This Murky Thing We Call Online Engagement

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Here’s the latest post in our “INDUSTRY INSIDERS” column, where we bring you the inside scoop from several awesome association technology vendors and consultants who will share the insights they have gleaned from years of working in our association industry.


Just last week I wrapped up a year and a half worth of project work which culminated in a thorough redesign and development of an association’s website.    It was a fascinating project in many respects not the least of which is that the organization went through significant organizational change during the process.   Yet one of the reasons why this particular project fascinated me is that is emphasized something that I have been thinking about more and more – the role of engagement and what that means for organizations and their online presence.

First some background:  as a consultant working with non-profits and associations now for almost 15 years, I have had the pleasure to work with hundreds of organizations of all sizes.   I have dedicated my professional life to the social sector.   I recall when I first started working with non-profits and technology in the nineties when NTEN catered to circuit riders and the non-profit technology sector consisted of about 15-20 smart, well-intentioned professionals who all set out on one career path and somehow landed as an accidental techie  supporting some organization they loved (I started out wanting to be an academic and ended up building a database of non-partisan political information for this organization).

My first professional job was working as an assistant on an online engagement report for The Turner Foundation (this was in the late nineties).  The report resulted in a list of recommendations to engage supporters of pro-choice and environmental movements online (the two areas of focus at the time for Turner).   All of the recommendations focused on tools.   Soon thereafter, I worked for a prominent labor union who invested millions of dollars to build a custom tool that would synch the communications of the local chapters to better engage members.   Then came the Gill Foundation working as a circuit rider teaching small non-profits across the northeast how to store/access and strategize around enhanced user profile information so they can craft online messaging to better engage supporters.   The trainings focused on how to import the enhanced profile information into the non-profit’s database and extract the information.  While a large focus was placed on the tools, to Gill’s credit an equal emphasis was placed on using the tools as the basis for strategy and online engagement.    As I continued within the non-profit sector, there are countless other examples I can list but I think you get the point by now.

And here is what is notable from the many years working with organizations of all sizes and orientations – it all still comes down to this messy thing we call online engagement – a blend of psychology and behavior, compelling appeals (both rationale and emotional),  persuasive content/imagery and interactivity.   Easy, right?  It is no secret that we all (organizations and consultants) still struggle with it.

So when launching this association’s site last week, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that so little has changed, and yet so much as changed.

First, what hasn’t changed:  (1) it’s still all about online engagement ; and, (2) we still don’t know what online engagement really is (go ahead, ask someone for nice succinct definition).

What has changed?   The tools and techniques.   And while the tools are there to support engagement – the tools don’t make a site engaging (they never have).

So for this organization and their newly redesigned site?   What is in store for their members as they turn a page and start afresh with their new site?   What do we, as consultants, have for them that will help them do their work?   I am more optimistic than ever primarily because of recent trends that are shaping the field – moving past buzzwords, the power of storytelling, persuasive design and the influence of behavioral economics.

Clearly this is not an all-inclusive list – so I will end by posing a question:  Are there reasons why you are excited about the ever-changing role of online engagement and how it may benefit your organization and/or your work?

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