CEO Community Engagement Shows Members “You’re There and You Care”

An association executive director shares how spending up to 20 percent of her work time in her online member community helps build relationships—and happy members.

This is how a virtual environment can make you seem more real.

Lori Gracey is executive director of the 15,000-member Texas Computer Education Association, and she’s a morning person. Every day, she gets to work around 6:30 a.m., and her first task is reading, posting, and responding to questions in TCEA’s online community. TCEA has 18 staff members, so Gracey could easily delegate the role of tending to the community and focus on other work, but she believes her involvement in the discussions is time well spent.

“For members, a lot of times, the CEO or the ED, we’re that person whose picture they see in the conference program, or they get an email from us once in a while, or their membership card is signed by us. We’re not a real person who understands what they need or what they want,” Gracey says. “I think the fact that I’m in the community daily—that I post things, that I post questions as well as responses and resources—I think that lets them know that this person who’s heading up the organization really gets me. She really understands what I need, what I’m doing, she’s here, she’s asking questions, she’s interested, instead of just, at convention time, encouraging them to come to convention because I want their money or something.”

People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re Lori. I know you from the community.’

As shared here two weeks ago, a CEO’s involvement in an organization’s online community can be a driving force for higher member engagement and establishing credibility, according to The Community Roundtable’s “State of Community Management 2014” report. Gracey is living proof.

“People come up to me all the time when we’re out and about at all of our different meetings and say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re Lori. I know you from the community,'” she says.

TCEA’s online community was launched three years ago, and it has been a source of increasing member engagement and renewals, Gracey says. Upgrading from a simple email listserver gave members the advantage of being able to easily search past discussions and share resources such as PowerPoints and lesson plans. “In education, we share everything,” she says.

Gracey is not the sole community manager at TCEA. All 18 staff are involved in the community at some level, each typically responsible for tending to a handful of specific groups within the community. TCEA’s director of member services, Chance McKee, is the most heavily involved, “in there all day long,” as Gracey puts it. But Gracey was the original champion for the community when it was first considered, and she says her involvement also helped get TCEA staff and volunteer leaders on board. “It’s easy to mandate stuff, any leader or any boss can do that, but to really show that it’s important to you, you have to be willing to spend time on it too.”

About 15 percent to 20 percent of Gracey’s time is spent in the online community, she estimates. Some of it is active management—posting and responding to questions, connecting members who could help each other—but a lot of it is simply reading what issues and challenges members are talking about. “Obviously that helps me to be a better leader of the association if I know what their concerns are,” she says.

Gracey is an educator herself, so engaging in the community just as her members would comes easily. Occasionally she asks her own questions when she’s looking for tips or advice. “I think that makes me a real person to them,” she says. “By allowing them to see that I don’t always have to be the expert, which I think we sometimes kind of paint ourselves as, I think that really changes the dynamics of our relationship.”

TCEA’s online community is so active that “we have people who join just for the community,” Gracey says. About 12,000 of TCEA’s 15,000 members have logged into the community platform to create a user account, and about 60 percent of them have posted at least once.

The biggest challenge for Gracey, as any association executive can understand, has been simply finding the time for community engagement. Hence her dedicated early-morning routine. “If you wait till later in the day, you’re just never going to get around to it,” she says.

And that’s her advice to other association executives, to simply make time for engaging in their associations’ online communities: “If they don’t want to go as whole hog as I have, at least having a regular presence in there, where you’re reading what other people are saying and responding every once in a while to what they say … so that members know that you’re there and you’re with them and you care. I think that’s the minimum of what every CEO ought to be doing if you’ve got an online community,” she says.

Gracey’s approach to online community shows an understanding that new technology needn’t be a burden; instead, it can be a tool for doing what you’ve always done, only better. Associations are all about community and relationships, and as Gracey’s experience at TCEA has shown, social networking tools allow you to build community and form relationships with members—still “real,” even if brief and entirely digital—in way that was never possible for an association CEO before.

How is your association’s CEO involved in your association’s online community, listserver, or other social networking and discussion platforms? Is it worth the time and effort? Let us know in the comments.


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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