Boards and Blogs: Does Your Association Need a Blog?
By Kevin Fritz and Carolyn Schwaar
Blogging is like a conversation; some sound like the local coffee shop on a Saturday morning and others, well, they sound like a library. “Good blogs provide a point of view, fresh news, and opinions that inspire thought, feedback, and action,” says Todd Carpenter, social media manager for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. “They're personal and enlightening and they can build real relationships.”
At least a dozen REALTOR® associations with blogs believe the medium will help build a more informed, connected, and engaged membership. It may be too early to tell, though, whether REALTOR® association blogs can deliver on that promise.
In this issue, RAE takes an in-depth look at which REALTOR® associations are blogging, why they made the decision to blog, and how you can get started. Some of your fellow associations have established blogs that are definitely worth evaluating, if not emulating.
Engagement is the key concept behind any blog. Blogs are a dialogue, whereas Web sites are more of a monologue. Blogs invite readers to not only think but respond, instantly. Web sites, e-newsletters, and print publications are not engaging in the same way.
A blog broadens an association’s understanding of who is willing to engage with them and what members are excited and worried about, says Peter Hutchins, vice president of knowledge initiatives for the American Society of Association Executives. At present, the economy is taking center stage on its blog, Acronym (blogs.asaecenter.org/Acronym), and allows ASAE to monitor how meetings are faring during budget cutbacks as many CEOs struggle with the viability of travel. ASAE has also discovered hidden talent on its blog in the way of authors ASAE is now using for Associations Now and other print vehicles.
Listen before you leap
As in any good conversation, it helps to be a good listener. “Listening is always the starting place,” explains Lindy Dreyer, chief social media marketer at SocialFish, a Washington, D.C.-based association and nonprofit social media consulting firm. “Every association needs to at least be using social media to listen to online chatter among their members and stakeholders,” she says.
Dreyer advises associations to familiarize themselves with both the blogging platform and the commitment before jumping in. To do so, AEs should find and read other blogs, and post comments on member blogs, as well as those of industry leaders and experts. This will give associations a sense of the blogging relationship and general functionality.
Ben Martin, cae, vice president of communications and marketing at the Virginia Association of REALTORS®, did just that—he listened before he leaped. Last year, while VAR was considering launching its own blog, Martin went online and found several thousand members who were already blogging with Active Rain, as well as a number of other members with personal blogs. Martin wanted to introduce himself to REALTORS® first and solicit blogging advice, and outright ask whether an association blog was a good idea. “We had one member say he had never heard the words ‘blogging’ and ‘association’ in the same sentence,” says Martin. The most surprising feedback was the number of members who wanted the VAR blog to continue providing the same information VAR was already producing in other formats. In particular, they believed accessing risk management information from attorneys would let them interact with the authors. “They didn’t want new content,” Martin says. “They wanted it to be more accessible.” By asking experienced blogging members for their advice on what the association blog should be, Martin says, he earned support for the blog even before it launched.
VAR opted to use Wordpress for its blog platform, since the only cost incurred was the hosting fee and securing the domain name, VARBuzz.com.
“Our goal was to create a three-legged stool of communication, consisting of our newsletter, our magazine, and the blog,” explains Martin. “We use the circle, directing members to one source from another source. The cross-pollination has been a success.” He says VAR’s blog now has a core of a few dozen “power users” who are consistently active.
Same Membership, Different Method
The Pinellas REALTOR® Organization in St. Petersburg, Florida, had no formal process to start its blog; it was a staff-driven decision as they groped for new ways to engage the membership.
“Although the Pinellas organization distributes a weekly newsletter and a member news magazine, and has a robust Web site, none of those platforms could provide the flexibility to quickly update with time-sensitive information,” says Mathias Bergendahl, the association’s director of marketing and communications.
Bergendahl advises associations to figure out what their weaknesses are in their communications plan before proceeding with a blog. “Having a blog is not the end-all answer,” he explains. “It’s an outlet for us in -addition to our other vehicles.”
Ultimately, the Pinellas association launched not one blog but six, each focusing on a specific area ranging from technology to marketing to general news. Judging from strong blog activity, Bergendahl is confident PRO is communicating with members it mas not otherwise reaching.
Before launching the Chicago Association of REALTORS® blog, CAR staff did extensive research and was impressed by finance.yahoo.com, since it offered a different topic every day. So each day, someone from CAR leadership posts a new discussion topic on chicagorealtorsblog.org.
CAR’s blog mission is to have members participate in dialogue with the leadership and also allow leadership a chance to get their issues and advocacy programs across to the membership, says Brett Ashley -McKenzie, senior education and communication specialist for the association. “Leadership can learn first-hand the concerns about the marketplace, and they can also correct any misunderstandings that may be floating around the Internet.”
“A blog is absolutely essential in this day and age,” says McKenzie. “Blogging gives you eyes in a million places right away.” Case in point: When a well-known member passed away in January, CAR posted a tribute on its blog. Comments posted by members were picked up and published by CNN.com. “It’s not a choice anymore to get into social networking.”
Consult a Professional
“Our blog is an investment in the future,” says Bill Sheridan, electronic communication manager at the Maryland Association of CPAs and prolific association blogger. “The next generation is going to expect communication in newer ways.”
His blog, CPA Success (cpasuccess.com), was started two years ago to deal with business issues. Two specialty blogs have since emerged—one that focuses on legislative information and one for new CPAs.
Sheridan recommends that associations hire a consultant before starting, like he did. The consultant helped Sheridan decide where to host the blog (Typepad), how to promote it, and how to write for a blog, which was the most significant advice. “It had to be more personal, more informal than traditional corporate communications,” he says. The challenge was to find its own voice and make each post a personal connection to the association as humans, not just as an organization. He adds that marketing is also key. “You must make members aware that your blog is out there,” he says. “Then you can start building the conversation.”
Indeed, if a good blog is a conversation, the audience should be invited to participate. Without people talking, a blog looses its relevance.
Associations market blogs just like they market any other association program or service. “You can link to them from multiple places on your Web site and from -e-newsletters, and even put excerpts in your print publications,” says Carpenter. “Invite other REALTOR® bloggers to link to your blog and vice versa.”
However, Martin notes that associations must be thick-skinned if they get into blogging, since not all comments from members will be positive. But he believes it is better to offer an avenue to clear the air. “If they are saying it in the parking lot behind our backs anyway, we’d rather give them a vehicle to vent out in the open.”
He fears some AEs may worry about the emotional aspects of negative comments, but a blog gives an opportunity for members to “have a peek behind the curtain” and understand why certain decisions are made. “Association leaders may also be confused by the content associated with a blog, believing blogs are just for opinionated people and politics. But they’re not,” says Martin.
It’s the same conversation that is going on in the association parking lot and the local coffee shop. Yet, now, it’s all out in the open.
Now, visit "Eight Great REALTOR® Association Blogs."