A new research project from the Society for New Communication Research called, The Social Mind, examines the rise of new social behaviors and interrelationships between individuals, organizations, and influencers. The three year series of studies surveyed more than 400 professionals and highly educated people in North America who participate in social media networks.
The research found that 40% of professionals' online time is spent engaging in peer-to-peer online communities, followed by interacting with friends at 31% and family at 13%.
The large percentage of professional members' time and mindshare spent in online communities has significant implications for associations. Imagine all of things that someone can do online from watching videos to keeping up with friends to searching for and consuming content. If a professional spends 10 hours a week online, this data suggests that 4 of those hours are spent in peer-based professional online communities. That is a significant chunk of their time online and an even larger percentage of their industry-related Internet time.
Many associations are falling all over themselves to set up outposts on public social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, and developing social media policies for board approval. Public social networks are critical tools and the barrier to entry is low.
However, many associations are missing the opportunities to increase engagement and value for their members in private professional communities. Even many of the associations that have launched private social networks fail to put the strategy, platform, and community management resources in place to create a thriving professional community.
In turn, the length of time it takes to create a community and the complexity of the strategies needed to grow a private social network for professionals into a mature community has driven professional communities to fall out of favor with many in the association world. Listserv and online groups for association executives often see discussions titled, "Should we kill our online member community?" or "Why do we need a private community when we have LinkedIn?"
While associations work to serve existing members, generate event attendance, and adapt their membership models to meet the changing needs of their target audience, a stealth threat is mounting to associations' industry leadership. This challenger to associations comes in the form of membership organizations built around professional online communities.
Traditional associations have infrastructure, personnel, and publications. They often focus on membership management and conferences. Needing to maintain existing programs and put out fires with limited staff and budget leaves little room to develop peer-based communities on the web. Private online communities often become an afterthought or checkbox that associations can put in their marketing brochure.
In contrast, new organizations are cropping up around private online communities where helping members solve their professional problems is the first, and sometimes only, member benefit. Structured as the inverse of traditional associations, these nonprofit and for-profit groups build a passionate professional community first.
The have a laser focus on member value achieved through access to peers and other professionals in the community. Eventually, when the professional community is ready, they add content, research, and sometimes live events. These engagement-oriented membership organizations are lean, agile, and add to their offerings incrementally to limit ongoing overhead.
Examples of these membership organizations are:
With nearly 80% of respondents to The Social Mind study indicating that they participate in online groups to help others and 65% of a respondents saying that they go online to engage peers, these online community-first organizations have a direct line into the activity that professionals value most.
If 40% of a professional association member's online time is spent engaging peer, asking questions, and helping others in professional online communities, association executives are left with both a challenge and an opportunity. If association leaders know that roughly 2/5 of their members' time online is spent in peer-based communities, we're brought back to the question posed to associations at the beginning of this article:
Associations, Will You Provide That Professional Online Community?
In most cases, the opportunity is yours to grab. The online world is evolving faster than your monthly or quarterly board meeting can accommodate. Associations must find ways to put community building first. Organizations that don't build private professional communities risk ceding an increasing portion of member value to others in the industry.