The Case for Opening Your Social Network to Nonmembers

One association executive urges you to take down the walls around your association's online community platform and let nonmembers in.

After the rise of social networks Facebook and LinkedIn several years ago, it didn’t take long for associations to see the potential in converting their traditional directories and listservers into more robust platforms for member engagement and interaction—and, of course, the potential for boosting the appeal of their member-benefits packages. Today, a private online social networking platform is a common members-only benefit at associations. They’ve even given rise to a new association job title, “community manager,” which didn’t exist just a few years ago.

But, if you ask Roy Snell, most associations are getting these new social networking platforms dead wrong.

Social media by definition is open. It’s intended to be inclusive, and we’re applying these exclusionary good-old-boy club rules to a tool that wasn’t designed to be run that way.

Snell, CEO of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE), says the problem isn’t in the features in those platforms or any matters of technical application; rather, it’s about accessibility. Most association social networks are private and restricted to members only, and so most associations are missing out on the opportunities in reaching a broader audience, he says. Or, worse, risking being usurped by free, open social networks on external platforms.

In “Rules of Engagement: Open Wide,” in the April/May issue of Associations Now, Snell shared three reasons why keeping his organization’s social network, SCCEnet, open to any and all has been a boon to SCCE. In short, it has led to more discussion, better positioning against external alternatives, and membership growth, he says.

Snell comes from the world of healthcare administration and corporate compliance, and it was clear in my recent interview with him that he doesn’t agree with the common association thinking in this case. I’ll let a few of his comments speak for him:

  • “Closing social media is like tying a horse to the front of your car and pulling it around.”
  • “Social media by definition is open. It’s intended to be inclusive, and we’re applying these exclusionary good-old-boy club rules to a tool that wasn’t designed to be run that way.”
  • “There has not been a greater advancement for bringing people together in associations, in the history of mankind, than social media. It was like it was invented for professional associations.”
  • “The one thing you can’t afford to have is the second-biggest social network for your profession.”

Since SCCEnet is not exclusive to members, I asked Snell what SCCE centers its value proposition on instead. He explained that SCCE’s education and networking opportunities—and the discounted member rates for those resources—are its key sources of value, and he also said he eschews the idea that member value has to be a hard, dollars-based calculation.

“We network and educate a profession, and you can have all of the value proposition after that that you want, but your core membership is going to be those who want to be associated with their peers,” Snell says. “It’s education, networking, and helping support the profession. These are real reasons to be involved in a professional association.”

This is where I find Snell’s approach most interesting. The prevailing sentiment in a lot of association discourse now is that discounts and good-of-the-order benefits won’t be enough to attract and keep the next generation of members, and so putting a social network inside the member wall is an attempt to maintain one more clear benefit in return for the dues dollar. But Snell takes a decidedly traditional point of view, that the basic desire to belong and convene face to face will continue to carry associations forward.

“Associations have been around for 1,000 years. You go to England, they’ve had professional societies since dirt, and there’s always a new generation coming through,” Snell says. “So these guys are telling me that, after having professional associations for thousands of years, it just so happens that this generation is the one that’s gonna walk away from it all? I don’t think so.”

For SCCE (and its sister organization, the Health Care Compliance Association, which Snell also heads), Snell says the social network has contributed to double-digit yearly membership growth since the platform’s launch in 2008.

This highlights the core decision to be made about whether a social network should be private or open. Of the two following options, which would be larger, X or Y?:

  • Keeping the social network private will attract [X] members who are willing to pay for access to an exclusive community.
  • Keeping the social network open will attract [Y] people who are willing to join for access to other resources or pay nonmember rates on an ad hoc basis.

You could replace “social network” with just about any other member benefit to decide if it should be members-only or open to nonmembers. But in the case of social media, clear alternatives like LinkedIn can make for direct competition that offers an unbeatable price tag: free. The way Snell sees it, that leaves no choice but option Y.

“These people are saying, ‘Oh my God, the kids, the social media—you’ve got to close it to add value or you’re not going to get the kids.’ Well, that’s just horrible logic because the kids are just going to go to LinkedIn and set up a LinkedIn group that’s open to everybody and free,” he says. “How do you think you closing social media is going to keep the young people? It’s just the opposite.”

Do you agree or disagree with Roy Snell? Is your association’s dedicated online social network private or open to nonmembers? If it’s private, how do you make sure it maintains greater appeal than free outside alternatives?


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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