The 21st century has heralded some of the most exciting and challenging innovations for Associations. Associations with histories dating back into the 18th and 19th centuries are facing futures where people’s capacities to associate has changed dramatically in the Internet-age. Associations were formed on the back of people’s common issues and interests because people were getting together to discuss them and then wanted a framework within which to make decisions to move an issue forward or decide a common policy.
Now, millions of people can discuss an issue, engage in debate and share ideas (and photos and videos) having never met the others they are associating with all thanks to the Internet. More specifically it is thanks to what many term “social media” or technologies that allow people to share information in real-time over the Internet.
More than ever before Associations should understand and embrace these platforms for managing their Associations not just marketing them.
Managing the Modern Association
The foundation of Fitness Australia’s recent transformation into the single national Association for the health and fitness industry is a commitment to the following four value statements:
In deference to the latter two we are constantly seeking innovative ways to connect all the parts of the fitness to combine our efforts in working towards a fitter, healthier Australia. As an organisation we actively seek Internet-based solutions to common Association management problems and look at social media technologies as a way to create more meaningful engagement with our customers. Importantly, our organisational culture is to build these technologies into the core management practices, not simply make them a function of one department or another. Blogging, tweeting, online discussion forums are not marketing tools they are management tools if applied appropriately.
Some of the tools we use that could be considered social media include:
Of course, one of the great challenges to the Association Executive in the Internet-age is (1) which applications do we use; and, (2) for what purpose do we employ them. Controlling information for and about your industry or profession is nonsensical in the 21st century as is any belief that the world needs your Association to participate in your industry or profession.
People are talking about us, our Association and our industry without us and often to a far larger audience than our Association could ever dream to have. In many cases there are professionals and businesses from our own industry talking with a credibility that our Association can only wish for. Associations employing Internet-based social technologies are well advised to do so with a firm ‘whole-of-organisation’ commitment to authenticity, integrity and sharing. To do otherwise will score you zero with the very people you are trying to engage.
It was in exploring some of this thinking that Fitness Australia made some significant decisions about the use of Internet-based technologies as parts of our future growth and success. First, we sought solutions to help us broaden our sphere of influence and thus raise our Association’s profile. Second, we looked for technologies which would create outreach and bring people back to our industry website as the portal for industry information and discussion. Last, we believed that embracing online platforms would help engage our staff who lived all over Australia.
Our executive management team were concerned that our sphere of influence was limited as a result of the limited sphere of influencers. A core group of advisors were the only ones putting their hand up to provide advice and while mostly trustworthy sources we wanted to know that their views were also those of the industry professional. So we sought other ways to get advice from the depth and breadth of our industry without incurring significant travel and meeting costs.
We discovered Groupsite.com, thanks to my association with YAPstar.org for Young Association Professionals. In its most basic form a Groupsite is a free platform for sharing information alongside some highly functional communication tools. We have built two Groupsites now for two different purposes.
Fitness Australia’s Online Network (fitnessaustralia.groupsite.com) is open to anyone in the Industry looking to engage in conversations about issues affecting the fitness industry. With little effort we have created a following of 318 people and they span all the geographic reaches of Australia and come from all industry backgrounds. All the Groupsite’s functions are able to be managed for use by all members or only managers or administrators.
Critical to making Fitness Australia a successful national industry association was our ability to apply this online platform to our more traditional Governance framework. The Board of Directors delegates some of it’s thinking and consultation to eight (8) territorial advisory councils known as Regional Industry Councils. Communicating efficiently and effectively with all the volunteers on these Councils was, and continues to be, vital to our efforts to raise industry standards and the Association’s profile.
The groupsite.com platform is perfect for this. All the volunteers are signed up to the fitnessindustry.groupsite.com site, and participate in the discussion forums, access documents from the online filing cabinets, read and respond to Blog posts from industry leaders and share their goals with other Groupsite members. Importantly groupsite.com allows the manager to establish sub-groups so we have been able to create smaller group environments based on the each Regional Industry Council’s jurisdiction and the full Groupsite.com functionality is then available at sub-group level as well.
As a result, we now have over 400 industry professionals, owners and managers available online to us when we need to share ideas, consult policies and announce initiatives in accordance with our plans. And, because they are active in our online environment the majority are also active in other online environments talking about information they learned or contributed to in a Fitness Australia environment. This gives our profile a significant boost as it does our credibility as a modern Association.
To reach out in a more dynamic way Fitness Australia has embraced the use of Twitter (www.twitter.com/fitnessorgau) alongside the more traditional means of sending out broadcast emails to our database. In the trademark 140 character blasts we are able to entertain our “followers” with information which is designed to bring them back to our website (www.fitness.org.au) for more details and engagement. Monthly email blasts to segmented sections of our database occur with the purpose of informing debate on issues, launching policies and updating on projects.
Twitter gives us, and the millions of other users, the capacity to very quickly send out an update on something which often includes no other details than what is in the Tweet. More often than not there is a link to our website or a newsite in keeping with our passion for being the portal for sharing industry information with our constituents.
One of the great things about these online platforms is the ability to link them all together. We have embedded the HTML code from our Twitter account into the homepages of our website and our Groupsites in an effort to leave no stone unturned in keeping our fans and followers up to date with our most current work and achievements. A Twitter update then immediately creates new content for our other sites in real time and helps share information across platforms with different audiences.
In a similar way, we have started trialling the use of Yammer to keep our staff team updated with everyone’s current work, their achievements and notable intelligence. Yammer is like Twitter in that it allows short sharp updates to be broadcast. However there is client software which can be downloaded to individual desktops as well as the online version and it is far more ‘business’ friendly. The sharing of information is limited to only those people you invite to participate – in our case only our team of staff who currently reside in five of Australia’s 8 states or territories and span four time zones.
Keeping the team working together and sharing information has been a significant strategic and operational focus for Fitness Australia since we merged all the former regional Associations into one. With one national team of staff it remains incredibly important to be able to communicate Association information in a timely fashion to all staff as well as start to engage all the team, regardless of their role, in meaningful debate and conversations about policy, procedures and importantly their own development.
Knowing we were running MS Small Business Server, we soon learned that it included MS SharePoint as part of its framework. Creating an Intranet environment using the “out of the box” version of SharePoint allowed us to explore the functionality and for what purpose would we share information over an Intranet. In no time at all we were sharing Calendar information about Staff Leave; an Ideas Discussion Board; Policy Announcements and creating meeting spaces so that all staff meetings were being run from the Intranet.
It took time to create a culture whereby staff would look for an answer to their questions on the Intranet first before contacting another team member. Further it took more time to create a culture whereby all team members learned of their own rights and responsibilities for sharing information on the Intranet for the benefit of their team. Now even our receptionist regularly contributes to policy debates based on her regular interaction with industry leaders who openly share information with her.
Fundamental shifts in thinking have occurred to ensure the employment of social media and online technologies is linked directly to strategic, business and operational planning. Our CEO is committed to letting us explore new technological platforms for increasing our influence and information sharing via the Internet. Our Internet presence is as important to us as our customer service over the phone and face to face.
Most importantly we are choosing the platforms with a clear purpose in mind and measurable objectives determined so we are able to monitor and review effectiveness. It is only with these purposes and objectives in place are we able to ensure we don’t forget why we are investing time and energy in the technologies in the first place for it is very easy to spend a lot of time “playing” with the online tools, making them look good, and them having no effect whatsoever on the work of the Association.
That said, investing some time in logging on to the myriad of opportunities online is the only way to find out what will work for your Association.
About the Author
Robert Barnes has worked in Association Management since he was 19 years old and holds postgraduate degrees in communications and publishing and an MBA. He is committed to a vision for Fitness Australia being recognised as a web-centric Association reputed for innovative approaches to modern Association management. He is a husband and father, keen writer and reader, and exercises regularly to enjoy a fitter, healthier life.