All posts by Ben Martin, CAE

7 Deadly Sins of Private Online Communities

The more private communities we launch, the more we learn about how to make them successful, and how to make them fail. There are as many don’ts as there are do’s. Here are a few don’ts that rise to the top for us:

  1. Don’t have a strategy: This is the big daddy. Some communities launch with a plan that isn’t linked to their organization’s strategic plan. Even worse, some launch with no plan at all. This leads to a lack of focus for your community, which can deal it a death blow.
  2. Don’t have a community manager: A small, but very visible number of communities seem to grow all by themselves. Most don’t. Someone needs to be working behind the scenes to ensure that progress is being made on your community plan.
  3. Don’t have a procedure to ensure a quick response time: One of the best ways to get people to never come back to your community is to let their posts go unanswered. We recommend implementing a 24 hour response procedure.
  4. Don’t have a process for welcoming new members: Imagine going to a party and there’s nobody at the door greeting you. The same principle applies in an online community. There must be some kind of welcome process for new members.
  5. Don’t have a reporting structure: This is linked to the first don’t. How will you know you’re making progress on your community plan if you aren’t tracking statistics about your community engagement? Identify about 10 key metrics and track them on a monthly basis.
  6. Don’t have an editorial calendar: Especially in the early days, you need to post proactively post questions or topics in the community to help stimulate discussion posts. We recommend having a three month calendar.
  7. Don’t promote your community in outside communications: Your organization probably has a bevy of other communications vehicles to talk about what’s happening in your community. Our favorite is an association’s e-mail newsletter.

My 10th ASAE Annual

Unlike the other Ben, Dallas wasn’t my first ASAE Annual Meeting: It was my tenth! In fact, it was my tenth straight, dating back to 2003!

Having attended the Annual Meeting for all these years, both as an association executive and now as a vendor, one of the highlights is reconnecting with old friends.This year I got to catch up with a boss from my second association job (one I hadn’t seen in almost 10 years) and another association industry friend from my days living in the DC area.

Over the years, I’ve also become a big fan of the hallway track– those informal peer-to-peer conversations between sessions. I find that’s where I learn the most. So much so that a few of my closest colleagues in the community met up for an idea bazaar on the last day of the conference.

Ben Martin ASAE 2012 #2 This year, I was privileged to be an Idea Labs speaker along with staff from two Avectra customers: Nina Goldman of the American Council of Engineering Companies and Thomas Nordby of the National Defense Industrial Association. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a large and attentive group gathered for our session on member engagement scoring, despite the unfortunate location (at the very end of a very, very long hallway) and 9 a.m. time slot on the last day of the conference. These attendees were so engaged, we had to politely excuse them from the breakout room because the next speaker needed to set up! Click here if you want to know what the big deal was.

Ben Martin ASAE 2012 #3I also got a hoot out of being able to wear my Avectra football jersey at Cowboys Stadium (now a throwback jersey, thanks to our re-branding), as well as my belt buckle, cowboy boots, and hat out in the wild, wild west.


Overall, I’d say this ASAE Annual Meeting ranks #2 all-time for me, exceeded only by 2008′s meeting in San Diego. Bravo, Dallas! Atlanta (site of ASAE’s 2013 Annual Meeting) has some big boots to fill!

Ben Martin ASAE 2012 #1

What Should We Name Our Private Online Community?

The name of your association’s private online community may not seem that important in the grand scheme of your community strategy, but it can send a subtle but strong signal about your community and can really affect your community’s engagement. Regardless, it’s definitely something you’ll need to grapple with as you’re preparing to go live. There are basically two schools of thought on naming a private online community. One is more common in the corporate/organizational space, and the other is more common among all other communities.

The most prevalent naming convention for sponsored private communities to use the organization’s name or acronym in the community name. Rationale for putting the organization’s name in the community name are:

  1. It sends a strong, clear signal that the community is sponsored by the organization. There is little to no ambiguity about who owns the community.
  2. It helps the organization reinforce its brand name.
  3. Depending on the name, it can help send a signal that the community belongs to the members (or that the members belong to the community). This personalizes or humanizes the organization.

Some examples of community names using this convention are MyNTEN, IAIA Connect, and GBTA Hub. In the corporate space, you’ll see names like Virgin Media Pioneers, Marriott Rewards Insiders and Avectra Community (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The other approach is to leave the organization’s name out of the community name. Instead, these communities use a word or words that are iconic, symbolic or otherwise relevant to the community’s members, or the organization’s brand or products. Sometimes, there is no rhyme or reason to the name. Often, there is no organization behind the community, or else the organization grew up because the community grew so large that it needed an organization behind it. The rationale for omitting the organization name from the community name is:

  1. It makes the community feel like it’s about the members, and not about the organization or whatever it’s selling.
  2. It can help to extend the brand footprint beyond the company name.
  3. Let’s face it: These community names just sound better…

Here are a few examples: Sermo, StackOverflow, 4chan.

Think this can’t be done in an organization context? Not so fast! The American Society for Microbiology calls their private community Microbeworld. The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s employees-only private community is called The Square.

Naming your community without the organization’s acronym or name in it can be a tough sell to executives and leadership, but community management effective practices show us that doing so contributes to a strong community.

Should our association have an “open” or “closed” community?

The decision to have a more open or closed community should be driven by your community strategy, which should flow out of your organization’s overall strategy. 

From classes I’ve taken and my reading and experience, most associations are best served by a community focused on members first (e.g. more oriented towards a closed community). Remember that it takes 10 times the resources to earn a customer than to keep a customer. 

Private community software should be configurable so that there are degrees of openness, not an all-or-nothing or open-or-closed choice. Avectra’s MemberFuse private community software for associations allows you to set privacy controls for each group, so for example, you could allow only group members to download resources, but allow anonymous users to view discussions.

There are nine community strategies that associations commonly use:

  • Peer-to-peer knowledge/learning community
  • Governance/committee/component administration
  • Crowdsourcing/Collaboration
  • Networking/Matchmaking
  • Customer/member support
  • Staff/expert-driven knowledge/learning community
  • Customer acquisition
  • Staff networking/Social intranet
  • Major Project/Initiative

Only the Customer acquisition strategy would be considered a true “open community”.

Most associations don’t use just one of these strategies — there’s almost always a hybrid approach. But the associations that choose to focus their efforts on no more than three of these strategies usually do better than those that try to be all things to all people. A community that tries to do too much is much more likely to fail than one that is focused on one, two or three well-defined strategies.

Social CRM Roundtable Discussion with the Tallahassee Society of Association Executives

Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a roundtable discussion on Social CRM for the Tallahassee Society of Association Executives. Adrienne Bryant of the Association of Florida Colleges, the roundtable coordinator, was kind enough to type up and share her notes. With her permission, I’m sharing an abridged version with you!

I kicked the conversation off by asking, “How do you define Social CRM?” Attendee answers were of course varied. All of their answers combined however, gave us a great picture of what Social CRM means. “It’s all about connecting the dots between the people who may or may not be members of your organization on the social web.”

Long post. More after the break:

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Involving Volunteers in Association Social Media Efforts

In a previous life, as VP for Marketing & Communications for the Virginia Association of REALTORS®, I leveraged volunteers within my association’s membership to create a small army of social media moderators. The volunteers were all hand-picked members of my Communications Committee. Their role was to approve or decline new group join requests (we only allowed association members to join the group). They used the association’s online membership directory to verify the person’s membership status and then approved the group membership if appropriate.

This approach had both benefits and risks. The benefits were:

  • I was able to distribute the social media workload, freeing myself up to do higher-level and higher-impact work.
  • The members were engaged in actual work of the association, making them feel connected and a part of things.

The risk, in this case, was that the members might not be as careful in approving/declining join requests as I would be. To minimize this risk, I documented the procedure that they were supposed to follow, as well as an escalation process that helped them bring to me any cases that were confusing.

As I think more about this experience, I would also recommend giving volunteers a single job, not multiple jobs, and only assigning one person to do one job. In other words: Mary approves members once a day; Bob monitors comments for spam twice a day; Chuck starts a new discussion if there hasn’t been a new post in the past two days. I had five members responsible for approving facebook group memberships. Sometimes I’d get email from them saying, “I got a message saying there were new group memberships to approve, but when I went in, there were none.” This happened because one of their co-volunteers approved the membership before they got to it, which was fine, but a little confusing for them.
This approach also allows you to spread the love to a lot more volunteers; plus it keeps things simple for the volunteers, allowing your association to ride the micro-volunteering trend.

Another idea: What if you gave your members “contributor” rights in your social media management system? They could compose posts for your official social media outlets, which could be held for editing and approval by association staff.

How Do You Staff Association Community Management Duties?

Maggie McGary points to a soon-to-be-released study concluding that among associations with 20,000 or more members, 31% have an online community. Which leads her to ask: Why are there so few online community managers in the association profession?

Quoth Maggie:

…as far as I know, there are still very, very few community managers in the association world…I’m a member of The Community Roundtable, basically an association for community managers… Of well over 100 members, exactly TWO of us work for associations (ok, three, yet those two members work for the same association). Yet, according to this report, there are a lot of associations with private social networking platforms. With the cost of launching and maintaining a private social network being what it is, I just don’t get the disconnect when it comes to community management.

Continueth Maggie…

I get that resources are tight and new positions are hard to justify… I see it all the time in action–associations who launched a platform several years ago who are now questioning whether it was worth the money and whether it’s worth maintaining the community because they’re not seeing the activity and resulting revenue generation that they’d been promised by the software vendor. Guess what? Without a community manager you most likely WON’T see those benefits, ever.

I agree wholeheartedly that proactive community management is essential to any online community’s success, but I think Maggie makes some assumptions that deserve challenging:

First, is it possible for an association to have a successful private community without a dedicated community manager? Yes, it is possible, but they are definitely the exception to the rule. You significantly raise the likelihood of success by having a dedicated community manager. In my experience, having a dedicated community manager is an association’s first and best option. But there are options. I’ll get to them in a minute.

Second, because an association has sufficient resources to set up and maintain a private social community, does it also necessarily have the resources to hire a full time community manager? Nope. There are enterprise online community solutions that start at less than $200 per month (including Avectra’s own MemberFuse), and even free options that can support many organizations’ objectives. That’s a pretty modest investment. A qualified community manager will run you many times that amount, not counting benefits and overhead. Much less modest.

So what about organizations that can’t afford to hire a full or part time community manager? Well, realistically speaking, you’ve got two possibilities.

First, you can distribute the community management duties across several staff. Here are the pros and cons to this approach:


  • No additional headcount. No additional overhead.
  • Current staff is already on staff, and (we hope) familiar with your organization, which means a much lower on-boarding effort to get your people up to speed.
  • Continuity and consistency will suffer, unless you have very well-defined document outlining standards and expectations.
  • There’s a significant possibility that staff won’t stick to their community management duties when their core projects take priority.

Second, you can outsource community management to a community to a third party.


  • No additional headcount. Less overhead than a FTE.
  • You’ll likely inure the benefit of someone with a longer community management résumé and more community management experience than anyone on your current staff. This should result in more proactive community management.
  • Your association benefits from the third party’s exposure to other clients. They will know what works well with other communities, and can apply it to yours.


  • The third party will be less familiar with your organization’s culture and issues. It will take time to bring them up to speed and (at first) may result in inconsistent messaging and/or longer response times to get approval or input on posts in the community.

Bottom line: Although it’s preferable to have one, your association CAN have an effective community without a dedicated community manager. You have options.