Don't Call It A Transition 
How to upgrade your association from listserves to online communities.

Brandon Vogel

New York State Bar Association

 

When I interviewed for my current position, my then-boss said, “the benchmark of success for this position will be the online communities.”

I wasn’t jumping out of my socks but my competitive nature won and blurted out, “Challenge accepted.”

It took more than two years, several unflattering names and adjectives directed at me from listserve die-hards, and a few moments of self doubt, but we effectively ended our listserves in December 2016 and solely had online communities through Higher Logic.

NYSBA made the decision in Spring 2013 to upgrade our listserves to online communities to coincide with the launch of our redesigned website that fall. We started with a beta launch group, the Electronic Communications Committee, to test out the communities before going Association-wide. Our first major community launch was the Elder Law and Special Needs Section in the spring of 2014. It got off to a decent start but we had 24 more sections to go, in addition to committee communities.

Three days after I accepted my position in September 2014, I traveled to Washington, DC for the Higher Logic Super Users Forum. I attended every session I could on best practices and member adoption. I set up one-on-one sessions with technicians to see how we could improve the experience for members. I was energized and excited about what we could do with our communities. Word soon began to spread through our membership about the opportunities communities held.

My first major community launch was going to be the Real Property Law Section Community in the spring. They had our most active listserve with several members posting and responding to questions daily. If this worked, we could get our other sections to buy in. If it didn’t, it would delay all future community launches. We put together a small group of the most active users to try out the community first to get their feedback. Response was mixed but I was able to put together a simple FAQ answering questions received during this process to ensure a smooth launch.

The listserve ended on a Friday afternoon; a colleague expected my phone to ring off the hook with complaints. Instead, members quickly took to the new format. There were nearly 40 discussions in one day by the second week. By the fall, we had launched eight more section communities, all of which were our most active listserves.

We still had listserves for our standing committees and remaining sections that didn’t have listserves. In July of 2016, our Executive Director gave us a deadline of December 1 to end the remaining 36 listserves. When that day came, we shut down our server and heard crickets instead of complaints. For me, it was reminiscent of the “fax machine destruction” scene in Office Space. We had successfully moved past old technology.

Was it easy? No. There were times that I was attacked, privately and publicly, but I made a commitment to see the project through and I was going to ensure its success.

Was it worth it? Yes. We have a more engaged community platform largely due to its flexibility and newer members posting and responding. Our efforts paid off when we received Higher Logic’s Most Successful Community Award for 2016. We now have about 18,000 discussions in the communities annually with continued growth.

Perhaps the best example of the power of the community was this past summer. A veteran estate planner had hit a roadblock. She posted on the community asking if anyone knew the family involved. She received a private message 10 minutes later from a member who knew the family very well and exactly who she needed to contact. She posted her appreciation for the community and why it was the main reason she renewed her membership.

When member benefits such as this are that vital to your members’ practice, you have to get it right. It’s far better to remove the Band-Aid slowly in instances like this rather than take a rushed approach just to have it in place. By doing so, you earn trust of members that you take their needs and concerns seriously. In turn, your members are more likely to remain members.

My five best tips:

1)      Get a small group of your most active listserve users and create a test community FIRST. If they like what they see, you WILL get buy in from the community at large.

2)      Don’t call it a transition from the listserve. Call it an upgrade. Members don’t like to think of anything being taken away from them.

3)      When creating your launch plan and instructions, find the least tech-savvy person in your office and have them follow the instructions. Often, they will find loopholes that a member will find and you can address it before you go public. It makes subsequent community launches easier and less problematic.

4)      Auto-subscribe your members and have a simple email address ready to go for your community.

5)      Be patient. You may not get dozens of discussions immediately. It takes time and patience to make a successful community.