Neighborhood social networks and the importance of privacy

I just read a Business Week article titled “Social Networking Goes Niche“. I loved reading it because it validates the eNeighbors model of neighborhood social networking. It even goes on to say that advertisers will pay more to advertise on sites like eNeighbors with greater targeting ability.

What I really liked reading about though is the evolution of social networking and the greater need for privacy controls over your personal information because eNeighbors has aggressively pursued privacy for our users (almost) from the beginning.

I’d like to think that I’m a visionary, but I’m far from it. It’d be great to claim that I knew privacy would be really important for social networking sites, which is why I built it into the eNeighbors app, but really, I just let my customers tell me.

The first 10 neighborhood websites that we built were stand alone sites that included a public and and private side. Approximately 70% of the information was publicly available. It’s a good thing that we didn’t commit to this approach because it turns out that not everybody wants this.

Our customers were vocal about their concerns over information about their neighborhood being made publicly available. One by one, we started to move things behind login. First it was the social event photos of their kids at the Easter Egg Hunt, and then they wanted financial information behind login, when finally they asked, “Why don’t you just put everything behind login?”

So we did.

What a great decision that was. It not only answered the privacy issue, but also made things more exclusive, creating greater interest from the neighborhood. (What’s behind that login screen anyway?) Early indications are that this is helping to increase adoption rates (the number of homes registered in a community).

But I digress.

Privacy and information control will make or break niche social networks. If we weren’t able to assure our customers that their information will be kept private, I don’t think we would see the registration numbers that we do. At MySpace, you can hide behind an alias in a sea of 100+ million users, but in smaller social networks where you might actually run into people you meet online, it’s necessary to have control over what information you share with others.

Our community experience

We have experienced the value of an eNeighbors website. Nottingham Forest South has 582 homes and is about twenty years old. Enhancing our ability to communicate had a measurable impact on our community.

There were several challenges we faced as an aging community:

1)How do we revitalize our neighborhood and get more people involved?
2)How can we get more people attending our social events?
3)How do we educate our residents to gain voluntary compliance with our covenants and restrictions?

We had restraints. We realized that our number one issue was communication. Our neighborhood had published the same monthly paper newsletter for twenty years. It was expensive and boring. The Board of Directors had limited space to deliver the meaningful information. The cost of production and mailing costs were significant considering the size of our community.

We also had difficulty finding residents willing to serve. Retiring board members were encouraged to recruit a replacement. This was an effective process but it literally involved begging each year.

Finally, the straw that “broke the camels back” was when 25 kids showed up at the Easter Egg hunt. We were prepared for over 100 so the 25 children walked away with what looked like a Halloween load of goodies. Somehow we had to find a way to put community back in the community.

We had a website but so what. No one could remember the web address and no one visited the site which had grown stale with out of date information. How much were we paying that guy to manage the site? Too much for zero value.

The eNeighbors product did wonders for our community. Using their process we were able to get over 70% of our residents registered to receive eAnnouncements (email notifications from the board with links to content). This process enabled the Board of Directors to send email to the majority of the community with ease. All of a sudden we were sending weekly eAnnouncements. Communication had basically become free. The following Easter over 100 kids showed up at the annual hunt. Because of the registration process we knew exactly who was coming and bought the exact amount of supplies for the event. We were amazed that residents were filling out online registrations at 11:00 p.m. The key was reminding residents of the event three times the week before the event with a feature called bulletins which is basically instant email.

The following November we found ourselves in the enviable position of having more resident volunteers for board and committee positions than available openings. We attributed the interest to the new communication process.

The real proof of the success of the new system appeared when a hail storm rolled through the community. Our architectural committee received over 300 applications for a new roof in four months. Every one of the applications was sent using our new eNeighbors website. We gained 100% compliance.

Excuse me if this sounds like a sales pitch but if you have issues in your community and you are considering eNeighbors and are willing to commit to their process you won’t be disappointed. It took several mailings over four months to get our community registration to an acceptable level. It took some patience on our part. The fact we knew exactly who was registered and more importantly, who was not registered made the process measurable and kept the board focused.

Wow! There are 286,000 ‘association-governed’ communities in the US

According to Community Associations Institute, as of 2006, there were 286,000 association-governed communities in the US that house 57 million residents. This is a staggering number given the fact that homeowners associations really only started about 40 years ago and now over 25% of the US population lives in some type of community association, whether that is a homeowners associations, condominium, cooperative, or other planned community.

More interesting is the continued growth of planned communities. Even though homeowners associations have come under criticism (some believe that they are unconstitutional) they continue to be the preferred type of development for home buyers as evidenced by their growth, and for obvious reasons.

If you’ve ever lived in or driven through a planned-unit development the difference is clear – the common grounds are well-kept, garbage cans are neatly tucked away in the garage, neighbors’ fences all match, and the entrance monuments welcome you home.

Whether your a fan of the cookie-cutter model or not makes no difference. The bottom line is that planned communities protect property values through the codes and covenants that dictate what you can and cannot do as a homeowner in a particular community. Like it or not, it protects the investment in your home.

But still, there’s something more to this planned community thing. And I believe its the “community” part.

By nature, we are social beings. We want to belong, we want a sense of place, and living in a community satisfies that need to a certain extent.

Overland Park, Kansas is a great example of this. The next time you’re in Overland Park, ask someone where they live, they probably won’t say Overland Park. It’s more likely that you’ll hear Nottingham Forest South, Lions Gate, or White Horse. These are all the names of the HOAs that they live in. It’s the name on the entrance monument that they read everyday driving home. And there’s a since of pride associated with living in these communities, as their should be – they’re all wonderful neighborhoods to live in.

But what makes them wonderful neighborhoods isn’t the value of their homes, it’s the Easter Egg Hunt, the Fall Bash, the Swim Team, the Bunko group, the Poker Club, and the Progressive Dinners. These social functions bring neighbors together and feed our need for social interaction.

Drum roll please, it’s time for the plug…

eNeighbors can help to facilitate these types of social groups and functions through our “Groups” feature, which allows you to organize and promote your groups online. Neighbors can join your group with the click of a button. Once they join they are automatically added to a mailing list, which makes it easy for you to get a hold of everyone in your group instantly.

It’s my hope that eNeighbors fosters this sense of community in every neighborhood that uses our services by bringing people closer together through the use of features such as eNeighbors Groups.