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.

Keeping the neighborhood safe

One of the great benefits of having a neighborhood website is that you can instantly communicate with everyone in the neighborhood via email. This is useful for many reasons, but it’s most important when it comes to safety.

Take Riss Lake for example, a community of approximately 700 single-family homes. In a community of that size, it’s difficult to communicate in a timely manner, which is one of the reasons that the signed up to utilize our online service.

They now have 469 registered users, which represents about 65% of the community.

Not long after launching the website a series of break-ins occurred, and they decided to report them on the website to prevent further attacks. They put together a quick email the same day that the break-in was reported, which I copied below:

“On November 28, 2006 a home in Riss Lake was broken into and the owner was home. Three men used a screwdriver to break into the basement door and took the homeowners purse. The police were called and a description was provided of the vehicle. The good news is the police stopped the vehicle and found the owners purse in their car.

Please watch for any suspicious activity in the neighborhood and do not hesitate to call 9-1-1. If you are not home let a neighbor know so they can help watch your property, pick up newspapers left in driveways, packages left on front porches all a sign that no one is home.”

The example above shows how communication can keep the neighborhood safe. Without the ability to communicate this information, incidents like these can continue to occur without anyone even knowing about it, and in turn, no action can be taken to prevent future incidents. Neighborhood watch programs are based on this principal of communication and collaboration.

Our “Bulletins” feature allows you to send out emails like this to the entire neighborhood instantly. This is a great safety feature, but also allows you to communicate other time-sensitive information like impromptu events or cancellations.

I do want to mention that by all accounts Riss Lake is a very safe neighborhood, and this was an extremely rare incident. However, the community is now safer with an established online communication channel.

eNeighbors to offer systematic mailings

As I touched on in my previous post, the most important thing when building a neighborhood website (or any website for that matter) is to have a plan for getting people to visit it.

This is the number one reason why neighborhood websites fail – everyone puts all their focus on building the site itself, with no thought of how to get people to use it, or how to get people to keep coming back.

Our current service for neighborhoods allows you to quickly setup a new website in about 5 days. (The actual time is more like 20 minutes, but the paper work and emailing back and forth take a little longer.) We’ve made setting up a new website darn right simple and easy.

We’ve also devised a proven method for getting a majority of your neighborhood online, which basically entails mailing everyone in your neighborhood a unique ID number (PIN) that they can use to register. It keeps things private and exclusive, and you can track who’s online and who’s not. (See my previous post for more information on this process if you’re interested.)

Where we’ve fallen short, however, is relying on our customers to send out the “PIN letters” that contain this critical login information. Asking our customers to figure out how to complete a mail merge is just too much. And because we have to do it multiple times in order to get 60% of the neighborhood online, we think it’s time that we offered an alternative to our customers.

It’s still in planning phase but soon we’ll be able to offer our customers a service package of systematic mailings to get your neighborhood online. More or less, if you don’t want to do the mailings yourself, we’ll offer a cheaper alternative with our bulk discounts. In addition, you won’t have to think about when to mail the letters, or worry about how to complete a mail merge.

The systematic part is the schedule on which we plan to deliver letters (or postcards) to your neighborhood. By signing up for this service, not only will you get the best price and peace of mind, but the PIN letters will be mailed on the most effective schedule for getting your neighborhood online.

For our current customers, please email me if you’re interested in taking advantage of this new program or have feedback on how you would like to see it work.

How to get your neighborhood online

The beauty of the Internet is that it’s relatively easy to setup a website for a small local community like a neighborhood. Neighborhood websites can provide incredible value for a community by increasing the convenience and frequency of communication. The problem though, is that neighborhood websites are seldom visited.

Even so, thousands of neighborhoods have setup websites to make it easier for them to communicate by posting news, events, and classifieds, essentially replacing their expensive paper newsletters. The value of a neighborhood website is clear, but only if neighbors are using it, which is why neighborhoods continue to build websites, some costing thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, they have no plan in place as to how to get the neighbors to use it.

Many of our potential customers have come to us with this story. “We built a great website, posted a lot of interesting articles, and even told people to go visit it in our paper newsletter, but no one visits the darn thing”. (This is not an exact quote 😉 )

If you’re in this boat, don’t worry, so is everyone else.

So how do you get your neighborhood online? You’ve tried to send out mailings, postcards, newsletters and even asked your block captains to get on the phone. Nothing seems to be working.

The first thing that you have to do is to put a velvet rope around the website. You know, like the ones you see at exclusive clubs. In other words, you are not allowed in unless you’re a part of the club (neighborhood). I know what you’re thinking, “no one is visiting my site and you want me to make it harder to get access?”

Absolutely. When it was publicly accessible it wasn’t special. Consider how you feel when you drive home into your neighborhood – there’s a sense of belonging…a sense of place. That same feeling has to be created online if you want people to participate.

The second thing is to track who registers and who doesn’t. When you do this, you’ll be able to measure your success, and more importantly, you can send out reminders to those people who haven’t registered.

All this sounds great, but it’s difficult for a neighborhood to create a private website that only allows residents in and no one else. It’s even more difficult to track who’s online and who’s not.

Thankfully, eNeighbors has created a unique PIN registration process by which we will register the majority of your neighborhood online. Without this process, it’s unlikely that you’re website will be visited.

It’s really simply actually, and we do all the technical stuff as illustrated in the picture below.

Step 1: Once you sign up with eNeighbors, the first step is to gather your resident information. eNeighbors requires the street address and last name of every resident in your neighborhood.

Step 2: When eNeighbors has your resident information, we can create your site. This process can be completed in less than an hour. Upon setup, the board members will then start to populate the site with its initial content.

Step 3: When the board members are ready for residents to start joining, unique PIN numbers and a welcome letter will be mailed to each neighbor.

Step 4: Using their PIN numbers, residents can now join the site and begin contributing content and socializing with their neighbors.

This process will typically register between 20-30% of your neighborhood with each mailing. By the end of three mailings we expect that 60% of your neighborhood will be online. Overtime, the site will grow virally in your neighborhood. Some of our best performing sites have reached 80% adoption rates.

For more information on eNeighbors, I would invite you to visit our Overview page.

What makes a successful social network?

In her new book, Momentum, Allison H. Fine makes a point that is central to what makes eNeighbors tick:

“Two key characteristics of social networks are critical to their success. First, successful networks have hubs of information and leaders who drive the work. Second, information in social networks flows in a “friction-free” way to enable and empower people to work quickly at the outer fringes of the network.”

In the case of eNeighbors, the hub is the web-based application on the internet. The leaders are the board of directors. And the empowerment to the people (or neighborhood residents in this case) is made possible by the different ways you can share information with the eNeighbors application.

Oh, and happy birthday Allison.

What is eNeighbors?

So, what is eNeighbors? Here’s the introductory content from our website: eNeighbors.com

“eNeighbors is the first online communication tool designed specifically for neighborhoods and their residents. It is private, secure, and easy to set up.”

Basically, that means that we have created a web-based application that allows neighborhoods to communicate more easily than ever before. Unlike traditional websites that HOAs or neighborhoods put up for their residents, our application allows every resident to contribute. You also don’t need a web developer to create or maintain the site and its content. The eNeighbors application is so much more than a website. It also provides great social networking features that you might be familiar with on sites like Evite, Craigslist, and Meetup.

As promised, here’s a look at the application. This is the “Home” page a resident sees once they sign in to their account.

The primary services are:

1. News (post, read, and comment on the local news in your neighborhood)

2. Events (create and sign up for social events — an RSVP option is also available)

3. Groups (create a social group for you and your friends)

4. Resident Directory (address info for each registered user — phone numbers are only displayed if the resident chooses to)

5. Classifieds (you can post “wanted”, “for sale”, or “professional services” items)
eNeighbors Resident Dashboard

eNeighbors 2.0

Welcome to the eNeighbors blog. This is the inaugural post. If you are reading this, a year from now you’ll be able to say you knew us when… We have high hopes here at eNeighbors, and we’re just getting started.

We’ve just recently finished putting the finishing touches on our new web application. Check back for more info on the release. It’s technically still in beta, but will be ready for mass consumption very soon.

Cheers!

– Phil