Social media impacts just about everyone…few escape its presence in personal life or the business world. Whereas Facebook was once a leading platform for millennials, the portal has increasing appeal to the aging demographic, especially in lieu of Twitter and Instagram. Regardless of the chosen medium, social media has redefined 21st century communication, doubtlessly.
CeBIT’s Social Business Trends for 2014 found that by 2016, 50 percent of large organizations will have internal Facebook-like social networks, and 30 percent of these organizations will consider social media as essential as email and phones are today. For many association and community association communities, however, the preferred method of communication remains association websites and emails.
“We’ve noticed that having a website depends on the community type and demographics of residents as well as location,” says Fred Rodriquez of Associa, the nation’s largest community association management company, with offices in Saddle Brook and Mount Laurel, New Jersey. “However, we’ve also noticed that some communities do have websites, but they are rarely used or have little functionality.”
In most cases, the majority of boards and community association managers are using some form of social media but calculating just how many are virtually communicating about topical issues is a moving target, says Nicole Ramos Beauchamp, a real estate agent at Manhattan-based Engel & Volkers. “A very rough, educated guesstimate is that more than half of boards use some form of technology—be it websites or social media—to communicate with residents,” says Beauchamp, who has worked with boards on social media issues. “The most common system I encounter is BuildingLink.”
Beauchamp references BuildingLink.com, a web-based platform used in over 2,100 properties in the U.S. and worldwide. According to its website, the program offers efficient management, communication, and enhanced living advice for residents and association managers. BuildingLink, however, isn’t the only game in town.
As the name suggests, BigTent allows members to develop a user group at one online location. While these two services are popular in the industry, many properties remain antiquated when it comes to embracing technologies.
“Generally speaking, social media is used by boards for homeowner notification. For example, for snow emergencies or a trash delay, things that have informational purposes,” adds Joe Balzamo, the president of Alliance Property Management in Morristown, New Jersey. “It can be very helpful in cutting down in a lot of confusion as to what is going on. If a board notifies the resident to check its’ Facebook page, it makes things very clear: one post and all questions are answered. It also saves the association manager time. We don’t have to make 25 needless phone calls, especially if you have to deal with inclement weather when we are trying to get people to a property with snow plows.”
While demographics play a significant role to adopting social media portals, there are other obvious benefits to consider. Detractors of Twitter or Facebook who often refer to the construct as self-gratifying (i.e., “I just made scrambled eggs…I’m awesome”), may be overlooking intrinsic business attributes. “There are many benefits to utilizing the latest technology, the primary benefits being reduced overall cost to the community due to efficiencies,” says Tod Meisner, the director of digital marketing at Associa. “The latest software also provides more reliability, time saving advantages, causes less paper waste, and helps reduce labor costs,” he says.
For associations not yet embracing social media, board members and managers are encouraged to investigate the latest innovations, such as app offerings. “The overall push towards the ease of use of websites on mobile devices is important,” says Beauchamp. “The trends have been toward being able to do more from a smartphone, tablet, and phablet (the marriage of a smartphone and tablet), which could be theoretically someone’s only computing device, whether by choice or necessity,” says Beauchamp.
“Personally I find, even when I am at home, within reach of multiple computers, I work off of my mobile device or tablet,” Beauchamp adds. “I have seen some HOAs use Facebook groups, both private and public, although one could argue how ‘private’ anything on Facebook is.”
For associations seeking new technologies to streamline operations, there are numerous vendors writing code and software catering to the industry. Among those throwing its hat in the ring is Associa. “We have many exclusive or proprietary software options that separate ourselves from our competitors, as well. Other widely available industry options include C3 mobile for smart phones and tablets,” says Rodriquez. “This software allows for mobile community assessments and evaluations, and you can attach photo proof of violations right from the app.”
There always comes the time when a new technology is embraced. Whereas associations used to rely on bulletin boards for announcements, email, and other communication, vehicles were eventually adopted, regardless of troglodyte resistance. If an otherwise tech-neutral board decides to seek a new app or develop a social network ring, it’s best to be informed.
“The first step is to evaluate what the current residents and shareholders desire. I know of some buildings where it began with something as simple as wanting to easily submit a work request without having to send numerous emails, faxes and telephone calls or easily paying maintenance when traveling,” says Beauchamp.
While there is an ease-of-use factor with virtual communication, there are costs and overhead involved. Usually a building’s legal counsel will weigh in on liability issues and an association might have to hire a tech savvy person to implement and manage the initiative. In short…it’s not always a turnkey proposition.
“If there are any drawbacks to new technology, it is unfamiliarity for the homeowners. Change isn’t always embraced, and using technology instead of people can create an impersonal feel, and also bring about periods of confusion as training will be needed to implement the changes,” says Meisner. “Because of this possible confusion, there could be reluctance by the managers and or boards to buy in or embrace the new processes. Also, when relying on mobile technology, you can run into issues such as poor signal and unsupported devices.”
“Social media is a good tool,” says Balzamo. “The only drawback I see is maintaining it. The board has to make sure that there is a dedicated person to make updates to make sure the needs of the community are facilitated.”
In many cases, board members and association managers aren’t equipped with the necessary knowledge to implement and manage a social network platform. As a result in certain instances, boards may bite off more than they can chew. “The biggest challenge is typically the rate of adoption,” says Beauchamp. “Implementing new systems can be labor and cost intensive, especially if legacy systems, policies and procedures need to be maintained in parallel. This can be a source of frustration for all involved.”
Going for the ‘Like’
If, after due diligence and thoughtful consideration, a board decides it does want to expand its communication practices, it is recommended that board members seek out educational resources as there are lessons to be learned. “Our industry-leading online resource Association Times has many articles on this topic to help managers and board get informed on how to utilize the latest technologies,” says Meisner. “We work to encourage our branch companies to include ‘hot topic’ articles in their company newsletters, and very often articles are about best practices in online communications.”
Once it’s decided to adopt a new communication online platform, Meisner suggests boards request advice from their community manager. His theory is that if a board has trusted a company to manage their community, it should feel comfortable seeking their expertise in this area as well. “These communities could also speak with other communities or Google for articles that speak about best practices,” says Meisner. “Our branches have also conducted board member seminars on this topic with local CAI [Community Associations Institute] chapter leaders to help better inform our boards and communities.”
New Jersey’s two CAI chapters include one in Mercerville at www.cainj.org and one serving southern New Jersey in King of Prussia, PA at www.cai-padelval.org.
For many board members not used to interacting through social media, different rules apply. Often messages, notes, and missives can be taken out of context, much like in email communications. The difference is that in a social media setting, more than one person is reacting to the message’s content.
“Have a plan and purpose to the communication. Understand what platform makes the most sense for a particular purpose, and be prepared for resistance and understand how that is going to be manage; in particular, the parallel systems of a sort that might ensue,” says Beauchamp. “People should continue to be mindful of what they are posting and context; it is, additionally, often difficult to discern tone, and this is something to keep in mind.”
In Meisner’s experience, the best course of action is keeping association communications about the community; the golden rule is to remain civil, regardless of respective stance. “All too often, these pages can turn into places for people to complain or use as their own public forum to start discussions that are better suited for the board meeting. Specifically, we try to tell boards and residents to keep their negative opinions or reviews off-line if possible,” says Meisner. “It looks bad on you if you slam or destroy an individual or company on a public site.”
If a board member, association manager or property owner has a complaint, there are more appropriate websites to voice concerns. These include Yelp, Glassdoor, Nextdoor, and Google Places, among others. If issues do exist, Meisner encourages the topics to be brought up at a board meeting with a manager.
“Purposely embarrassing, humiliating, or blaming someone only draws the attention back to that person. The accusations could possibly be incorrect and you open yourself to lawsuits and other unwanted problems,” says Meisner. “We as a company try to be very transparent in our online communications, but always try to take issues-related incidents off-line in order to meet a resolution on a personal level.”
W.B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.