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Why Private Social Networks for Associations Aren't About Networking


Why Successful Private Social Networks Rarely Involve Social NetworkingPrivate social networks for associations are failing at a significant rate. The nature of initiatives at membership organizations and the false promises that “someday your members will participate” which certain private social network providers employ make this failure a slow, embarrassing process visible both inside and outside the association.

Some organizations are upgrading to member engagement software, while others take the wallowing of their member community as a sign that their members don’t respond to social media. The truth is that the strategy behind why most associations launch a private social network is flawed, leaving behind many questions:

  • Who is at fault? Members? Staff? Software companies? Consultants?
  • Why didn’t our members use our community?
  • What do we do now since we have invested so much time and money into this software?

Successful Private Social Networks for Associations Rarely Involve Social Networking

One of the main reasons why private social networks have not been as successful for associations as membership professionals would have liked is that many organizations are sold on the idea of providing an online space where members can find other members, connect, and network.

This model is wrong and a lot of associations are paying the price for it. The goal of this article is to help associations develop an engagement strategy that avoids the pitfalls that many membership organizations find when they try to engage their members online. The following are 3 reasons that successful online member communities for associations rarely involve social networking:

1) Members Want Help Doing Their Jobs

Online communities for associations that keep members engaged focus on how the organization can help their member do their jobs better. It also provides a platform for members to help other members do their jobs better. People engage around issues, discussion, and useful, original content – not arbitrary invitations to connect or “member matching” results filled with names of strangers.

2) Online Member Communities Are Not Private Facebook Sites

Members already have places to connect with people in their business and professional lives – Facebook and LinkedIn.

Members will rarely connect with other members unless they have had a meaningful interaction with them, such as meeting at a live conference or being on a committee together. However, once that personal connection has been made, a member is going to use the online platform that they use to stay connected with everyone else in their life – either LinkedIn or Facebook. Here is why members don’t use their association’s website to build a network of fellow members:

  • If someone does not renew their membership for any number of reasons, they would lose access to the network they built.
  • People don’t “friend” strangers online. How many of you have connected with a stranger online? If you meet someone at a conference that you want to stay connected with, you will use LinkedIn or Facebook.
  • People don’t have time to maintain a separate network of contacts on a private system, especially when their existing public social networks work fine to stay connected and up-to-date with people.

To further illustrates why members don’t use their association’s private social network to network, take this example - If your church offered a social website where you could stay in touch with friends and family, would you join and use it daily because you belonged to that church? Probably not. It would fail since you already have a place to stay connected to family and friends - Facebook.

3) Just Another Task on Members’ Lists

By creating a network primarily for members to create connections outside of the social network that members already use, you are setting yourself up for failure. Checking your smaller social network and keeping up with connections often falls to the bottom of, or completely off, members’ to-do lists. The good news is that there are approaches that help associations create thriving member communities.

Are You Missing the Point?

Association executives and private social network companies who go into a member engagement project with the primary goal of creating a social network for association members are wasting resources and overlooking opportunities to keep members engaged.

We often hear fiery advocates on both side of the argument that either social networks for associations will eventually overshadow in-person networking, or that private communities will never replace live networking events. Many membership organizations, software companies, and consultants are missing the point. The purpose of private member communities is not to help members network. It is to provide information, discussion, and a community that is only available to members that can help them do their jobs.

Member Engagement Takeaway

Don’t fall for the siren song of “we have to do something with social networking” by setting up a member community with the intention of creating a place for members to network online. Think of the problems you could solve for your members that would keep them coming back to the community 4-6 times a week.

The strategy, methodology, functionality that go into the online community tools inside member engagement software are designed around principles of helping members do their jobs and keeping them engaged for the long-term.

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

(photo credit: jerryonlife)

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I have no doubt that most association private social networks fail because, as one of the very, very few association community/social media managers, I know for a fact that in order for an online community to succeed there needs to be someone dedicated to the effort. I marvel that so many associations have launched communities that nobody on staff even visits and certainly nobody takes ownwership of--I know from my daily experience as an association community manager that building an engaged community takes an incredible amount of time and effort. Also, community is not quick--it will likely take years for a private community to succeed--members first have to get used to the new platform, have to get out of the habit of using listservs or forums, and have to experience for themselves the value of the community--all things that take time and staff effort.  
I would encourage associations considering launching an online community to look to the for-profit world for examples of successful online communities. If they do, they will notice that companies who are invested in building online communities invest in community managers. Some outsource the capability, some have voluteers do it, but I would argue that behind almost every engaged online community, there is at least one--and in some cases, many--community manager. Merely launching a platform and expecting people to use it--especially if you continue to offer traditional ways for members to network like listservs and/or forums--is basically a recipe for failure.
Posted @ Friday, April 22, 2011 3:05 PM by Maggie McGary
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