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February 26, 2008

The debate over association use of social media needs more fear

Bus in Guangzhou
Originally uploaded by Lin Zhizhao
Fear is a powerful motivator. It's not usually the healthiest one, but frighteningly effective nonetheless. Fear is the primary reason associations are not embracing social media in my experience. Fear of losing control. Fear of the unknown. Fear of potential liability. Fear of (heaven forbid it!) negative comments. (I can hear shrieks coming from the conference room!)

Well, I actually think the association debate over use of social media could use a larger measure of fear. This might come as a surprise to my readers and those who might think my social media and conversational marketing suggestions are too bold. Yes, I contend that more fear is what we need in this debate.

However, the kind of fear I think we should be talking about isn't like the ones articulated above. It's a fear of missing the social media bus that should really worry us. The opportunity costs, as the consultants like to say.

Here's the dire assessment: Your association is becoming more irrelevant by the moment if it isn't participating in the conversation made possible by social media. Signs of the paradigm shift are all around us and quite obvious. Association leaders who don't recognize the signs are either uninformed or unconscious.

Jeff De Cagna writes that "it's time to move on" in the social media debate. I couldn't agree more. I'm going to move on with him, and I hope you will too.

But wait! What about all of the fears of potential liabilities, losing control, and (the night terror) negative comments? IRRELEVANT! All are either uncontrollable (and were all along) or can be mitigated with good policies, procedures and education. Social media carries as much risk as email. You should be more afraid of losing the battle for relevance. The fear of missing the opportunity to create new value and deeper connections with your members should be far more compelling than the fears articulated at the beginning of this post.

I've taken my seat on the social media bus, and I won't look back.



Anonymous said...

Hey Ben,

I am with you that social media is here to stay and the question needs to become when and how - rather than if?

That said, I also think empathy is going to be important in the growth process for the association world. Guys like you, Jeff and others leading the banner call are important to stretch awareness and such.

Resistance to change is both natural and often times healthy giving people time to process how their world may change as a result.

Some may not take to tech changes as easily as those with a natural affinitity to it.

Others may already be stretched so thin, it's hard to take time away from putting out fires to take on all the new learning needed to lead a major technology based initiative like adoption will be.

Some will need to play with concepts and debate them as they get comfortable trying them on.

I agree that the use of social media needs to happen. And I think the association world needs more midwives or translaters to ease the process.


Nick said...

Amen brotha. Hi Cynthia, totally agree that there is some discomfort and that people could reach out to those who aren't comfortable in this new context. My thought is that that's probably okay--we're not trying to convert people as much as simply serving those who are out there looking for these resources. Not really unlike offering any new product line or service product for any other demographic.

Maddie Grant said...

Well said. Get on the bus or get left in the dust, that's what I say. ; )

Dennis D. McDonald said...


Part of the problem is that many of us are accustomed to using the term "social media." It's a vague term that always requires definition, like the term "web 2.0" before it.

I'm convinced that a significant portion of the "fear" you refer to is based not on a legitimate -- or illegitimate -- fear of "loss of control." It's also based on a lack of understanding of the nuts and bolts issues involved with planning, implementing, and managing systems and processes that depend on social media and online social networking. Phenomena like "fear," "ignorance," and "misunderstanding" are very real and closely related.

I learned this when I began studying corporate adoption of "web 2.0" technologies and techniques. I finally had to admit that "fear of loss of control" can, in fact, be a legitimate response to an uncertain situation when an outcome is difficult to predict, especially in heavily regulated situations where liability concerns are very real.

An alternate approach might be more useful. Instead of using such general terms such as "social media" and "social networking" it might be more productive to focus on the communication needs of different groups and different situations, then work back from there. In some situations a traditional one-to-many broadcast of a single standard message makes a great deal of sense. Messages like "in this emergency go here for shelter" or "product X costs $Y" are possible examples of that. Other times what's important is that collaboration, honest give-and-take, and two way communications are needed, and this is where the issue of control by a third party of sponsoring body can be cause for legitimate debate.

Anyone who has been tracking the adoption of social media and social networking in the worlds of public relations and advertising will recognize this type of discussion which basically says that you select the tool to fit the needs of the situation.

I agree, though, that many "loss of control" discussions are moot. By the time such discussions reach the board room it's too late; control has probably already shifted away from the traditional control systems. What is needed then is catch-up so that the institution (association or otherwise) can become aware of what's being done by its employees and its members, and until that happens, there IS a total lack of control, since you can't control (or influence) what you don't know.

Dennis McDonald

Chris Hanson said...

I can't fathom any rational association professional still arguing against using social media tools to at least some degree. Discussions should begin with planning out the right approach for the particular association, not debating "if."

Nick--You put it in perspective by equating it to rolling it out like a new product to meet a need.

And like any new product proposal, it takes creativity, passion, and trust--and a champion to gain the trust and confidence of the board and/or executive staff.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I am quite interested in knowing the age group of assn execs not interested in addressing the topic of social media. If anyone knows of such a study - do share!

Bravo Ben!!!!

Bob Wolfe said...

Cynthia - totally agree. I think there needs to be a solid middle ground for late bloomers as Maddie has suggested in a previous post on her blog.

Late bloomers need a bit more coaching and need to see a higher level of value before getting online.

I totally agree that web2.0, social media or whatever it is called tomorrow is an excellent opportunity to move associations forward. But like all change, you have early adopters and late bloomers.

What really needs to happen now is a better middle ground to slow down and focus on some of the basic technologies to really help the late bloomers get online.

And I think Ben and co. do a great job for clearing the path for middle to late bloomers to follow.

Anonymous said...

Ben - Your metaphorical comment of being on "the social media bus" is exactly what most people are missing. Social media is not a destination - it's a vehicle.

Too many people are trying to establish their space (on Facebook, Linked-in or their own custom home grown communities. - as if that is a major goal worth achieving.

Getting on the bus is not the goal. Using the bus to actually get somewhere is.

Associations need to worry less about the bus and start paying more attention to where their members trying to go.

Boomer said...

As a boomer who's now "on the bus," I hope to help our members at the Nat Assoc of REALTORS get on too. There's so much information and immediate exchage that can be of value to them. Many of our members do need help getting the bus doors open however.
Ben recently spoke at one of our meetings in Boston and many in his audience were 50+ and not so sure of the value of new media, how to go about it or even what it is.
The story will be different in just a year or so.