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

By Dennis D. McDonald

I’m a member of an exclusive and high quality group on Facebook called “Association of Associations.” It’s composed of professional association executives and managers, members, vendors, and consultants (like me).

We chat about social networking , member services, and The Future of Associations As We Know Them. These are topics I care about (see here). It’s a pleasure to discuss them on a free and easy basis without the encumbrances and trappings of … let’s be honest … a professional membership association.

In other words, it’s a typical professionally oriented Facebook group.

Recently I posed this question to the group:

“The DC chapter of PMI is now a Linkedin “group.” Association use of social networking tools (such as Facebook and Linkedin) is a consulting interest of mine. The question of how a professional association can employ social networking tools to improve member services is an interesting one. If an association wants to improve member services by providing a social networking experience to its members, it can either “roll its own” by implementing one of the many “white label” services available, or it can hook up with an existing social network. If it operates its own network, it has total branding control but assumes the associated expense and learning curve. If it hooks up with an existing service (e.g., Linkedin) it benefits from experience but loses branding control. For example, if an existing service such as Linkedin is used, and the member experiences value, who gets the credit — Linkedin or the association? If something bad happens, who gets the blame?”

This set off a very informative series of messages pro and con to developing one’s own social network. The issues that were raised are familiar to anyone who has looked at such issues. For example, is the cost involved in developing a complex application that satisfies 100% of your organization’s unique requirement worth it? Or would it be better to use a product developed by someone else that satisfies a large proportion — but not all — of your unique requirements at a significantly lower cost?

I should say up front that I’m a consultant and I’ve helped clients work through questions like this. They are never easy to address. The uncertainties involved can be difficult to quantify.

Plus, this is one of those situations where you really do tend to find that “everyone is different.” It can be challenging to come up with a cut and dried recommendation without taking into account factors like your own organization’s technology infrastructure strategy, the nature and complexity of the integration you need to establish with existing systems, and the degree to which you feel comfortable about outsourcing the management of important corporate assets such as member and customer data.

I also admit to a personal bias towards the potential value  of outsourcing a service when the market is changing rapidly, competing solutions exist, and vendors are investing serious development dollars in an expanding market. Here’s how I concluded a recent comment on the Facebook discussion thread:

This has certainly been an interesting thread. The “make vs. buy” discussion always elicits a wide range of responses. Clearly individual situations will differ.

The two biggest factors I would want to look at first in advising an individual client on strategy would be (1) how comprehensive the vision is for applying social networking to the association, and (2) how integrated the system needs to be with other systems and operations.

(1) Regarding the association’s vision, if it is neither comprehensive nor innovative, I would be reluctant to allocate internal development resources  given how expensive it may be downstream to keep up with commercially available products and services. The support may just not be there, even if a “champion” exists at the present. (Champions have a habit of moving on after a time.)

(2) If the need to integrate the networking system with existing systems is high (e.g., membership database, fulfillment, financial, member services, HR, etc.) the integration and testing costs may account for a very significant proportion of the project’s initial cost. This is where toolsets, standards, API’s, architectural strategies etc. will drive costs. The interfaces with multiple systems will need to be managed over time just as the code you buy or rent will need to be maintained.

One might argue that it is the way that the networking system will integrate with these other systems is what really differentiates an association’s needs from the needs, say, of a for profit corporation. But if you review what goes on in the public forums of large corporations with external markets you’ll have to admit they have complex needs as well.

Another consideration is what you can develop using “open source” tools. It’s certainly not necessary to start developing from scratch these days. We may find, for example, that the open source tools that emerge from current interest in developing “portable social networking profiles” will simplify development of home grown solutions.

I would argue that during an era of rapid change it’s better to let a commercial developer or service supplier assume the obsolescence risk, but that takes us full circle back to the original “make vs buy” question!


On Developing a Personal Online Networking Strategy

School Communications & Emergency Response: What are the Implications for Social Media?

School Communications & Emergency Response: What are the Implications for Social Media?