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Associations Now


ASSOCIATIONS NOW, November 2007, Feature

By: Stephen Pelletier

From blogging to social networking, Web 2.0 offers powerful new communication tools. How can your association shape a strategy for these next-generation internet opportunities?
Summary: Facebook and MySpace may seem like frontier towns on the information superhighway, with all of the risks that implies. But with the right strategy, your association can tame the Web 2.0 beast and move ahead with confidence.

Imagine that you’re in your first meeting with senior staff to plan for Web 2.0. There’s buzz around the table; questions abound. What can Web 2.0 do for us? How does it fit with our mission? Will it bust the budget? Is it IT compatible? Will it let us manage our message? What are the risks? And of course, someone at the table is almost bound to ask, “What is Web 2.0?”

Whether you’re talking about social networking sites, wikis, podcasting, blogging, or a mix of all of the above, the central issue boils down to this: How do you frame your association’s involvement in Web 2.0 and begin to craft an effective strategy?

The short answer? It’s complicated.

Web 2.0’s social networking capabilities are a bit of a catch-22. On the one hand, as management consultant Dennis D. McDonald describes it, social networking gives people the ability to “establish groups, build and maintain relationships, create and exchange information, and have conversations with a large number of people, or very, very small targeted groups, within the blink of an eye.” On the other hand, though, the wide-open nature of Web 2.0—with its easy, instant accessibility to virtually anybody—makes it hard to manage messages, control the distribution of knowledge, and keep reins on intellectual property in ways that associations are used to. Someone at your first Web 2.0 meeting is bound to be concerned about those risks.

These tensions, McDonald has found, have “caused some consternation in organizations where some traditional boundaries are seen to be threatened.” As a result, most associations seem to be taking a fairly guarded, go-slow approach to Web 2.0.

A wiki sponsored by the consulting firm Principled Innovation lists associations that use Web 2.0 tools (see It’s not a scientific survey. But, still, it’s telling that, out of some 10,000 associations worldwide, the wiki lists less than 100 organizations.

Among some of the more notable experiments, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has ventured bravely where few associations have dared to tread by creating its own group on Facebook, the wildly popular social networking hub. The Optical Society of America has a discussion forum “podblog,” a blend of podcasts and blogs. The Montana Library Association started a wiki to share presentations from its 2007 annual meeting.

So, if you want to join this list of brave associations, what do you need to talk about during that first planning meeting? How do you make the leap into Web 2.0?


Strategic Vision View

The wrong place to start that meeting, McDonald says, is with a question like “Well, what software should we buy?” A more powerful conversation starter, he says, would be to ask, “What kinds of services do we really want to provide to our members?” Without a “strategic vision view” of Web 2.0 applications, McDonald says, “you’re not going to be judging them in terms of how they can contribute to the overall success of the organization.” 

Basic education about Web 2.0 might also be in order. Like many associations, the Project Management Institute wrestles with how best to use Web 2.0. PMI has more than 240,000 members in more than 160 countries. David Sabol, a PMI learning systems specialist, says that his association has been thinking deliberately about how dimensions of Web 2.0 can be integrated into PMI’s organizational culture, package of member services, and enterprise architecture.

Inside PMI, Sabol conducts monthly staff training sessions on Web 2.0 topics, essentially building knowledge about Web 2.0 from the ground up. When he explains things like social bookmarking and RSS feeds to frontline staff, Sabol says, it’s in the context of how they can be leveraged to create value for PMI.

That strategy dovetails with a recommendation from McDonald, who says that associations will start to get more comfortable with Web 2.0 when they create hands-on ways for their leaders and top-level staff to “start seriously engaging with these kinds of technologies.”   

Social networking through Web 2.0, Sabol says, means “empowering people to make connections, collaborate, and create whatever they can imagine.” He isn’t sure, however, how well such services mesh with the conservative ethos of many associations. “I see this type of tool as most useful ‘behind the firewall,’ where members can easily connect with other members, regardless of where they are, to collaborate, create, learn, and grow,” he says.

Ben Martin, CAE, director of communications and new media for the Virginia Association of Realtors (VAR), is a strong proponent of Web 2.0. He has been known, for example, to podcast nightly from association meetings.

“One of the prime indicators of somebody’s likelihood to renew, volunteer, or recommend your association to a colleague is the extent to which they’re engaged,” says Martin. He says, therefore, that a strong rationale for social networks is that they provide new channels for associations to engage members in “meaningful interchange and discussion.”

In his approach to adopting Web 2.0 applications, Martin pursues what he characterizes as “low-hanging fruit.” VAR is working, for example, to establish member groups on both Facebook and LinkedIn, a social network with a strong business slant. With an existing blog devoted to Realtor ethics, VAR is also considering starting a more general, organizational blog. Recently, too, the association set the context for an upcoming board meeting in an audio briefing sent via podcast.


Frontier Town

As something of a frontier town on the information highway, Web 2.0 comes with plenty of inherent risk, and you’ll need to address it during your meeting. Members of social networks can post anything they want, including criticism or even wildly unfounded accusations. In that kind of context, it’s virtually impossible to control the message. Those kinds of realities make many an association skittish, to say the least.

“It’s hard to open yourself up to what may be potentially criticism,” says Jonathon D. Colman, senior manager of digital marketing at The Nature Conservancy. “Not everyone is going to love that great story that you just posted, and some of them may say bad things about it or about you—in a public space. And that’s really scary.” 

Many nonprofits, Colman observes, fall prey to an urge to say, “Oh, but what about the review? Or what about running this by the board first?” The antidote to that thinking is one that association CEOs may not want to hear—that to some extent you have to relinquish absolute control of the message and risk the occasional slam, because the benefits of social networking make that tradeoff one worth making.

Rather than cave to potential naysayers, Colman suggests, the way to think about Web 2.0 is like this: “Instead of empowering the three percent of people out there who don’t like you and want to say something bad about you, you’re empowering the 97 percent who do love you, love your mission, love what you’re doing, and want to say great things about you. You’re empowering them to have that voice, which I think at the end of the day is much more of a win.”

Another plus, Colman believes, is that social networking gives organizations entrée to a potentially younger demographic. For example, by positioning itself as a content provider for Digg, a social content sharing site, The Nature Conservancy has been able to connect with individuals that Colman characterizes as both “younger than our traditional members might be” and demonstrably engaged in issues they care about. Reaching out to untapped markets that way, as well as through podcasts and even an online photo contest, has in turn led to a marked uptick in visitors to the conservation group’s own website.

Colman’s strategy is “try to engage the people where they’re already in love”—at the sites where they return regularly. That’s in contrast, of course, to organizations set on making their sites the number-one destination for members.

Jen Miller, the vice president for client relations at Susquehanna Technologies, says that plenty of associations want to be “the page that you bookmark … your homepage every time you open up a browser.” As laudable as that goal might seem, Miller says, it’s not really practical.

While “building communities is a very big part of what associations can do,” Miller says, members probably will not build their online social circle around a professional association. Rather, she suggests, offer a place where members and potential members can visit often to get the information they need.

Martin cautions that the door may be closing for associations that are dragging their heels on Web 2.0. Anyone can create a social network on any subject, Martin says, and associations need to bear in mind that, in their particular areas of expertise, “if you don’t do it, somebody else may very well beat you to it.” Similarly, McDonald says that associations should strategize about Web 2.0 in the context of the competitive reality that “there are cheaper, lower-cost alternatives out there for people to get some of their social and communication and relationship benefits.” 

Social networking is “just a whole new way to provide value,” Martin says. The value proposition is also key for Sabol. “Web 2.0 has really proven to be able to connect people in the right way at the right time,” Sabol says. As your leadership team sits down to discuss Web 2.0, he advises, “You need to be consistent with your member needs and member value, and also consistent with who you are as an association. As long as a member finds value in it, and it’s consistent with your organization’s mission, vision, and organizational objectives, that’s what really guides your strategy.”

Stephen Pelletier is a writer and editor based in Rockville, Maryland. Email:



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