open community associations social media onlineI’m taking part in the virtual book tour Maddie Grant and Lindy Dreyer are doing to explore concepts from Open Community: a little book of big ideas for associations navigating the social web. In this post, Maddie and Lindy answer a few questions I had after reading the book.

So for my readers who haven’t seen the other posts about Open Community, give us a little background.

Lindy: No problem. Let’s start with the definition. Your Open Community is your people who are bonded by what your organization represents and care enough to talk to each other (hopefully about you!) online. Connecting with and supporting your Open Community is really important, because if you don’t, someone else will.

Maddie: We decided to write Open Community as a way to address the frustrations association executives have been sharing with us, and to redirect their thinking about using social tools to build community online. There’s a lot of talk about how social media changes things outside the organization. This book is about how it changes things INSIDE the organization.

What can associations learn from listening (social media monitoring) that will help them build their online community?

Maddie: Great first question. “If you do nothing else, listen and respond.” That’s a title of one of the sections in the book, and it’s really the essence of using social media.

Lindy: Listening helps you see where people are gathering online to talk about your organization or your industry. You’ll get a sense for how your stakeholders feel comfortable engaging with one another. You’ll see who’s joining, who’s contributing, who’s especially outspoken, who’s wearing the leadership mantle. You can also pay attention to the topics that are resonating with your open community. In our experience, your open community can be a great sounding board for emerging issues–you can really get ahead of the curve when you’re paying attention to the thought leaders in online social spaces.

Let’s pretend. I’m a CEO and I’m trying to figure out who on staff is the best person to drive the building and nurturing of an online community. What are some of the characteristics I should look for? Oh, rest assured, I won’t just add this to the staffer’s plate, we’ll do some reshuffling of responsibilities.

Maddie: What an association needs is what we describe as “skill sets for a social organization” – listening, curation, conversation, social etiquette, facilitating and mediating, and collaboration.  (We talk in the book about the specifics of these). For some orgs, a great individual community manager will have all of these abilities. For others, a team might work just as well, and for yet others, every single person in the organization will do the work of community building and management.

Lindy: We also talk in the book about the role a community manager needs to play in the organization. You need someone who is willing to be down in the trenches doing a lot of daily grunt work. Listening isn’t glamorous. Tracking Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and other outposts isn’t glamorous. Doing editorial calendars and posting short-form content isn’t glamorous. But the person also needs to be respected and supported by senior staff, because as community manager, they will be helping senior executives make meaning out of the open community on a strategic level as well.

What do you think about unleashing staff personalities, if they’re willing? Showing a face and personality to the world, rather than just an institutional logo?

Lindy: “People interact with people, not organizations.” That’s another section title in the book.

Maddie: It’s so true. How weird is it to tweet with a company logo? There’s a dominant culture online, and that culture celebrates the individual. Also, it’s harder to criticize (and easier to praise) an organization when you’re Twitter pals with half the staff.

Lindy: Right. Would you wear a logo over your face at your Annual Meeting? LOL. I’m enjoying that mental picture.

But seriously, associations need to strike the right balance between celebrating the individual and being clear about the brand. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. It all comes down to making good hiring choices, and then trusting your staff to work towards the goals of the organization.

open community online associations social media

How can blogs help build community? Why do you think so many associations are hesitant to start a blog?

Maddie: In the online ecosystem, we talk about the organization having a homebase and outposts. A homebase has some defining characteristics, including frequent updates, openness, and shareability. Blogs make a great homebase.

I think there are a lot of obstacles to blogging that associations find difficult to overcome. Resources are one–blogging is a big, ongoing commitment, and if you can’t commit the resources to build a dynamic blogging site, then you’ll fail.

Lindy: Yep. Resources is what we hear the most. But to be honest, I think that’s just a convenient excuse. If I don’t really understand the benefits of blogging as a web publishing model for my association, then I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. And I’m busy, so that must mean there’s not time for blogging. Here’s the thing though. Most association websites are built to sell. There may be a news component, but selling products, events, and membership are the focus. That kind of website is great for someone who doesn’t know you well, but for your open community, you need something different. Something more. You need a real homebase.

I used to work with builders and contractors, many of whom spent most of the day on a construction site, not in front of a computer. There are probably many professions like this where the office might be the front seat during the day and the kitchen table at night. Are these members ready for online communities?

Maddie: Don’t ask us. Ask the members. And listen. Like we said before, the work of social media monitoring will give you a good idea of whether your members are interacting online.

Lindy: And these days, when access to the mobile web is so prevalent, you might be surprised by what you find. But it has to be worth accessing on-the-go. In the book, we ask “What’s your association’s social object?” If you have a social object–content that inspires social interaction–that your members need at the construction site or at the kitchen table in the evening, than you should be able to build community around those social objects.

I liked your idea that citizens (non-members) have much to give to a community and shouldn’t be left out. Many associations think “members-only” is a benefit to brag about. What are the advantages of building an open community rather than a members-only community, for example, closed LinkedIn and Facebook groups or private communities.

Maddie: I’m a big believer in the power of the periphery. The fourth chapter of the book is titled “Open Community Means Empowering the Periphery” which is all about paying attention to new voices.  Organizations are used to knowing where the power is–namely within traditional staff hierarchies or volunteer committee structures–but in the age of the social web, some influencers might be operating completely outside those structures.

Lindy: Right. And part of that chapter is “Who belongs? It’s your open community’s call.” That can go both ways. We’ve seen member-only communities thrive, precisely because they are limited to a group of people who prefer to speak amongst themselves. But we feel it’s imperative that organizations engage outside of those member-only communities. Engaging the periphery means engaging with future members, sure, but also with thought leaders from outside your industry who might just share an idea that changes your members’ lives forever.

Huh. Such a big idea for such a little book. A note for my readers — I’ll be helping Maddie and Lindy gather stories that illustrate open community in action at associations. If you have stories to share, please let me know so I can write about it and make you and your organization look really smart and fabulous.