How to generate more participation on your neighborhood website

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the best way to increase participation on your neighborhood website is to post information as frequently as possible.

Not only do you encourage other residents to post, but you encourage more residents to register.

As I was going through our website activity reports, I saw an increase in activity in Hampton Place so I started digging to find out why. It turns out that they have a new board member (Marc O’Leary) who recently took it upon himself to increase communication in their neighborhood.

Below is a traffic report that shows the difference Marc is making. Note the spikes in traffic over the last 30 days.

hp-traffic

Not only is he posting more frequently, but he is posting relevant and useful information, and it prompted me to put together a list of Do’s and Don’ts to help other board members generate more participation in their own neighborhood.

Below is my list. Feel free to add to this list or comment below. What do you do that works? At the end of the article I have provided some screenshots of Marc’s articles and articles from a couple other neighborhoods too. Hopefully you can use these to spur activity in your neighborhood.

What to do:

  1. Post a news article at least once per week. If you get in the habit of posting frequently, you get the neighborhood on a new communication schedule and everybody starts participating in real-time. Don’t wait until the end of the month to sit down and post a bunch of stuff. Do it now. Spend 10 minutes writing one article.
  2. Charge your fellow board members with posting something once per week. The Treasurer should post financial updates – not just balance sheets but a couple sentences of the financial outlook that humans find interesting. The secretary should post the meeting minutes, and the social committee should be in charge of posting events, and so on and so forth.
  3. Post relevant and timely information. Find something that will be helpful to your community and something that is timely. One quick example. Nottingham Forest South sent out a bulletin today announcing that the pool will be closed tomorrow. Yes, that’s right. They gave one day’s notice. In the past, this is something that would have been sent out two weeks in advance. Post information immediately.
  4. Post personal information. Sometimes board members feel like they have to post meeting minutes and financial reports. This is good information but let’s be honest, it’s pretty boring. The problem is that residents cannot emulate this behavior. If you post something personal they can post something personal too. We just went through graduation season and a lot of people shared the news that their son/daughter had graduated.
  5. Ask for feedback.If you are looking for participation. Nottingham by the Green does a great job of this. They have a “Monthly Chime In” where they ask residents to chime in on a particular topic. June’s Chime in was “How important are our entrances to you?”. So far, they have 21 comments.
  6. When a resident calls with a problem say, “Post it on the website”. As a board member you hear a lot of complaints and you’re expected to act on them. Well now you don’t have to. You have setup a communication tool in your community that every resident can use so the next time they call complaining about cars driving to fast through the neighborhood, tell them to post a news article on the website politely requesting that everyone slow down.

What not to do:

  1. Do not post your paper newsletter to the website. There are several problems here. First, the paper newsletter cannot be read natively in the browser. You have to use a third-party application, like Adobe Reader or Microsoft Word to read the newsletter. This requires that people download the file (which is usually very large) instead of just loading the text on the page. So it takes longer because you’re downloading a large file and because you’re opening another application. Second, users cannot comment on information in the paper newsletter and you’re losing the benefit of two-way communication that you get by posting information online. Third, when you upload your paper newsletter you’re probably not posting news articles directly to the website, so residents don’t learn to use the site as their primary news source.

Example #1: This is a great example of how to encourage your current residents to get other residents to register. He provides an update on the progress of registration and gives people a very easy assignment to follow, which gets people involved.

registration_article

Example #2: This is a great example of what the board typically has to communicate: codes and covenants, rules and regulations, and in this case, city ordiances that everyone needs to follow. I picked this article as an example for a couple of reasons. One, it’s common. Everyone has to post this sort of stuff but Marc does it in a way that is striaght-forward and neighborly. He writes with a tone that says, hey, I’m your neighbor and here are the rules. It’s not just a copy-and-paste job. Second, note the first comment. He wrote it because he got a call from a concerned neighbor. I love this. Marc didn’t just answer the question for the “concerned neighbor”, he answered it for the whole neighborhood. The only thing that he might have been able to do better is have the concerned neighbor write the article for themselves. This isn’t always possible though. Third, look at the comment string. This clearly hit a chord with some people, meaning that it is a problem and people arent’ aware of the rules. So he picked relevant information to post. And finally, note the use of clip art/photos in every post. Nice touch.

noise_ordinance

Example #3:  This is great. Here’s an example of how you can use the news articles to teach your residents how to make the most of the website.

effective_ads

Example #4:Want more participation? Ask for it. I love Deb’s idea of having a monthly “Chime In”. They are not all shown in the screenshot below but she got 21 comments for this article.

chime_in

I have a gazillion other examples that are just as good, but I’ll save them for another post. If you’re one of the three people that made it all the way to the bottom of this post, congratulations. You are incredibly intelligent and have a longer than normal attention span.

If you have a suggestion of your own, please post a comment below.

National League of Cities on Strong Neighborhoods

I’ve always felt that strong neighborhoods are the key to affecting positive change in a community – especially in city government. My Dad, who is an Overland Park City Councilman, echoes this sentiment.

By my definition, a strong neighborhood is a local community of people that frequently communicate to socialize, pool resources, and solve problems.

eNeighbors helps neighborhoods develop stronger bonds through more efficient communication online and in many cases, our neighborhood websites are used to organize residents around important causes like reducing crime and working with the city to improve new developments.

The National League of Cities recently shared their “Lessons Learned” from community-based initiatives in collaboration with local government. (The full list of lessons is available here.)

Unfortunately, the list doesn’t provide anything actionable, but it is good food for thought. I do want to pick a bone with the last bullet point in their Lessons Learned though:

“The Internet is a powerful new tool for civic engagement. However, there is greater power in building relationships through face-to-face communication. While President Obama had a powerful Internet-connected organization, even more importantly he had a very strong on the ground organization built through individual contacts, house meetings and local actions.”

The above comment is a great example of the hesitation shown by old-line organizations fearful of how the Internet may replace face-to-face communication, but it’s exactly the opposite in my experience: the Internet increases face-to-face communication. The example that I always reference is the Nottingham Forest South Easter Egg Hunt.

The year before our website was in place, the Nottingham Forest South neighborhood relied on a paper flyer to communicate. They announced their annual Easter Egg Hunt in the April newsletter and 25 kids showed up. The next year, the website was in place and an email was sent out – 150 kids attended.

My point is that the Internet fosters face-to-face communication, it doesn’t replace it. And maybe even more importantly, when face-to-face communication is not possible, communication doesn’t stop, it can continue online.

If I’m the National League of Cities, I’m doing everything I can to research what works best in online communication and then encouraging my members to invest money in the online communication tools that make it easier for neighborhoods to interact with their elected representation and affect change. (HINT: A key component to this is real-time communication.)

Neighborhoods truly struggle with establishing good communication channels with their residents. If you send out a paper flyer, it’s costly (first class postage is now $0.44), people throw it away without reading it, and it contains information that is at least 30 days old. If you organize block captains they lose interest, or move away, or are on vacation when you need to get the word out.

But when neighborhoods can establish a real-time online communication channel that is sustainable over time, they can become organized and solve any challenge that they face. They can email and mobilize everyone in seconds, literally, in seconds. They can provide up-to-date and relevant information on a daily or weekly basis and it isn’t dependent on any single person to function so it will be sustainable.

The bottom-line: if you help neighborhoods establish better communication, you will form a stronger neighborhood.

Even simpler: better communication = stronger neighborhoods.

And just for fun: better communication, better communication, better communication.

Content Moderation: An overview and my recommendation

A concern that is shared by nearly all of our HOA boards is that residents will post inappropriate content to their neighborhood website. Board members often struggle with whether or not they should turn on the “content moderation” feature of their website, which allows a board member to review all postings before they are published.

My intention is to address this concern and lay out the benefits and costs of content moderation in this blog post and provide my recommendation for the content moderation setting on your neighborhood website. Please feel free to comment below. I would love the opportunity to hear your thoughts and concerns regarding this topic.

Now, before I dive into this, I want to provide you with a little background.

One integral feature of the eNeighbors website is the ability for every resident in the neighborhood to participate by posting their own news, events, groups, and classifieds. This capability is integral because it promotes participation, communication, activity, and resident interest. It also ensures that the success of the website is not dependent on a single site administrator or board member, but rather, thrives on the participation of each and every resident in a neighborhood.

Without providing the ability for residents to participate, neighborhood websites fail.

By this I mean that they are not used, content becomes stale, and the website is totally worthless as a viable communication channel. (I am not making this statement flippantly, I really mean that neighborhood websites without this ability are 100% worthless.)

So, by providing the ability for residents to actively participate you have established a viable communication channel in your neighborhood, probably for the first time ever. At the very least, you have laid the foundation for one to occur.

But, you have also opened the door for residents to complain and make you (board member) look bad. And therein lies the rub.

On one hand, you want to promote communication and transparency to help your neighborhood flourish. Afterall, communication is the means to all ends in a neighborhood. With communication you can promote social events, organize the neighborhood around community issues, form strong neighborhood watch groups, and so on and so forth.

On the other hand, you know that there are a number of contentious issues facing your neighborhood and that 50% of the neighborhood is on one side of the argument and 50% of the neighborhood is on the other side. If we allow people to communicate online, it’s just going to be a nasty, knock down, drag out fight in an online forum.

So what are you to do?

First, let me validate the concern. You are totally right – there will be postings on your neighborhood website where residents complain, debate, and even argue.

If you don’t believe me, raise dues. In one community, a resident posted a kindly worded news article that totaled 29 words. The title was “Rationale for $60 dues increase”.  The post is below.

“We were not able to attend the annual meeting could someone from the HOA Board please post the rationale for raising HOA dues by $60 to $300/year. Thank you.”

The above post received 98 comments from residents that totalled 10,747 words. (For every word they wrote, they produced 370 words in the comment string.)

I would argue that this type of participation is a good thing if not a great thing. For some board members, you might even fall over in your chair if you could elicit this type of participation in your own community, but for others, this type of dialogue may make you uncomfortable.

We are aware of the propensity for neighborhood discussions to become contentious or hotly debated, but this is not something to be avoided. In fact, this is when it is most important to have a healthy conversation. As a result, we have built in parameters that help maintain a healthy discussion so it can occur without becoming unproductive.

Here are the five things that we do to influence appropriate behavior on a community website:

  1. Residents agree to the Terms of Use when they register for access.
  2. Residents must register and sign-in to participate. No one can hide their identity. It is attached to every posted action. (example: news article or comment)
  3. Every news article has a link that states “Notify us of inappropriate content”. This automatically notifies the board, eNeighbors and the property manager.
  4. The board can suspend any resident violating the terms of use.  It is as easy as a mouse click.
  5. In the rare event it becomes necessary, content moderation can be turned on. This allows a board member to review content before it is published to the website.

Our experience with community content – 12,000 registered users and thousands of posts:

  1. No articles have ever been taken down because of inappropriate content.
  2. The “Notify us of inappropriate content” button has been pressed and submitted once; by accident
  3. No resident in any community has ever been suspended
  4. Only three neighborhoods use “content moderation”.  It has had a negative effect on the community because it discourages participation.

Now that you have an overview of the issue, let’s consider the rest of the story.

What happens if you don’t provide a forum for neighbors to communicate online?– They might create one themselves and you definitely won’t be in control of it. One property manager shared a story with me that their neighborhood board of directors got so sick of the “negative” posts that they shut down the site. Three months later, neighbors had launched their own website, which was public facing. One of the great things about eNeighbors is that everything is behind login, meaning you need a username and password to access the website. We also make sure that only residents are allowed in. This allows the community to have a discussion, contentious or not, without fear of the perception that may be created from the outside looking in. We like to think of ourselves as as online gated community.

Should we, as a board, remove posts that are bad? – Yes and no. Yes, if it is truly bad, as in, it violates the law, the terms of use or is an act of defamation. No, if it just makes you feel bad because the person publishing the comment was “rude” to you or the board. Instead, you should respond as a board member and public official with an even hand. Residents are angry because of how their neighborhood is being run. The only difference is that you are now aware of it because you have an open line of communication with them via the website. Wouldn’t you rather have the opportunity to respond to this type of concern rather than let it stew and grow in the community. Some board members choose not to respond to comments, and this may be an appropriate action given the topic. The website is still serving its purpose by allowing neighbors to voice their concerns.

We don’t want a website that is only used to complain. – Then use it differently. I apologize for my directness, but it’s true. As a board member, you must take an active role in forming the fabric of your community if you want it to be different. Another way to say this is that you don’t want a community that complains all the time. This is not the website’s fault that your community is complaining. If you get rid of the website, the complaining doesn’t go away with it. You just don’t see it anymore, except at your annual meetings. So my suggestion is that as a leader in your community that you help guide the neighborhood towards using the website for suggestions instead of complaints. Discussions instead of debate.

My final recommendation

In conclusion, I strongly recommend that you do NOT turn on content moderation. We have verified that it discourages participation and bottle-necks communication. The purpose of any neighborhood website is to promote communication and by moderating it you are acting as a barrier to the very thing that you want to encourage.

Goodbye, eNeighbors 1.0

When we first started buliding websites for neighborhoods we provided custom designed sites for each customer. We did this for our first 13 neighborhoods, but it quickly became unmanageable, which is why we decided to invest in a robust web application that could scale to support any number of neighborhoods and eNeighbors 2.0 was born.

Today, we say goodbye to the last eNeighbors 1.0 website. Arlington Park was our 4th neighborhood that we put online and they have now upgraded to eNeighbors 2.0. All 13 neighborhoods using our old websites have now completed the upgrade process.

I grabbed a screenshot of the old Arlington Park website just before taking it down today:

 Arlington Park Homepage

Now I get to take down that old server! Thanks to everyone who got us this far. We love you all.

Sharing Information: Yes we can

It seems like every day I have a conversation with at least one customer about whether or not they should post some type of information online – such as their neighborhood’s financial reports, bylaws, or meeting minutes. My answer is always absolutely yes, 100% without a doubt.

I’m always puzzled as to why this is even a hesitation, but I’m now convinced, given the breadth of the concern, that many, if not most people feel fear about sharing information on the web.

Here are some of the better “reasons” for NOT sharing information. (The quotes are paraphrased.)

  1. “If we publish our financial reports, our vendors will see what we pay and offer us less competitive rates.” Well, maybe. First, let me explain that if you use eNeighbors, only residents have access to your neighborhood website. So, unless your vendors are also residents, you don’t have to worry about this. However, why would you assume that the rates would be less competitive? You might find that they are more competitive and try to undercut your current rates. At the end of the day, you have to negotiate your rates, or allow your property manager to get you the best rate. This has nothing to do with what you’re currently paying. It has everything to do with what you’re willing to pay and what they’re willing to sell it for.
  2. “We have a resident that is filing a lawsuit against us and we don’t want him to have this information”. Sorry, but you can’t hold the information back from him anyway. You are making it a little harder on him to access it, but if he’s filing a lawsuit, it won’t really matter. One thing to consider: If you had made this type of information available in the first place, would there be a lawsuit at all? Boards that share information and operate transparently instill trust with their residents.

Here are my reasons for sharing information:

  1. Sharing information online instills trust with residents
  2. Sharing information online holds board members accountable
  3. Sharing information online provides a repository of historical knowledge for future boards to reference
  4. Sharing information online is convenient for board members, property managers, realtors, renters, and residents
  5. Sharing information online leads to unexpected results that will improve your community

As a board member you don’t really have a right to hold back information. Most of the information is publicly available (such as your HOA bylaws) and it is certainly the right of due’s paying members to have access to it.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a video of Sir Tim Berners-Lee (father of the Internet) and his perspective on sharing data. He’s way beyond sharing documents, he wants your raw data now.

Why do neighborhoods switch to eNeighbors?

We’ve seen an increase in the number of clients switching from other website providers to eNeighbors. During the sales cycle, I’ve had the opportunity to ask them why they are considering switching to us. I have complied the responses in my own words below.

  1. “I’m leaving the board, and I want a website that will work without me”– This is by far the most common reason that I hear. It seems that many board members realize that their website won’t work without them managing, updating, and supporting it. eNeighbors is attractive because we manage your website for you and we offer support to each and every resident. Most importantly, every resident can contribute their own news, events, groups or classifieds, so information flow is not dependent on a single board member posting information. In other words, we have no “board dependencies” and will work as board members come and go.
  2. “No one has registered on our current website”– This is the most important reason to switch in my mind. Many website providers simply build a website and walk away. They have no process for getting the majority of your residents registered. eNeighbors has a proven registration process in place that will get at least 50% of your community registered. One community got 98% of their community registered. Vist our website for more information on our registration process.
  3. “No one visits our current website” – Actually, this may be the most important reason to switch. After you get people registered on the website, how do you get them to keep coming back? eNeighbors is the only website provider with automatic email newsletters that compile all the information that was contributed to your neighborhood website and sends it out in a weekly email to all registered residents. This keeps people tuned in and actively participating.
  4. “We are getting nickel and dimed”– Many website providers have complex pricing models that charge for storage space, domain name registration, setup fees, email accounts, support calls, so and and so forth. eNeighbors is simple, you get everything we have to offer for one price and no other fees.
  5. “Our ‘guy’ won’t return our calls or emails”– There is nothing more frustrating than this. You’re trying to update your website, ask a question or just get some help and your website provider is no where to be found. eNeighbors is committed to responding to every request from you within 48 hours.
  6. “A resident posted offensive information on the website and we can’t take it down”– This one  happened last week. I received a phone call from a property manager who was in a panic because she had a neighborhood who was using a different website provider. Apparently, one of their residents had posted some nasty (and untrue) information about a board member and they were not able to remove the information. As a result, they decided to switch to eNeighbors for greater control over the information that was posted.

For more information on why people choose eNeighbors, visit http://www.eneighbors.com/overview/why.html.

66224 – Still one of my favorite ZIP codes

When we first launched eNeighbors, 66224 was the first zip code to have more than one neighborhood in it, so I declared it to be “my new favorite zip code” in the United States.

66224 is now tied with 66062 for 8 neighborhoods in each zip code:

eN-66224

And now for 66062…

eN-66062

Is your neighborhood online? If not, find out more at http://www.eneighbors.com/overview/index.html.

Should you discontinue your neighborhood’s paper newsletter?

Our customers are considering this question more and more as they look to save money and communicate more efficiently.

 

In an effort to answer this question in her own neighborhood, one savvy board member decided to find out the best course of action and asked residents what they prefer – receiving a printed monthly newsletter in the mail or receiving news via email.

 

I have republished the article below so you can hear from real residents that currently use eNeighbors and also receive a paper newsletter. After reading the comment string, please let us know your thoughts by commenting below.

 

 

March – “Chime In”

This month’s “Chime In” asks:

 

Would you rather get your newsletter via email or do you prefer receiving your printed monthly newsletter in the mail? What do you like, or dislike, about receiving it by email? What do you like, or dislike, about receiving the printed version by mail?

 

Here’s your chance to give us your opinion, so “Chime In”.

 

Submitted by: Deb M. – Communications Manager  Date: 02.26.09 | 10:26 AM

 

 

I like receiving the newsletter in the mail as my preference is to read information in print vs. on the computer.

 

Submitted by: Robert & Michele B. Date: 02.26.09 | 9:13 PM    

 

 

Hands down, getting the newsletter by e-mail is just the best. Receiving notifications weekly, easily being able to contact board members/neighbors, plus the savings in paper waste and postage, makes e-mailing the newsletter the most efficient way of communication. Weekly exposure keeps our neighborhood “tuned in”.

 

Submitted by: Karen and Dale U.  Date: 03.02.09 | 3:30 AM    

 

 

I would rather get the newsletter via email. Saves paper/trees and should save the home association money.

 

Submitted by: Dale R. Date: 03.02.09 | 5:49 AM    

 

 

I would prefer the newsletter via email, but how much revenue would we be losing from the ad space that is sold on the printed version?

 

Submitted by: Dave and Kim C. Date: 03.02.09 | 8:35 AM    

 

 

E-mail. Future is paperless. Money saved in printing & postage can be used in other areas plus you can always go back and retrieve past newsletters if need. Ads could still be sold and be displayed – just in electronic format.

 

Submitted by: Rob and Terrie D.  Date: 03.02.09 | 9:08 AM 

 

 

As a clarification, the advertising in the newsletter pays for all costs associated with the printed version…that includes production, printing & postage. So, in theory, there would be no savings of monies spent or earned that would be available for other expenditures by the homes association. However, several of you have made valid points regarding paper waste and retrieval of past issues. Although we might not be able to completely eliminate the printed version, we are looking at more effective means of delivering its contents. Thanks for the input!

 

Submitted by: Deb M. – Communications Manager  Date: 03.02.09 | 11:57 AM    

 

 

A personal note: I just was thinking about the beginnings of the newsletter. I was on the newsletter committee very early on. There were a few of us who would take turns doing the newsletter – Sometimes a very dreaded task. Different person, different formats. Delivery was by a volunteer on each block and hand delivered personally to each house, there were no addresses on them. It was truly an effort in neighborly-ness. Those on this committee were usually considered the ones to go to for any information, and it was frustrating when people wanted to locate past versions or who to call for renting the clubhouse, yard sale, etc. However, back to “modern times”, I applaud Deb M. with her efforts as the Communications Mgr. I still feel the electronic version is the way to go, but for those who want a printed version, maybe it could be sent on a less frequent schedule.

 

Submitted by: Karen and Dale U. Date: 03.03.09 | 1:18 AM    

 

 

Electronic would be great. I end up scanning over the paper one then throwing it in the recycling bin.

 

Submitted by: Brooke and Rich P. Date: 03.03.09 | 2:51 PM    

 

 

Thank you Karen & Dale, for your kind words. We will continue to find better ways and means to communicate…whether that be in print or electronic. Bring on SUMMER!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Submitted by: Deb M.  – Communications Manager  Date: 03.03.09 | 11:48 PM

Spruce Creek South: Retirement Community for Active Adults

When evaluating our product, neighborhoods that have an older demographic, like a retirement community, often express concern that their residents don’t have access to the Internet so they won’t use the neighborhood website.

My experience is that the age of a community is not an issue.

Case in point: Spruce Creek South is a retirement community in Florida. They currently have 651 residents that have registered for website access and subscribed to their email newsletter.

I have provided a screen shot of their email newsletter that was sent out today to give you an idea of the participation level in their community. My observation has been that older communities are very active, an in some cases, post more “Events” than any other neighborhoods that we have online.

sps-weekly_email_newsletter

UPDATE: According to the property management company for Spruce Creek South, the average age of a resident is 70 years old.