What We Need to Know

The Tree of Knowledge. By Knilram, via Flickr.I saw this post on the ASAE’s communications listserv last week:

“ I would like to hear from other associations on how they are using social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) – Which ones? Benefits? What’s worked?”

Wow … how many days do you have to listen? There’s no bigger question in communications today.

I sense stratification in our professional community. At a panel that I moderated at the ASAE Annual Meeting this summer, it was possible to pick out the genetically encoded early adopters from those who were struggling to catch up. You could almost tell by the body language.

The early adopters were foraging for ways to exploit what they had already mastered. The others were still learning. They seemed frustrated and fearful.

It was demonstration of what Seth Godin meant when he wrote in his new book, Tribes, that the cost of innovating too early is small, compared to the cost of acting too late.

But not everything new today will prove useful tomorrow. I think we can count on that. Since time is our most precious commodity, what must people know today?

That’s the challenge that the Communications Council for ASAE has taken on. We’re updating a document that outlines today’s core competencies in communications. No offense, but the current version, written only a few years ago, is badly  out of date.

Still, the basics are the basics. You gotta know how to write, pitch stories, research your markets, plan campaigns, etc. But of the new social technologies, what is now fundamental? And if you can’t experiment freely, what can you safely observe from a distance, for now?

We’ll take our best guess, because we can only guess at the future. No one on our team is clairvoyant, as far as I know. Maybe through the wisdom of our little crowd, we’ll get it right.

We hope the document will be a career roadmap for new communications professionals, and a learning menu for experienced pros. It will evolve rapidly and often.

We could use your thoughts. Among the new technologies, what is already a must-know? Conversely, if you must choose your experiments carefully, what is OK to watch for a while?


Commenting Reveals All

Whenever you set up a blog, a wiki, or any other social media tool that invites user comments, you’re making a choice. You are deciding that you want the communication to be a conversation. You want to talk with your readers, not just talk at them

How you do that says a lot about your own readiness for social media. There is a spectrum of approaches. The purist approach is exemplified by Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant in their Associations Now article on blogging. On commenting, they recommend “open and easy.” They mean: no login, no captchas, no moderator, and of course easy to use. If there’s a problem, the community takes of it.

How’s that work in practice? For personal blogs like this one, no problem. If someone says something hateful or off topic, I hit delete. Cool. For many small companies, the same thing applies.

For others, it’s a little trickier. Our Massachusetts Medical Society blog started with “open and easy” approach, and we became an easy mark. We were overrun by spam in no time flat. So I pulled the plug on “open and easy” and added comment moderation.

We have another issue, legal liability- but not the “what if the worst happens” kind of liability. With few exceptions, if independent doctors organize to talk about economic issues (i.e., their own reimbursement), even just two doctors, they break the law. So we must police anti-trust violations, or put an awful lot at risk. And it’s not up to me to take that risk, if you know what I mean!

The New York Times site takes the same approach. Its editors moderate comments on all of their articles. They let you know about it with nice, clean, non-legal language.

It doesn’t seem to affect their commenting volume very much. For example, on Oct. 3, within three hours of posting its article on the “bailout” bill, the Times had more than 300 comments. (Sure, it was the story of the year, and the Times has millions of visitors daily, but you get my point.)

The same considerations go for wikis, too – but maybe even more so, if you intend the wiki to be at least somewhat authoritative. What if someone makes a life-altering decision based on something erroneous in your public wiki during those 30 minutes that it was published? In many worlds, such as medical publishing, that is not an acceptable risk.

Has our moderated approach inhibited commenters on our site? Probably. But given the choice between a spam sandwich and a little dead air, I’ll take moderation any time.