An ongoing discussion I have with Higher Logic clients and see featured frequently on ASAE Collaborate is whether a private online community should be open to anyone or limited to members only.
Friend and client Roy Snell from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) makes a case for open community in a recent issue of Associations Now. He argues that "closing social media is like tying a horse to the front of your car and pulling it around," and that the more people participating in an org's online community, the better. He claims that in order to be competitive with public social networking platforms, an organization must have an open community, because if other, larger communities exist for the profession your organization represents, your members will congregate there and your community will become irrelevant.
Roy is cut and dry with regards to the question of whether or not a community should be open or closed; I have to say that my own answer falls more towards "it depends." On the whole, I do think that open community is the way to go. I agree with all of the points Roy makes in his article, especially his point about more people equating to more discussion. Opening the platform to the public is a great idea if your goal is to raise awareness of the organization or the industry it represents. In the case of SCCE - the association Roy uses as an example - this was a key issue. Another Higher Logic client, The American Institute of Architects (AIA), took the same approach when they launched their online community. Today, if you measure the number of pages indexed by Google in their site, they have been incredibly successful. Compare the publicly indexed pages of the AIA main site:
With those of their community site:
You can clearly see that opening a community and letting it be indexed by search engines has significant benefit with regard to raising visibility of the organization online and improving SEO for the community platform. SCCE has had similar success so the organization is exponentially more visible compared to what it used to be, which has been part of the reason for their significant membership growth.
However, that said, most associations want a private place or a mix of open and closed communities, so this strategy may not work for them. Especially in the case of healthcare or medical-related associations, a closed community is actually a significant member benefit. Because the issues members of those orgs discuss are sensitive and having those conversations in a public place like a Facebook or LinkedIn group could be a professional liability, their association having a safe space in which to ask clinical questions is a compelling reason to both join the association and participate in the online community.
What are your thoughts? Should association online communities be open or closed and why?