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Defining your Internet needs.

Before going online with members, determine how and what you want to communicate.

A friend called me the other day to say, "Guess what, I just got an Internet user ID."

"Wonderful," I said. "What are you going to use it for?"

There was a momentary silence on the other end of the telephone. "I guess I can search for information and send electronic mail to some friends." He added, "Do you have an account?" I indicated that I did have an account but that I hadn't been an active user until recently, when I acquired some software to search the "worldwide web," a new nickname for the Internet.

Like my friend, many Internet users get their user identifications without planning how they are going to use this marvelous tool. In the 1970s, I was a faculty, member at the United States Army Engineer School in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. I had the opportunity to work with ARPANet, a network used by a nearby research facility to share ideas, communicate about engineering research projects, and send an early form of e-mail. To communicate, we had to use a standard "envelope" with a correct "address" for the destination computer. It was essentially this form of electronic envelope that evolved into the Internet user accounts that are so popular today. The point of this story is that we had a "hook" for using ARPANet - a reason for sending and receiving information electronically. That same hook has to be defined for today's Internet users.

Let's look at three technologies to see how an association can use the Internet to service its members.

Electronic mail. Most users think of Internet and e-mail simultaneously. For example, President Clinton and Vice President Gore have Internet e-mail "mailboxes." In fact, many government offices have central directories listing multitudes of user-account codes for directly accessing people. This in itself can be considered an electronic breakthrough for purposes of your association's legislative and government relations communication.

Keep in mind that e-mail is a one-to-one communication link and, therefore, an excellent medium for building relationships with members and prospects. To facilitate communication among association staff and members, you might publish the e-mail addresses of members in your directory, along with telephone and fax numbers.

Forums. Also known as news groups, forums are a one-to-many communication link. Currently more than 7,000 forums - covering just about any topic you could imagine - are in existence on the Internet. A good way to enter the Internet in this capacity may be to set up online focus groups or forums for your volunteer members to conduct task force or committee work online.

Another use is online discussions - also called "chat" areas - where users of the services or products of your association can get help or gather additional information on selected topics.

Bulletin board systems. Currently, bulletin boards are probably the best technology to use to market your association's products and services on the Internet. Start-up requirements are minimal: some software, a computer, and someone to monitor the bulletin board. A number of public data access providers, such as America OnLine and CompuServe, will lease your association space and offer e-mail addresses that allow users to respond.

Your bulletin board could contain a listing of your association's publications, and individual publications could be downloaded to the user's computer with the appropriate passwords. In addition, bulletin board users could view the association's calendar and newsletter, register for events, and send e-mail to staff members. Clearly, a bulletin board can be used to fit your imagination.

Prepare first

The best way to learn whether the Internet is the right communication path between your association and its members is to evaluate the Internet and its various options for yourself. Before signing up for an Internet user ID, however, it is a good idea to get yourself an Internet guidebook. I highly recommend the Windows Internet Tour Guide by Michael Fraase, published by Ventana Press, (919) 942-0220. This guide is well-written and contains helpful connection information as well as some excellent software. Many other guides, including DOS books and books written for the Apple Macintosh, are also on the market.' Your local computer retailer can also provide you with information on how to get started.

Most public data access providers give free Internet usage time when you sign up, along with your user ID and the documentation to get started. The advantage to using these providers is that they take the mystery out of Internet access and provide you with bulletin board space to advertise your association's services.

The Internet provides a new collection of exciting communication media for reaching members and prospective members. But before you leap, remember to do your research so that your first steps into cyberspace will be confident ones.

Maynard H. Benjamin, CAE, is president of the Envelope Manufacturers Association of America, Alexandria, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:computer network for trade associations
Author:Benjamin, Maynard H.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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