offer meeting space to the group at one of your next events, invite them to meet with your Board, get them engaged! Actually, get yourselves engaged with them, since these groups usually have plenty of engagement already, just not with you.

Associations have the infrastructure that these more ephemeral web-based groups cannot create on their own in most cases. Use that strength to create mutually beneficial relationships and see where it takes you.

Who Should Have Online Communication Skills?

Nancy White posted on her blog about Target adding blogging skills to the job requirements for a media relations position: Full Circle Online Interaction Blog: Target requires blogging skills for media relations people

Not only are blogging skills going to be prerequisites, but more generally good online communications skills. Last week I got the chance to have a conversation with David Millen from IBM. I was blathering that I thought everyone will need online facilitation skills and he gently and accurately got me to sharpen my message. Not everyone has a job that requires negotiating meaning and roles in groups. 😉 Not everyone is going to need to be an online facilitator and those specific skills, just like the skills of a great blogger, my be more sharply defined in some roles more than others. But I’d venture a guess that many working in business will need to be skillful online communicators at some base level.

Nancy makes a really good point about the general need for online communication skills across the company. With more and more interaction being computer mediated, organizations that are generally savvy about online communication (oncomm?) will have a great advantage over those that don’t.

For example, when PR people do blogs without authentic online communication skills and experience you end up with stuff like fake blogs.

Great post by Nancy. Read the whole thing.