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Getting members to go online.

Make electronic communication easy and make it meaningful. They'll want to sign on.

The pressure is on. A highly respected and very vocal member of your board is lobbying you to create an association Web site. You keep reading about the miracles of online communication - how the Web is the place to be. Many of your ASAE colleagues are talking about their associations' plans to go online. Is it time for you to move full speed ahead onto the Information Superhighway?

One sure way to decide is to ask yourself: "Is online communication a key part of our members' professional lives? Will (or should) it be in the future?"

If you answer a resounding yes to either question, go for it. If not, sit tight and continue to monitor developments. In either case, remember that online technology won't solve all your member and leader communication problems. Be prepared to help members get used to - and effectively use - your online services.

Determine why your association should be online

More than three years ago, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), San Francisco, based its decision to create an online presence on three compelling reasons.

1. The majority of our members (12,500 organizational communicators) were already using electronic communication in their workplaces.

2. Environmental scans showed that electronic communication would be an increasingly important factor in how organizations communicated with their customers, employees, shareholders, regulators, and business allies. Knowing how to manage it would be a critical factor in the professional success of communicators.

In fact, IABC leaders believed that the potential impact of emerging communication technology was so important to the profession that "leading the way in the use of advanced information technology in the profession" became a key component of IABC's mission - strong stuff for an organization in which the 29 staff members still shared computer terminals.

3. IABC had established a tradition of supporting members' professional development by providing a comfortable place for members to learn about new communication practices and technologies and to get hands-on experience. Online communication introduced yet one more learning need for members.

Change attitudes and aptitudes

Taking an association online and encouraging members to follow suit is a hands-on experience in change management. Here are a few examples, based on IABC's experience, of how to get members involved with your online services.

Ensure that your own staff members are up to speed. The promise of faster and more effective communication is a powerful motivator. If your staff members aren't already acclimated to technologies such as e-mail, you'll probably find that some initial training is all it will take to motivate them to make checking the internal message network and/or external e-mail part of their routine. That certainly was our experience at IABC. Furthermore, this staff buy-in to new technologies made their responses more timely and created a model that members could replicate in their own organizations.

Having staff members online offers three distinct benefits: 1) It demonstrates the association's commitment to new technology. 2) Staff can regularly monitor bulletin board threads (strings of messages on the same subject) - an effective way to track communication trends and issues, respond to concerns, and participate in ongoing discussions about the profession and the association. 3) Because e-mail and bulletin-board discussions lend themselves to quick response, high-tech encourages high touch with members.

Train members to use new technology. Use educational sessions to show members how to integrate online communication and research into what they do. Our programming - ranging from online demonstrations to two-day seminars - not only fosters understanding of how communication technology affects communicators' day-to-day work but gives communicators an opportunity to meet colleagues with similar interests and challenges. Likewise, IABC supports chapter professional development efforts by recommending speakers and sharing information about the successful programs of other chapters.

Provide a comfortable learning environment. Offering members free access to your online information and services is a deal that is hard to pass up. Even so, some members might be intimidated if they don't have experience using online technologies. A technique you might want to seriously consider is enlisting volunteer help. For example, a number of IABC leaders have volunteered to serve as technomentors, providing more in-depth guidance to communicators who are still learning their way around the online world. (Technomentor names are listed on IABC's Web site so that members can make direct contact.)

Create open, interactive links to your site. Think in terms of how your members and your association might benefit by providing easy access to the valuable information of other organizations and entities. IABC offers its 113 chapters space on its server at litre or no cost. (See sidebar, "IABC Web Site Policy for Chapter Sections.") Chapter leaders are also encouraged to create Web sites that include consistent information, but are designed to meet their members' unique needs and accurately show chapter programs and services.

Offer hot topics for discussion and debate. There's nothing like a hot topic - whether or not it is preplanned - to stir member participation in your online program and to let you see who is tuning in. For example, several years ago at IABC, online leaders and other members who were online at that time received information about a proposed increase of international dues. A lively debate followed. Two months later, more than 200 messages had been posted. Many more individuals downloaded bulletin-board threads. (Members not online could request the postings by mail.)

Reward members who go online. One way you can encourage members to use your online services is to promise them first notice of association news. IABC did this with our chapter presidents and the executive board. This incentive, coupled with free CompuServe sign-up kits, resulted in an online leader network, called LeaderLink, that has grown from 25 percent of IABC chapters and 50 percent of the 25-member executive board receiving information online to nearly 66 percent of all IABC chapters and 100 percent of our executive board.

In addition to first-heard news, you may want to consider giving your online network users additional products or services. We provide two monthly newsletters. One features successful programs from other chapters and news about international programs. A second, for chapter newsletter editors, encourages readers to freely use the information for their own publications. (Leaders who aren't online receive information via mail or broadcast fax.)

Methodically build your audience

Don't expect to go from having zero members online to having 50 percent - or even 5 percent - online overnight. Be realistic. Build new activities into your total line of products and services that move members forward but that allow you to continue to meet the needs of all your members.

This year, IABC took a multiple-media approach to publishing its membership directory by creating three products:

* a print directory - sent free to all members - with the alphabetical listing only (geographic and organizational cross references are available upon request and are free to members; based on member feedback, for 1997 IABC will resume a print version that includes the cross references);

* MemberLink, an electronic membership list on disk, searchable by any field or combination of fields (available in Windows, Mac, and DOS versions for $11.50); and

* MemberLink online, the same electronic membership list, available from IABC's Web site and free to any member who is online. (While it's too soon to gauge member access of MemberLink online - made available in June - in the future, members will be asked if they plan to use this information from the IABC Web site. This feedback, part of each member's record, will provide an ongoing indicator of member acceptance of online and electronic information.)

After launching an online initiative, try to determine which of your members are online and what services they use. At IABC, we incorporated these questions into our 1995 census. (Each year IABC members receive a copy of their member record to review and update before the association issues a new member directory.) It's a good idea to include space for e-mail addresses whenever you survey members. You can even collect this information when talking to members informally on the telephone. In 1995, more than 1,000 IABC members sent their e-mail addresses via census forms, nearly doubling our number of identified online members. Each month since then, 100-200 members have sent their online addresses. (As of May 1, 1996, IABC records showed 2,993 members online.)

Finally, set numerical goals for getting your members to use your association's online services - and be prepared to make the necessary commitments to meet those goals. IABC expects to have 70 percent to 80 percent (about 10,000) of all members online by the end of 1998. If we are to meet that goal, we'll have to continue the momentum that has developed during the past year by demonstrating just how powerful the new information technology tools can be in creating and implementing effective communication programs. In the past three years, IABC has invested nearly $700,000 in hardware, software, training, and staff support for its electronic infrastructure. Our organizational challenge - one facing most associations - is to continue to keep up with emerging technology while helping members keep up as well.

RELATED ARTICLE: IABC Web Site Policy For Chapter Sections

1. Chapters may use space on IABC's server or another server of their choice. In either case, IABC will create a link to the chapter's pages.

2. Chapters choosing to use IABC's server are entitled to two megabytes of free space on IABC's Web server. Each chapter will have its own URL (uniform resource locator - a World Wide Web address) for its section of the site. If the chapter's section exceeds two megabytes of space, the cost to the chapter will be U.S. $10 per megabyte per month.

3. Each chapter will be set up with one user name and password and will be responsible for maintaining its section of the IABC Web site. (Each chapter will have editing rights for its pages only.)

4. Chapters may change their passwords at any time by notifying IABC staff.

5. IABC will provide one copy of HTML (hypertext markup language) authoring software to each chapter.

6. IABC recommends that chapters include the following information on their pages:

* brief statement of chapter mission, objectives, and goals, including size of chapter and, if available, a brief profile of the chapter's membership;

* outline of programs and services, including prices, and which services are available to members only;

* chapter calendar - at least two months out - which includes all member meetings, board meetings, special events (e.g., a community service program or awards competition), and registration information;

* key contacts for the chapter, including elected leaders, and whom to contact about programs, special events, membership information, and job location services;

* recent chapter newsletter;

* information about organizational sponsors and partners;

* links to information about the geographic area where the chapter is located; and

* links to areas maintained by IABC staff for products, services, and benefits available to all IABC members.

Pam Arnold is head of service centres, International Association of Business Communicators, San Francisco.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on World Wide Web policies of the International Assn. of Business Communicators; association members
Author:Arnold, Pam
Publication:Association Management
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Previous Article:Voices of Boston.
Next Article:Instilling ethical conduct.

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