Myspace appeared as the first online networking community in 2003, followed soon after by Facebook. Social networking continued to spread and thrive in a variety of different forms, as LinkedIn and Twitter also became mainstream social media platforms.
It was not a fad that would pass in due course.
As these sites took root, other companies seized the opportunity to offer proprietary software alternatives to these popular social networking platforms. Companies such as Crowdvine and Pathable are among the pack of popular independent community networking software alternatives. Third-party registration companies and even some association management software (ASM) providers now offer community networking modules. Planners purchase these programs to deliver greater value to attendees and to help promote the event. With so many different options proliferating the online landscape, how do you choose which products are right for you?
Recently I’ve been speaking with some organizations that are grappling with this increasingly common and complicated decision. Association members often demand greater value for their membership dues and many nonprofits find themselves scrambling to deliver. Meetings have historically been the main driver of member networking opportunities; social media now offers association members and meeting attendees an opportunity to continue networking well after the meeting concludes without geographic restrictions.
Each organization’s needs are different and there aren’t any right or wrong answers to the questions you’ll need to ask yourself. What is most important is that you find a solution – or a combination of solutions – that will best support your customers’ needs and your organization’s goals. With that in mind, here are some questions you should consider as you analyze different online networking options:
1) What is your current social media/community networking status?
Does your organization already have a robust following and regular participation from your members and customers on LinkedIn or Facebook? If the answer to this question is yes, adding another social platform may not be the answer for your organization. If you choose to divert resources and attention away from already-established social media channels, your loyal following will notice the change in direction. Many associations don’t have the staff resources to support separate communities.
For a variety of reasons, some organizations have made the deliberate decision not to engage in today’s social media forums. Others have a basic social media presence, but have dedicated little time to growing and promoting their platforms. If your organization has not garnered tangible engagement or doesn’t have any presence at all, it may be worthwhile to re-launch your community networking efforts. You can revitalize existing groups and pages or investigate and engage a third-party platform.
2) How do your members and customers consume social media?
Another consideration is your clients’ social media habits: will they want to login to a second platform when their professional network is already anchored in LinkedIn? How will you differentiate what you offer via proprietary software versus what you deliver via mainstream channels such as LinkedIn and Facebook? Have your meeting attendees asked for a more robust networking community and how certain are you that they’ll actively participate after you’ve invested in the technology?
Consider putting together a focus group or deploying a survey to determine which online networking platforms and activities deliver the greatest value to your customers. If you decide to move forward with public and proprietary platforms, be certain to have a pathway of messaging, goals and activities in place for each platform. Some organizations utilize proprietary software for members-only engagement and reserve public forums like LinkedIn for nonmembers. This approach may offer your organization the added benefit of serving as fertile ground for membership recruitment and new customer acquisition.
3) What are your social media and community networking goals?
Meetings and marketing professionals engage in social media for a multitude of reasons from growing attendance to fostering networking to generating discussion in advance of the meeting. Define your expectations: if growing attendance tops your list, engaging nonmembers via Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest may well bring you some first-time attendees who hadn’t previously considered participating in your meeting.
Many third-party networking sites offer opportunities for additional revenue generation from and greater exposure for sponsors and exhibitors – benefits that aren’t available with public social media sites. Another value-added feature with third-party sites is that most integrate with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, enabling attendees to continue networking outside the proprietary community.
Budget, in addition to staffing issues, also remain considerations in your decision making process. An either/or solution may not necessarily exist for your organization’s social media archetype. Some organizations thrive with public social media platforms; others employ proprietary software and do so rather successfully. Before investing time and financial resources in any social media program – whether it’s additional staff or third-party proprietary software – first identify what your attendees are looking for, base your goals on those needs and develop a roadmap to reach them.