During February and March of 2011 FRESCO undertook a snapshot assessment of the online capabilities and strategies of a hand-full of New Zealand communities. Our experience over many years suggests that the massive promise of the internet is falling well short of being realised by organisations that consider themselves to be ‘communities’. This study set out to discover some of the reasons why.
The purpose of the investigation was to:
Give direction to FRESCO’s online deliveries, particularly through Flightdec Communities and our online assistance programmes
Provide a basis for organisations to consider their own online capabilities and strategies in greater depth and to shape some questions which could lead to improvements.
While there are many positive aspects to community online activity, this investigation focuses mainly on the problem issues where significant improvements could be made.
We defined the communities as being people and groups with reasonable scale, that cluster around a shared interest or who are bonded by things like geographic proximity. We sampled some not-for-profit organisations, nationwide clubs and a business industry group.
The assessment consisted of interviews with some key people in 6 organisations, with an attempt to receive feedback at all levels. In addition, we conducted a quick desktop review of the online capabilities of these communities and some others as well.
Disclaimer: this assessment was limited in its scope and can only be viewed as providing a snapshot and certainly not a definitive or quantitative position. However, these top-line observations are presented on the basis that they are consistently apparent either within a community or across most or all sub-sections.
Only a few organisations have active marketing and communications plans, which had been developed from their organisational (business) plan.
All sampled organisations expressed a wish to develop an online plan but none had one, except perhaps a scoping and briefing document for their last website build.
All sampled people in organisations agreed with the following statements:
"The internet and social media provide a distinct opportunity to build strength into our community, e.g. through sharing experiences and information, and through building more collaboration."
"We believe that our website capabilities are not supporting the aims and objectives of our community as much as could be the case."
Very few of the above organisations could provide a readymade or coherent substantiation for the above statements, other than that they agreed with them.
The cost of building a new website and an inability to know how to brief a new build is a major concern for most website owners.
A brief for a new website will generally focus on a wish-list of capabilities drawn from within the organisation, the advice of the website manager or a website consultant. This then forms a list of specifications for which quotes are requested. On the assumption that the specifications are uniform for all quotes, the overriding consideration in a new website build is cost.
Within communities, the quality and capabilities of websites is extremely patchy. In general the architecture and usability is compromised and many sites could only deliver basic pages without interactive elements. Furthermore, many websites could not be self managed, or be easily managed, for dynamic content or interaction.
Where websites suffered from difficult or no self administration, it is often felt that this contributes to uncollaborative practices and a lack of accessibility to the functioning of a website by people who should have free inputs.
Many organisations admit that little consideration is given to the accumulated cost of a website, e.g. the cost of the initial build and then the ongoing upgrade and management costs. This particularly applies where a website’s lack of self management abilities makes the site owner dependent on the developer’s intervention when content needs changing. The lack of understanding about the true costs, by the key organisation in a community, also applies to assessments about the wider community of largely independent websites. See accompanying our Inventory check on a community’s online real estate.
Constituent members of a community generally want autonomy over their own website, but would welcome shared content and interactive abilities around the community, provided they could retain their autonomy and have some control over content coming into their website.
Some constituent members felt that they were on their own with website activity with some happy to keep it that way, while others were open to sharing the burden.
Constituent members often question the value of their website and struggle to maintain regular and interesting content.
Many websites are maintained by an individual or individuals who are not fully accountable to others within their group. This sometimes appears to be compounded by poor website self management capabilities where inputs are harder to share.
All website owners place limits on the use of their website based on the limits of their own knowledge and notions about organisational capacity. Few of the respondents could easily articulate use of the internet to interact more fully with their own members or more widely with the community, except through adopting social media platforms, e.g. Facebook and Twitter.
Appreciation of social media as a tool for positive change and advantage is extremely patchy and still appears to polarize people within organisations.
The investigation reveals a disconnect between how organisations describe online capacity building and the actions that communities and organisations might be taking to help address it.
Two factors stand out:
The organisation that is central to a community, e.g. the ‘head office’, has limited impact on or appreciation for the activity and capabilities throughout their community.
The focus of online capability is skewed towards the website itself (“our website) with little attention paid to the wider community of websites or to the online activity and support required to make it succeed. This also applies to the resources or financial expenditure going into online ‘real estate’ and activity throughout the wider community.
This myopic focus on their website, but without a wider online plan is likely to be because the website is a box that’s easily ticked and because it represents the limits of peoples’ sphere of influence and understanding. Nonetheless, these websites are largely limited in their capability which merely compounds the problems created by a lack of focus on the resources and activities required to make the internet work for a healthy and genuinely interconnected community. See accompanying our Inventory check on a community’s online real estate.
A lack of online planning generally translates into an absence of goal setting for results or appreciation about the measurability of online activity. This can inevitably lead a general online malaise, or worse, community dysfunction and a lack of appreciation for ways to improve.
The focus on ‘cost’ in a website build appears to assume that all websites are equal, based on a parallel list of capabilities. It seems to take little account of the capabilities of the website builder, other services or the variations in technical quality. However, beyond the build costs, there generally seems to be little accounting for the true costs of online activity.
A website can be variously seen as a valuable tool, a necessary distraction to real activity, or an opportunity by some individuals to control their patch. However, in general, the website is not yet considered as important to the organisation’s success. Whilst lip service may be accorded to its importance, a lack of measurable delivery, together with a lack of accessibility tend to relegate it to the lower levels of strategic focus.
The fact that many website managers question the value of their own online activity perhaps indicates why there is a lack of planning and vision for improvement. For example, people frequently talk about how things might improve when “we get around to building a new website” but there remains little idea about how that might effect a real improvement.
The website is not often seen as a shared resource within an organisation, nor regarded as a crucial marketing tool. Often it appears to be simply used to provide largely static outbound information and limited ability for engagement and community building.
Sharing content and inter-website interaction received a mixed response from constituent members. However we observed a willingness to consider the benefits when options were presented. This suggests that resistance, where it’s present, is due to a lack of tangible opportunity.
See accompanying our Inventory check on a community’s online real estate.
Fraser Carson is a thinker, problem solver, innovator and commentator. He has particular experience and interest in marketing, communications and social media. In 2012 he launched Flightdec.com, a radical new concept to build online communities.