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January 31, 2006

Will Association-Sponsored Online Communities Ever Really Thrive?

I'm concerned about the outlook for association-initiated online communities. A few minutes ago I was listening to a panel discussion at ASAE & The Center's Technology Conference on this very topic, and I began to get very pessimistic about the prospects for these projects. Here are my concerns:

  1. Communities aren't created from the top down. They evolve from the grass roots. Associations that attempt to thrust communities on their members are not likely to succeed in my opinion.
  2. Generational attitudes will exacerbate the problem. I'm painting with a broad brush here, but I think that as a whole, the boomers aren't into the whole online community thing. Following the boomers, generations X and Y are less likely to be defined by their profession. Most associations serve a profession or industry, so there's not much of an incentive to engage in community about their work.

This isn't to say that association-sponsored online communities can't thrive, but I think they face some stark realities.

Here's an alternative: Instead of re-inventing the community, can our associations jump on board with existing online communities, acting as a sponsor or participant in the community?


Jeff De Cagna said...

Ben, I share your concerns about the viability of association-created online communities. Increasingly, I'm thinking that instead of trying to create communities at the level of the organization, associations would be better served giving their members the tools to create their own communities around individuals and ideas. Then, the association's role can simply be to provide a context for interaction between and among these communities. So, for example, ASAE & The Center could encourage people to contribute to the Certified Association Executive blog and build it as a robust community. ASAE & The Center would provide you with additional resources, such as access to content and so forth, to facilitate your efforts and also to maintain a connection with you. If and when members of your blog community needed to form new communities of their own, ASAE & The Center would support them by providing access to free or inexpensive technologies to move seamlessly from one group to another.

Using this kind of any approach, associations could create literally thousands of microcommunities at a much more affordable level of investment and without the management headaches. It's a Long Tail approach that I think is worth considering.

Andy McDaniel said...

Yesterday, NetSquared had a post about technology adopters, including some community/blog examples.

One of the links was to the Share Your Story community of the March of Dimes. This seems like a good example of an organization providing the tools for community building - in this case "short stories" (message board posts) and blogs. It's got a really clean, well organized look to it as well.

What do you guys think about this type of approach?

Ben said...

I have a feeling this will do well because of the issue the March of Dimes represents, not because of how good/bad the tools are. I'm still forming my thoughts on the issue, but in my mind, the biggest factor in the success of association-initiated online communities is not the tools provided, but the passion members have for the topic(s) being discussed.

Andy said...

Ben - I definitely agree that passion for the topics is far more important than the tools. But I thought the March of Dimes site was a decent example of "giving members the tools" that Jeff described. And at the same time, it was a way of keeping things centralized and easier to monitor vs. just turning members loose with their own blogs on Wordpress or Blogger. So I could see the benefits of the Lont Tail working with that setup but also not making it difficult for the association to participate in the conversation.

But again, without passion, its probably irrelevant.

amcdan2 at gmail

Ben said...

I follow you. It is a prime example, and I bet they'll do well. I just wonder how much traffic ASAE would get if they offered a similar suite of tools to their members.

Sue Pelletier said...

Probably not much. Those who would use the tools are probably those who already are using the tools on their own. While it's a nice thought, and it would work for some organizations, to have a centralized, easy-to-monitor place for all this, as Andy says, I don't think it would fly for ASAE the way it may be doing for March of Dimes. There's a lot of passion associated with the work done by ASAE folks, of course, but it's not the same type of passion. It goes back to Ben's original point about the viability of building communities around work.

And there's the maverick syndrome to take into account. The online communities that form on their own may not want to be associated with any formal organization for fear that it'd try to change the community to suit its needs or exert its influence. I've watched one independent community pretty much die after being brought under the control of an organization, simply because the organization couldn't help itself from imposing changes on the community from the top down. Which, unfortunately, is the way all too many associations handle their own membership communities.

Anyway, I just wonder if an association could stand to be as hands-off as I think they'd need to be in order to let the community thrive. And if they could do it, what would be in it for the association if it doesn't own it, can't shape it, can't monitor and centralize it, can't even influence it much without trampling on what made it form in the first place?

I have a lot of thoughts rambling around on this one, but nothing coherent yet.