It’s important to understand the functionality that private online communities offer to determine how a network would best suit your organization. Essentially, private social networks act as one or more of the following:
1. Networking Environment
2. Resource Hub
3. Collaboration Tool
Both public and private social networks offer users a networking environment. However, the main advantage of private communities over public social networks is that they are trusted, safe and moderated. Not only can members engage more easily with each other, but the network can become a tool for increasing meaningful engagement with the organization.
Each tool offers different capabilities to facilitate networking. GoLightly, for example, offers a community directory, a map, customizable profiles and tagging capabilities. This helps people find each other via geography or common interests. Networking is also facilitated by community managers and champions who introduce people to each other and point out available resources.
“I use the analogy of the party host: you’ve got all these people in the room, but someone has to go around and make sure everyone feels comfortable.” – Donna Childress (National Council on Aging)
One of the more powerful ways that online communities are used is as a repository for documents, resources, best practices, videos, forms, etc. This consolidates knowledge in one location, helps unify information and processes, promotes professional development,and makes the community the go-to-place for the latest credible information.
The California Parks and Recreation Society use their online community in a particularly noteworthy way. Whenever a new facility is designed, there’s a standard process they go through; each step in the process requires a different form. The structure of their online library mirrors the process of designing a facility. With a folder for each step, members have one organized place to go for all the forms that they need.
To me, the most exciting thing that private social networks offer is the ability for people to collaborate on projects from remote locations. This allows organizations to assemble the best team for a project, regardless of where the members are located. It also means that people who are traveling can stay connected to what the team is doing.
Within the network, people can organize themselves into online groups around topics of mutual interest. Communication can happen more easily and with all the right people. Forums can be set up for frequently asked questions. Wikis can be used to write reports or papers together. The possibilities are truly endless.
Understanding your members
The added benefit that private social networks offer an organization is the ability to collect data about how members are using the site. In particular, the data that networks generate can help organizations find thought leaders, see how people are organizing themselves, and assess general member happiness. This gives organizations the ability to provide constant value to their existing members while giving incentive for new members to join.
“All this interaction gives sponsors highly valuable business intelligence. This information helps them understand the market, members’ business behaviour, frame sales messages, understand product enhancements and better answer the needs of the key community.” – Rod Baptie
Private social networks allow organizations to grow relationships and deliver value by giving members the ability to connect, collaborate and share resources in a private online environment. There are, of course, challenges to consider, however I believe that when implemented correctly, the functionality far outweighs the costs.