For decades it has been understood that information should only be shared with the people who truly "need to know" it. Part of this was driven by efficiency. It would take a significant amount of time and effort to communicate everything to everybody, particularly before the Internet, so we made careful choices about what information we shared with whom.
Since the arrival of the Internet, of course, it has become much easier to share information with large numbers of people. But our hesitancy to share information still remains. In the end, we often decide that it is safer to withhold information. If we share it, then people might misunderstand or misuse it in some way. In short, the more information that's out there, the less we feel we are in control, so we still maintain the "need to know" doctrine on a regular basis. We carefully prepare information before releasing it, and we tend to share the bare minimum in order to mitigate risk.
However, as I mentioned in my last post, the Millennial generation will frequently be confused by this approach. Millennials grew up with the social Internet, so they are used to being able to see pretty much everything, all the time. Between Google and their social networks, there is basically NOTHING they can't find out (or so it seems, anyway). And where previous generations grew up being able to manage and control how they showed up in the world (the person you were with your teachers could be quite different than the person you were with your parents or your friends), the Millennials have become used to just putting it all out there, since the Internet makes everything discoverable.
So what does this mean for online communities? It means you had better get ready for transparency.
Now, we have seen a lot of work by many communities in this regard already - you guessed it - in relation to launching a community in beta. You may think of beta launch (or soft launch) as meaning, "Let's launch this site with a small group of 'beta testers' who can help us make sure it's usable before we plan the big public launch in 6 weeks," but here is what launching in beta really means. It means, "We are being transparent in launching a site that may still have issues and things that need to be fixed or don't work properly yet, but we want to share this experience with you, our users, so you can help shape how this platform will work best for you."
Right? That strategy, in essence, is all about transparency. It's all about putting something out there that is not complete or perfect, warts and all, knowing that the ultimate result - a community with engaged users invested in its success - is worth the risk of not starting out as perfect as it might have been.
And the way to mitigate that risk, you guessed it, is MORE transparency, not less. You will find out if your beta testers KNOW that things might not work, which is precisely why you need their help, and then of course they will willingly provide the feedback you are requesting. You're not (I hope) dumping people into your community and saying, "You're in, go do stuff". You're saying, "Please test all these different functionalities for us. Tell us what is working well, and what needs fixing, so we can collectively make this a better experience for everyone once we open the doors wide". You're being transparent about the fact that you want their help, and about why you want their help - what the ultimate goal is.
So how else can transparency help you grow and nurture your community? Why not think about it as a strategy for seeding specific discussion threads inside your community, too, knowing Millennials' (and others') interest in transparency? For example, how about providing a space to share board minutes on particular topics, open for discussion? Or creating a group to share ideas for new articles for your association magazine, or even voting on articles so members can decide which topics they like best, and then actually following through on those choices for the magazine? Why not offer an open group for committees to share some of the stuff they are otherwise working on behind closed doors?
One organization we work with has created an open forum for members to discuss industry standards - which doesn't take away from the closed door process of creating those standards, but instead will provide a layer of additional value for members who are interested in the topics without necessarily having the time to commit to actually sitting on a standards development committee.
All of these things are about transparency, and if you think about it holistically, you should be able to piece them all together into what I call a transparency architecture. The stronger and more stable your transparency architecture is, the more you can attract your members to get involved in the inner workings of the organization - leading to more engagement and better retention.
This post is part of a series about Millennials and Online Community. Join us in the conversation! What are you doing to encourage transparency inside your organization, and how does your online community fit into your transparency architecture?