Association execs often mistakenly think that private communities are nothing but smaller-scale, social networking sites. That's why I loved Ernie Smith's article, In Defense of the Insular Social Network, on Associations Now last week. The article talks about Virtual Management, Inc's recent study, the 2013 Association Operations Survey.
As Ernie points out, the study did something interesting: in surveying respondents about their use of "social media sites," it lumps together public social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn with private community platforms including Higher Logic, Jive and others. While I was admittedly happy to see Higher Logic used by the highest number of respondents, I couldn't help but wonder why the private community platforms were lumped with the public social networking sites.
The survey summary states: "Very few have implemented private social networks" - I think this is a little misleading due to the potential confusion surrounding the question. Keep in mind there were 266 respondents; Higher Logic alone has nearly 400 association clients, and we're just one private online community platform - so to say that "very few" orgs have implemented private social networks is probably not accurate. Not that a listserv is a fully-functional private online community, but it is an online community, and I'd say the majority of associations have implemented either a listserv or a fuller-featured private community platform.
Two questions which were asked in the survey include: "Which of the following social media networking sites does your company use?" and "Which of the following capabilities does your association management software (AMS) system have?" My feeling is that these questions are confusing and don't present correct data about how many orgs have implemented private online communities.
Asking the question of whether an AMS system includes a private community component is different than asking whether an org has implemented a private social network. Also, as Ernie questions, "Is it possible that we don't think of social networks as the same thing as private communities, and that this may have affected the results?" I think it's very possible. It's important that associations don't think that public social networking sites belong in the same category as private online community platforms.
I've blogged about this before, in the context of LinkedIn, but as Ernie points out, while public social media giants like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter might have huge numbers of users, it doesn't mean that your members are necessarily likely to find more value from your org on those channels than on its own private community platform. I won't rehash why private communities offer more both to association members and to associations themselves when it comes to member engagement, but suffice it to say that member engagement is more than a numbers game.