Bryan Kelly: Hey everybody, this is Bryan Kelly with Association Mavens, where you get direct access to some of the foremost thinkers and teachers in the association industry. I’m super pleased to introduce my guest today, Ben Martin, who has 12 years of experience in the association industry. Ben has helped hundreds of associations launch and nurture their own private online communities, which is hug these days, and he’s also done a ton of consulting, coaching and training in this area. Additionally, he is the Chief Engagement Officer for Online Community Results, a company that specializes in private social communities for associations. So Ben, welcome to Association Mavens. It’s great to have you here.
Ben Martin: Yes. Fantastic to be with you. Thanks for inviting me on to the show.
Bryan Kelly: Absolutely. Well this is an area that I think is kind of a hot button topic. For the last few years this whole thing has exploded with online communities and may associations have been able to take advantage of the opportunity, but there are still struggles and I think there is still a lot of confusion around the best ways to leverage a private online community. So let’s just dive right in to some of the questions that I’ve got for you, if that sounds cool?
Ben Martin: Let’s go for it.
Bryan Kelly: All right. So the first thing I wanted to ask you is really what is the biggest challenge that you see out there when you’re meeting with associations, when it comes to online communities? What’s the huge hurdle for associations in this particular area?
Ben Martin: Well, you know associations are having a hard time with it. I think some of it stems from the Field of Dreams mentality that some people have about online communities, like “If we build it, they will come.” That’s just simply not the case. I would kind of trace the issues that folks are having to two things. And actually where a lot of consultants might say the big problem is strategy, I actually find that it’s not usually the strategy that’s the primary hurdle that people are running into. The big one is failing to put somebody on the project. Again, a lot of organizations think that if you build it they will come, which it just doesn’t work that way so the top concern that I have whenever I go into a client is “Who is the community manager?” And many organizations don’t, they don’t have one, or it’s a part-time assignment. What we find is that if it’s assigned out part-time, unfortunately, when push comes to shove those people are going to do what’s urgent or what’s familiar. And so if it’s time for the conference they’re going to get pulled on to the conference, or if it’s time to edit the magazine, they’re going to get pulled on to editing the magazine.
That’s why we recommend that folks have a dedicated community manager. Even if it’s a part-time position at least that person then is not going to be pulled on to other projects when push comes to shove. So we highly recommend that you have a dedicated community manager. Another alternative is outsourcing it. We actually do a little bit of outsourcing here but we don’t like to do it for more than about six months because we just don’t have the body of knowledge to get the content, get the stations going. So yeah, the number one thing is lack of resources put on it. The number two thing typically is a bad strategy. The strategy isn’t in line with the organization’s overall strategic objectives. And if your community strategy is out of sorts or out of line with the overall organization strategy then it just becomes like a bolt-on activity, and again when push comes to shove, the bolt-on activities tend to get pushed to the side. The other strategy failure that we see is “I had this community strategy and I don’t understand why my members aren’t engaging with my strategy,” and what has happened is the strategy doesn’t really take into consideration the motivations that your members have to engage online. So we always tell clients that your strategy for your online community has to equally take into consideration your member’s motivation to be involved and the organization’s strategic objectives.
Bryan Kelly: Yeah. I mean that’s so good. I mean a lot of these things are really basic. Strategy is key, right? But as you said, that’s lower than even just this pure, simple issue of having somebody focused on facilitating, coordinating, engaging with the members on this online community. That’s such a fundamental thing that I think it’s overlooked quite often, but—and I’ve even seen it firsthand myself—once you have somebody in that role and they’re able to really shine the spotlight on different things that are relevant to that community, and interact and dialog with the individuals participating on the online platform. It’s almost like there’s something here versus that tumbleweed zone that we’ve seen so many times with online communities where nobody’s responding to questions, nobody’s really posting anything. There’s not really any engagement and you need to have somebody there to facilitate that.
Ben Martin: Definitely. And we always tell folks if you’re a community manager, kind of think of yourself as the party host. Go to a party and maybe I only know the host, but what the host does as a good host, he introduces me to other people. He helps me make connections, so he would say “Hey Bryan, your friend Joe also knows Ben.” So making those connections, introducing people, just basically making me feel welcome. And it’s so funny that it’s those little things that really we lead to the engagement that most organizations are looking to achieve with their online communities.
Bryan Kelly: Well, that’s a good analogy too. I like taking that real world example of the party host and applying it to online communities, because that’s what it is. It’s a gathering, it’s a social gathering online so a lot of the same things, principles, are applicable even in a real social environment so…
Ben Martin: Definitely.
Bryan Kelly: Perfect. Now let’s dive into seeing if you can explain for me the biggest value that these types of online communities, private online social networks provide for associations.
Ben Martin: Well, engagement is the buzz word that’s out there right now. And I always to back to the ASAE study that was released—I think it was in 2007—called “The Decision to Join.” It was a great book published by ASAE and basically what they found is that the more engaged a member is, the more likely that member is to renew their membership, to evangelize about membership, to attend events, to volunteer and to give voluntarily to other causes like a pact or a foundation. And so online communities are just another way to engage members and a way that we couldn’t before. The way that we used to engage members was through the magazine and through face-to-face events and through volunteering. And those were really the only ways we could engage members. Then we started sending email newsletters say, well when they open up the newsletter, that’s a form of engagement and when they’re engaging with me online, whether it’s on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter, that counts as engagement too. So an online community is just another way to engage those members. There’s also this phrase “Return on Engagement,” and I’m a big believer in return on engagement, but the biggest value for an association is to get beyond return on engagement and get to return on investment, because at the end of the day that’s what we’re looking to do with these communities. It’s like we’re investing in them, so let’s make sure that we’re getting a good return on that.
What we work with customers to do is to fill up eight buckets of revenue and there’s some direct revenue, like advertising, sponsorship sales, pay for access, but then we say there’s these other five buckets over here and you have to find a way to draw a straight line between the engagement in your community and the dollars and cents. So, how much likely are your members to renew if they’re involved in the online community versus if they’re not involved in it? I know that over at Aptify that’s the one thing that you guys are working on is that whole engagement scoring and the ability to factor in online community engagement into the overall engagement scoring is critical. That’s how you really improve the return on investment. I don’t have to talk to you about the concept that lifetime value of a member and all those things. Your audience gets that, but this is just another input source for that engagement scoring to help you get that 360 degree view of your member. So, yeah we always tell folks you’ve got to find a way to draw a straight line between engagement in your online community and financial results. One of my soapbox issues is every community manager needs to be prepared for the day when the powers-that-be ask you “what’s the ROI of our online community.” And I think by extension, what’s the ROI of your continued employment with this organization? And if you can’t answer that question you’re going to be in a pickle. It’s going to be hard to explain why they should keep you around if you can’t show, in dollars and cents, here’s the value we’re getting from it. So that’s just a little soapbox item from me. If you’re a community manager, make sure you can answer the ROI question because at some point it’s going to happen.
Bryan Kelly: You know, social media is such a big thing that’s being leveraged and for those are doing it right has a tremendous impact, but this is something that’s even more focused, even more targeted when you break it down to the online community that associations providing the membership, I think thinking through just those very buckets that you suggest is such a great idea to be able to say “Look, these are the things that are happening.” And there is an exact correlation to the success that we’re having in other areas of the business or how this ties in to the strategic goals of our organization. Because it is, it’s not just people sharing things through Twitter or on Facebook or on whatever it is through regular social media channels. It’s very targeted to again, that online social gathering place that has been set up by the organization and there’s a ton of value that can be provided.
Ben Martin: Yeah. Definitely.
Byran Kelly: Cool. So Ben, what are your thoughts on this? There’s a lot of options in the marketplace and I know that you’ve recently—not too long ago in conjunction with SocialFish—had put out this eBook, kind of breaking down the different solutions that are out there. What, kind of in a nutshell, should an association be thinking about when they’re considering the multitude of options for an online community?
Ben Martin: Well the number one thing that we tell every organization to look for is an integration with your back-office AMS, or your back-office management database. That’s key. That does a whole host of things for me. It helps me to keep members in the right groups. For example, if I have a group just for affiliate members I can make sure that my affiliate members are assigned there and if they happen to make the jump over to regular member, they get reassigned into the regular member group. It helps me keep their member profile up to date so they don’t have to update it in two places. Typically you also see a single signon into other association web properties so yeah, the back-office database integration is the number one thing we tell people to look for. Beyond that you’re looking for notifications. You want to have some nice email notifications to work with. The number one way that people engage with an online community is when they get that digest, or when they get those notifications they click through to participate or they apply to the email that has kind of a list/serve functionality. But the notifications are critical. You want to be able to style them, put your branding around it, you want to have lots and lots of links within the digests and notifications that drive people back into the community. Ideally, you’d like to be able to see when people actually click on them. So you’d like to be able to see a click-through rate. Most platforms right now haven’t gotten to that level of sophistication but some of them do tell you in aggregate how many have been pushed out there. Some of them give you the Open rate as well, but what we really like to see is the click-through rate, because then we can tell to a person who clicked on what and what actually pulled them into the community and we’re always looking for data on how people are engaging. When we can get to that level of detail, it gives us a lot more information to use to configure the platform in a way that’s going to optimize the engagement.
Byran Kelly: Yeah. So do you see a lot of associations that maybe have chosen a solution that doesn’t tie into their AMS or doesn’t have a lot of those tracking capabilities that you’ve mentioned?
Ben Martin: You know increasingly I’m seeing associations opt for a solution that does have the back-office integration. There was a time early on when a lot of folks were using platforms like Ming, which is a great platform in and of itself but they don’t have that back-office integration. The software selection guide that you mentioned earlier outlines seven of the leading solutions for associations and non-profits. Maybe within the show notes or something here we can provide a link to that, but yeah the tools have gotten a lot better and they continue to get better. So by and large, I’m seeing organizations choose kind of an enterprise grade online community platform and that back-office database integration is critical and so by and large I’m seeing things move in that direction.
Bryan Kelly: Good. All right, so here’s the big question for you. Why can’t an association use Facebook, like a private Facebook group, to set up this community online where they can engage with their members? Obviously people use LinkedIn groups. What’s the benefit, the motivation, so on and so forth on why it’s important to have your own private community that’s set up specifically for your association members?
Ben Martin: Well I think actually you need both. I wouldn’t ever advise a client not to do Facebook in favor of doing a private online community. The reality of the situation is that you really do need both. But here’s why you shouldn’t put all of your chickens, or all your eggs in that basket: the reason is—and this has come up a lot in the media recently—is that your posts on Facebook aren’t getting viewed. You’ve probably read recently that Facebook has changed the way that the news feed works. And what they found was that the more posts that you and I see from our friends, the more posts you and I make. The more posts they see from businesses and organizations the fewer posts you and I will make. So they’ve actually changed the way that the news feed works so that organizations, their stories aren’t being viewed in the same way that ours are.
In addition to that, I like to say that when you use LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter, you are not the customer, you’re the product. And basically what LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, GooglePlus are all doing is mining our data and re-selling it to somebody else. So just from a philosophical point of view, wouldn’t you rather get the benefit of your member’s engagement within your own community than engaging your members on those public social networking sites and letting all the benefit go to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and so on and so forth. So that’s yet another reason. Finally, there’s no way to bring the data back from LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter. When the engagement is happening over there, it belongs to them and they will never show you the data. But when you use an integrated online community with your back-office, that’s integrated with your back-office database, then all that data can come back to me, and then I can see that “Oh, well Bryan has gotten engaged in this conversation about X. Well, we’re having a conference about X next month” and now I can communicate with him to say “Hey, we noticed that you’re interested in this topic. We have an opportunity for you to learn more about it at a conference.” So, things like that are some of the key reasons to use an online community. And as for all your public facing social media sites, I’d like to recommend to people to go back the party host analogy, use that as the place to invite people into your community, to your party. So I’ll use Facebook to say “Hey, there’s a cool conversation happening right now on my community on budgeting. Bob had a great post about it. Click here to read it.” And I’d draw them back in to my community. So I use those as my outpost, as kind of like the party invitations if you will. So it’s important to not just abandon those. You have to use those to keep people coming in to your community but in a nutshell those are the reasons that we recommend having an online community in addition to your public facing social media efforts.
Bryan Kelly: Yeah, so it’s basically not like saying “Well, we don’t need this,” these are layers. And I think your mentioning of the social media outlets as outposts, that allow you to interact with a varied group of people that might be a good audience for the content that your association is sharing through its private social network and drawing those folks in, that’s a pretty great approach to that. And I think the thing that actually really pops in my mind right now is where do you see this going? I mean, technology changes rapidly, obviously. Facebook, Twitter, these are the big ones right now. Social media is constantly changing. Do you see that impacting the world or the realm of online community platforms, or do you have any insight into the direction that things are evolving on this particular front?
Ben Martin: Yeah, first it’s been cool to see some of the innovations that are coming down the road. I will tell you I don’t see it a whole lot from…well let me just go straight to the point here. I have one client who’s working on a project to actually build a private social network on top of a public social media outlet. I can’t say too much about it because I’m under NDA with them. But this is one of the trends that I think we may start to see coming down the road, is that we’ll have private online communities that are just stacked on top of some kind of public-facing social media site. That will be a huge game changer in the industry because one of the biggest hurdles to getting members to engage in your online community is that it’s yet another site I have to keep up with. Well imagine if like your online community were hosted within, let’s just say it was Facebook, and you actually did get the data moving back and forth.
That’s something that I have a client right now that is working on that. It’s yet to be seen if they can pull it off but if they can it’s going to be pretty interesting. The other cool thing I’m starting to see is, there’s an organization, there’s a company that’s building this new profile building algorithm basically. So instead of me having to divulge all this information about myself during a profile setup it actually builds it for me. So it will kind of read my posts and read the discussions that I’ve clicked through on and it will dynamically build a profile for me. Now, I think that’s a little bit creepy. But it is pretty powerful and quite frankly it’s data that we all have access to. With this one in particular what I didn’t like about it is that it took this profile and made it publically available. That didn’t pass the smell test for me. But by participating in an online community I can develop about my members that I can use then to better communicate with them, I see a lot of value in that. So while this organization was looking to make that public-facing, I was like “Oh, I don’t know if I like that,” but if it was available to me as the association exec, I think I’d be interested in that as well.
Bryan Kelly: It’s pretty interesting.
Ben Martin: Yes, there’s a little bit happening out there. Right now I’m not seeing a ton of really huge innovations. It looks like most of the vendors that we think of for the association community are really working on solidifying the base of their product. There’s a little bit of innovation happening around the edges, but by and large—and this is as it should be—most of the platforms seem to be really investing in the basics, which is really is what’s needed at this point. There’s a lot of bells and whistles in the software packages that are out there but what we’re finding is that the simplest things work best. The forums. The notifications.
Bryan Kelly: Getting out of the way of your members and allowing them to interact with one another, to interact with your organization and your staff is, ultimately that’s the end goal. And to not have a ton of stuff interfere with that is probably a big, essential aspect of that.
Ben Martin: Yep. Focusing in on the basics is critical. We spend most of our time with our clients “No, you shouldn’t do that.” Stay focused on the basics and then at some point down the road then you can expand into these other things. But until you get the basics right, it’s not a good idea to start implementing all the bells and whistles.
Bryan Kelly: Yeah, for sure. Well Ben, I think the thing circling back to what you’re talking about with building the private community on top of a public social media channel, so to speak, is interesting. I follow a lot of online marketers who are information marketers and I’ve seen a lot of them lately creating communities where, if they’re selling XYZ they’re going to teach you how to build a better online community, or a more engaged member of communities. And they’ve got this course and they’re going to deliver it to you through a private Facebook group. And when you join, you get access to that private Facebook group. You’re able to interact with the other students or members of that group to talk about the different training modules that they’ve shared. You can ask questions of the person who’s kind of the facilitator or the expert in the group and it’s all done within Facebook, where you don’t need a special username or password. You just log in to Facebook and click on the group. Nobody else has access to it that isn’t a member of that group.
Ben Martin: Right.
Bryan Kelly: When you get a notification, it pops right up there on your dashboard so you can see that somebody posted something in that group that you may want to check out.
Ben Martin: Right.
Bryan Kelly: So it’s really interesting, this idea of leveraging that and I’m curious to see where things go over the coming years as new opportunities spring up, but that’s really fascinating.
Ben Martin: Yeah, definitely. I’ve always said that if LinkedIn created that API where I can place members into groups, I think it would be game over. They would have the market, but for whatever reason, they’re not interested in doing it so that’s good news for the seven people on the seven organizations that are listed in the online community software selection guide that we’re talking about.
Bryan Kelly: Well Ben, I want to thank you so much for doing this interview. It was a great conversation talking with you about some of these basic nuts and bolts aspects of online communities, so thanks again.
Ben Martin: You’re very welcome. Glad to do it.
Bryan Kelly: I also want to thank everybody for watching. I always enjoy bringing you some great conversations and I want to make sure that you sign up in the upper hand corner of this site. You can jump up on the list to stay updated on all things Association Mavens related. Also, be sure to follow at Bryan Kelly Now and let us know who you would like to see on this show. You can also send us an email through the website to see who you’d like to nominate to be a guest on this show. So thanks again, and I look forward to bringing you another great interview. Until next time, bye-bye.