The association had done a great deal of promotion at their conference, and word of the new members-only community seemed to spread quickly. There was a buzz at headquarters. The board waited optimistically for the launch of its first private social network, hands suspended mid-air for the inevitable celebratory high fives.
Shortly after go-live, however, the high fives didn't happen. Celebrations were postponed because members were not happy.
Where were all the buttons members had become accustomed to on the old website? What happened to the highly trafficked discussion forum that members visited for peer-to-peer engagement? Where were the instructional videos on how to use the new community?
There were, in fact, many superb features and functions on the new community, but they were dramatically overshadowed by a dark cloud of dissent from members who felt left out in the cold and confused. The six-month long public-relations debacle resulting from the miscalculated launch set the organization back significantly, and in some ways it is still recovering today.
This is a true story. The name of this association will not be disclosed to protect the guilty.
Many things as it turns out: Poor change management, anemic communication, lack of expectation setting with influencers, and not enough training for staff and members, to name a few.
So, how can your association avoid such a mishap?
Below are three of the most commonly seen mistakes made by associations when implementing private social networks and tips on how to prevent them. These insights are derived from both authors' experience as social media providers, having assisted in more than 100 community launches for associations in the past two years.
1. Improper Planning
Spending time examining available technologies, sending out requests for proposals, and checking software company references are all important activities for finding the best social networking solution, but what's more critical is understanding what you'll do with the software once you get it.
Here are a few questions to ask your project team to ensure you're thinking through the planning process correctly:
Why should members come to your site?
What specific benefits do you want your community to be known for?
What type of information would be valuable to your members?
If you have answers to these questions up front, choosing your technology provider and having a clear vision for your community value will fall nicely into place. Also consider sending a simple survey to your members asking them how they currently use online technologies and what elements of an online community they would find useful.
2. Insufficient Staffing
By being realistic with current staff resources and what additional resources may be necessary, your online community will have the manpower to succeed and deliver on the value proposition you desire. Unfortunately, most organizations dramatically underestimate the time commitment necessary to run a successful community.
Here are some factors to consider as you assign a staffer to manage your online community:
Listening. It's not just about posting content. This person will be responsible for monitoring what is happening online around your organization, members, and industry.
Content. This person will need to create a content plan that aligns with the goals of the community. What content should be posted by the organization? Who at the organization will provide this content? How much content will be contributed by users? And, just as important, how will you get members to contribute content? Just a few of the challenges your community manager will face.
Learning. The internet is always changing. The functionality on sites like Facebook can change literally overnight. Your community software provider will be making improvements to its software on a regular basis, as well. Make sure you allot enough time for your community manager to stay up to speed on how to use, manage, and configure the software involved.
3. Mismanaged Expectations
Organizations sometimes forget that changes in organizational technology require proper change-management processes to be successful. The unnamed association mentioned in the beginning of this article simply flipped the switch on its new online community without following the proper steps to manage member expectations.
The seven simple steps for managing change management as it pertains to new technology include:
Get early buy-in from staff, members, board, and influencers.
Find evangelists, sponsors, and champions fast, and get them involved early.
Over communicate to all stakeholders throughout the process.
Listen to what everyone is saying, but maintain a strong grasp on your vision.
Make success easy for everyone from the earliest stages to post launch.
Reward participation to all involved, especially members and influencers that help spread the word.
Sell your wins. Any victory large or small should be acknowledged.
Of course, even following all seven of these steps does not guarantee 100 percent member, staff, and board satisfaction, but it is a platform from which to manage change and give your organization a fighting chance for success.
So, as you consider building an online community, or even if you have a community and aren't getting the engagement levels you'd hoped for, consider these common traps that many first-time community builders fall victim to. You're smart and so are your members, so lean into technology and feel confident creating a private social network that is valuable, meaningful, and relevant.
Just make sure you plan, staff, and set expectations accordingly.
Chris Bonney is vice president of client experience at Vanguard Technology in Chicago. Paul Schneider is cofounder and senior vice president for business development at Socious in Gilbert, Arizona. Twitter: @chrisbonney,@SociousSuccess; Emails: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Chris and Paul will present a Technology Idea Lab titled "The Biggest Challenges with Private Online Communities and the Secrets to Overcoming Them" at ASAE's 2011 Technology Conference & Expo, December 6-8, 2011, in Washington, DC.