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Protect Your Association with Social Media Governance - 10/19/2010 -

In this Association Media & Publishing interview with Mari Anne Snow, CEO of Sophia Think Consulting, we take a look at special considerations when associations are developing their social media governance process and strategy.

By Carla Kalogeridis


Q: What are the main issues associations need to be concerned about when setting up social media governance policy?


Snow: Well, the first advice is keep it simple. Complicated, overly engineered governance programs and user policies are too hard to maintain, and users tends to ignore them.  Furthermore, you can’t monitor them, so accountability is low; they lose relevance very quickly as the technology changes so fast, and as a result, they don’t protect the organization very well.


Second, think of governance and policy as two separate issues. Governance is related to the overall strategic objective developed by the top levels of the organization.  It addresses questions like: why are we using social media, what benefit do we hope to get out of it, what are we willing to invest in it. and what is the message we wish to communicate to the outside world.  User policies are much more tactical; they define the basic rules employees, volunteers, and members need to follow when they represent the organization while using social media.


Q: So how can associations develop effective governance that is meaningful and also manageable?


Snow: Social media takes much more time and resources than most people realize.  Associations, like most organizations, have finite resources.  Identifying the business objectives helps define the resource needs, which helps with budgeting and also establishes realistic expectations.  It’s all about good planning.  Effective governance also provides the framework for measuring the return on the resource investment and helps define the success measures for any social media campaign. 


Social media is potentially very, very powerful, and it is certainly a great way to establish a visible online presence. But unlike traditional marketing, it takes a while to ramp up, uses lots of resources, and introduces risk. Here are a few basics that really pay off in the long run but take time up front:


·         Assign a single point of contact and establish clear ownership of social media—and make whomever you choose also responsible for implementing strategy, managing resources, and controlling the budget. This doesn’t mean they do it all by themselves; others should have input and act as advisors or subject-matter experts as needed.  But ultimately you need someone close to the action with full accountability that can evaluate progress, report results, and raise concerns fast. You also need someone who can maintain focus in this area as things change very, very quickly.


·         Senior members of the association—your board of directors, committee chairs, and anyone else in the organization’s leadership—need to understand the risks and the long-term commitment associated with social media.  This is a new area, and it doesn’t function in the same fashion as traditional venues.  Also, using social media has real associated risks. A large part of good governance is about education and keeping all parties informed so there are no surprises if something unexpected occurs.


·         Establish a crisis plan before a crisis occurs. Social media is a fickle platform. One well-meaning, enthusiastic volunteer—or conversely, someone with a nefarious agenda—can create problems that impact your association’s reputation as well as that of your members. Social media does not respond well to traditional damage control because everything happens instantly. Therefore, a well-thought out response delivered in real time can make a world of difference.


Social media accelerates and amplifies the good, the bad and the ugly. Take the time to understand how the system works, and determine your crisis plan before you have a problem so you can react quickly if something difficult occurs.


Q: How about user policies?


Snow: A couple of things for association publishers to remember in this area:


1.     Keep them broad-based and flexible, not tool-based as tools change.


2.     Privacy policies are important, and they are a major concern in today’s world . Explicitly state how you manage member data.


3.     Let your members know they can’t actively add third-party technology that scrapes/mines your sites (unless this is part of your mission).


4.     Develop simple, clear user guidelines indicating how employees, volunteers and members acting on behalf of the association should conduct themselves on association sites and public sites when they speak for your organization.


5.     Review the association’s user policies often as things change quickly.


Q: How does governance for a nonprofit, member-based organization with a volunteer board of directors differ from governance in a for-profit company?


Snow: The obvious thing is a lack of consistent resources.  Consistency over time is a key component to social media, yet volunteers are transitory. Their skills and available time vary wildly.  Nonprofits dependent upon volunteers have to build this into their planning and their governance structure.  Having one central point of contact with longevity in the organization helps alleviate things—unless that individual doesn’t have the aptitude or inclination for social media –then it could be a PR disaster. 


Social media status updates should be presented at board agendas, addressed at member meetings, and discussed with volunteers.  When everyone knows what’s happening, it ‘s easier to source ideas and enlist enthusiastic supporters. 


In addition, determine your business objectives and keep them as simple as possible so they can be met and maintained regardless of the personalities.  And set realistic goals because you may not be able to do everything you aspire to do. Focus the efforts on smaller goals that you can maintain long-term and do them well, rather than biting off too much and doing everything poorly.


Q; What are some of the social media governance concerns for associations that serve industries that have privacy issues like medical and legal fields?


Snow: Electronic user data is a really valuable commodity on the open market today – specialized data even more so.  Associations are highly specialized, and this makes them especially attractive to businesses interested in your membership.  Associations connected with sensitive areas like the medical field, mental health, etc. must be especially vigilant regarding network and member data security.  They need to connect with trusted sources to keep abreast of new developments as changes happen continually. 


Also, given the pace of innovations over the last few decades, regulation and legislation lag pretty far behind technology advances.  Most regulatory agencies are advocating self-regulation as a practical path for social media participants while the agencies work to develop appropriate policy.  Clear, well-maintained governance provides defensible self-regulation particularly for associations operating in or representing industries in regulated environments.  As most agencies are openly soliciting input from early adopters, formulating self-governance gives you an opportunity to have a voice in the process.


Q: What are some of the more general risks for organizations getting involved in social media—even if their industry doesn’t have obvious privacy concerns?


Snow: As associations, you represent a definable demographic, which makes you particularly attractive to data-mining companies.  Associations should have measures in place to police their membership sites to safeguard against third-party cookies.  Also be aware that many large social media platforms, like Facebook, collect data for their own use and may have arrangements with third-party vendors that mine data behind the scenes. We strongly suggest you seek outside experts who understand this technology if you don’t have the in-house expertise.


Q: How can an association self-assess the risks of its current involvement in social media?


Snow: As an association develops governance and user policies, risk has to part of the discussion, as in: What is our organization’s appetite for risk?  This may seem like an obvious question, but not everyone likes to talk about it.  If an organization is already participating in social media, then the amount of risk that exists is directly proportional to the amount of visibility and active participation: higher visibility + heavier engagement = higher risk.


Passively using social media for research and listening is lower risk than publishing content, soliciting comments, and actively broadcasting from the major platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Google and location-based tools like Foursquare).  When an association has multiple users, unsurprisingly, the risk increases. The key factors really are the amount of visibility and the amount of engagement.  If you publish content, but no one reads it; if you have a Facebook page but no friends; if you tweet without followers – your risk is proportionally lower, but on the flip side, you certainly aren’t getting much value for all your efforts.


Q: What is the biggest mistake that organizations make in the area of social media governance?


Snow: Here’s my short list:


1.     They underestimate social media and don’t have a consolidated strategy for its use. As a result, it’s hard to gain momentum and impossible to measure the value proposition over time.  If you are an association with a lean team and limited resources, that’s a big problem long term. 


2.     They don’t think about the skills required to succeed in this medium.  It’s tough to elevate your message above all the noise, develop an engaged following, and then ignite them to action for some tangible purpose – this takes real talent and dedicated resources.


3.     They forget to ask themselves very simple planning questions up front. These include: Why am I trying to get people to engage, what am I asking of them once they are engaged, and what am I going to do to keep them engaged?


4.     They underestimate the potential risks and they don’t prepare ahead of time for crisis.


Don’t get me wrong – I am a strong advocate of social media for associations, particularly nonprofits.  I think it’s a truly powerful, affordable way to reach an audience and broadcast a message.  But governance is a key component to success— the better the plan, the better the results. Take time to educate yourself and seek outside help from people familiar with the tools. That’s the best way to learn.


Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing. Don’t miss Mari Anne Snow’s upcoming article on this topic in the November/December 2010 issue of Signature magazine.


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