Key players on the NEA publishing team explain how they use technology to collect member-generated content and increase engagement.
By Christina Folz
In 1982, author John Naisbitt coined the term "high tech, high touch" to describe technologies that help people embrace their humanness, as opposed to those that intrude upon it. Social media and other Internet technologies may be the greatest manifestations of that powerful idea. Using Facebook, Twitter, and other technology tools, association professionals can not only instantly communicate with their members; they can get to know them as three-dimensional human beings.
At the 2011 Association Media & Publishing Annual Meeting last week, three staff members from the National Education Association(NEA) described how their organization is using technology to make the most of their members' unique stories and perspectives across various media. NEA represents 3.2 million teachers and educational support professionals in America's public schools.
Five years ago, NEA's member magazine NEA Today was the primary communications platform between NEA and its readers. Reader interaction was largely limited to letters to the editor and an occasional column contributed by a member. Today, the association team plans only multi-platform content—with potential web, social media and print components—and regularly features member-generated content in NEA’s magazine and e-newsletter.
About three years ago, the team introduced an e-newsletter called NEA Today Express, which includes some elements from the magazine. The editorial team uses NEA Today Express to reach out to readers, capture their perspectives, and solicit feedback. "Using NEA Today Express allows us to seed story ideas and debut topics prior to printing them in the magazine," says Amanda Litvinov, senior writer/editor at NEA.
Using e-newsletters also gives associations the flexibility to customize their messages for different constituencies or geographies, Litvinov says. In addition, the staff uses the e-newsletter as a forum to showcase some of the best ideas that NEA members have contributed on the organization's listserv or other forums.
NEA also committed to aggressively growing its social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, according to NEA senior media specialist Kevin Hart. They followed a niche strategy of creating separate social media presences to meet the needs of different groups of members, including activists, employees in low-performing schools, and classroom teachers.
Then they invested the time to seed discussions, solicit content (through polls asking members to vote on story ideas, for example), and engage with their members. They also regularly gauged metrics to assess which of their social media properties "had the DNA to grow," Hart says.
"You need to reach a critical mass of fans or followers for most story sourcing and to drive activism," he explains. You typically need at least 1,000 fans/followers before you will start receiving substantive comments from more than just the same few people, he adds.
NEA also leverages a private discussion board that it hosts through a platform called Groupsite. Because members must register to contribute on Groupsite, there are fewer participants (about 3,500 as opposed to more than 12,000 Facebook fans). However, the Groupsite discussions often tend to be more thoughtful and nuanced than those on social media platforms.
"Using multiple tools is the best approach," says Litvinov. "When you are trying to collect user-generated content, you don't know what you will get or what will take off."
The group used content pulled directly from the discussion forum, listserv, and social media for an advice column in the magazine, as well as a "Teachers' Bucket List" feature in which they published selected responses from members who were asked what they most wanted to accomplish before they retired, says Mary Ellen Flannery, also a senior writer/editor at NEA. In another project, the NEA team created a photo-sharing site on Flickr through which members could upload their favorite photos; the best ones were later highlighted in the magazine, Flannery says.
Through these initiatives, the NEA team has deepened its connection to its readers and created strong content that reflects their needs and perspective. However, the process of gathering member content requires a concerted and coordinated effort. "User-generated content is not less work," Litvinov says. It requires you to cultivate ideas and build relationships. While the message comes from members, "you're still controlling the diversity of ideas." For those looking to better engage members, your work is cut out for you.
Christina Folz is the editor and content director for Optics & Photonics News, the magazine of the Optical Society, and a member of the Association Media & Publishing Content Creation Committee. Association Media & Publishing thanks her for volunteering to cover this Annual Meeting session for those members who were unable to attend.