Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Associations -- and Social Media -- Are Only Human

Associations -- and Social Media -- Are Only Human

By Dennis D. McDonald

Ben Martin’s provocatively titled blog post As long as people don’t really care associations will survive addresses the common (these days) idea that social media and social networking somehow “compete” with the traditional idea of a professional association. After all, if anyone can throw together an online group of like-minded individuals at the drop of a hat, won’t professional associations inevitably lose members to such grassroots movements?

I used to think that but not any more. Here’s the comment I left on Ben’s post (you should read his post and the other comments):

I once thought that the ease with which online communities can be formed could be viewed as a threat to traditional associations (e.g., see /professional.html from October 2006). I’m not so convinced of that any more. The reason is simple: online communities need to be managed. Neither associations nor corporate enterprises have a monopoly on ignorance — or knowledge — of how to manage online communities.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that the idea that associations are “naturally” a logical user of online social media and social networking is illusory. ALL organizations, not just associations, have a vested interested in their different communities working together.

For example, associations are just as concerned about “losing control” as any other organization thinking about opening up two-way communications on the web with potential customers, users, vendors, or any other “community member.” 

Yep, if you give people the opportunity to express themselves about your products or services, someone is inevitably going to say something you don’t like.

One alternative — as some organizations in the private sector have found — is to manage communications so carefully that people won’t want to participate because of the lack of authenticity.

The result of such a situation, of course, will be that some people WILL find alternative avenues for expressing ideas about the things that matter to them the most. In this respect, associations and their constituents are similar to other types of organizations. But as Ben suggests, not everyone will share that view and in the short term that may not be a serious issue.

One of the things I have been impressed with as I read about the realities of “social media strategies” and “enterprise 2.0 adoption” in publications such as Social Media Today and in the rooms of FriendFeed is that people are writing about what works and what doesn’t work.

Those of us who have helped people build and implement systems that are technology-based but which are primarily process-oriented recognize the signs: systems need to be planned and they need to be managed. They don’t “happen” by themselves, no matter how enthusiastic evangelists are for grassroots movements and viral adoption. This is as true for associations as for any other type of organization.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

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