A conventional wisdom has been for associations and other nonprofits to migrate current email list groups to community platforms. In our consulting as a part-time CIO, we’ve done this ourselves. We might have been wrong. Direct experience and observing the experiences of others suggests that when migrated to richer community platforms, these existing email list groups tend to keep functioning just as they did before. That is, they use the community platform as an email hub, perhaps augmented by file libraries, but still essentially email lists. Why would that happen and how might we approach this differently?
There are many apparent similarities between email lists and communities. For both, a core function is discussion. Topics are introduced, questions are asked, information is requested, and other participants respond. Users receive email updates of new postings in either real time or as a digest. Community platforms add new functions such as libraries, profiles, and discussion home pages that make it easy to find and read discussion threads. Some email list applications provide some of these features as well.
Upon closer examination, however, there are fundamental differences between an email list and a community.
Email lists tend to be formed around content while communities are formed around people. Content discussions in email lists can and do result in fostering relationships, particularly among frequent posters. Those relationships are a byproduct of the content discussion. Communities in contrast are formed around people and the interactions among those people may lead to content-oriented conversations. Content discussions are a byproduct of the relationships of the people. For example, in the personal arena, Facebook builds on personal relationships, modeled on the concept of friends. People share personal experiences and opinions that sometimes lead to more expansive content discussions. LinkedIn is also about relationships, modeled on the concept of professional contacts.
In contrast, many listservs – perhaps most, are topical. People join the list because they are interested in the topic and expect the topic to be the prime focus of discussions. Evidence of this are comments on lists about conversations drifting off-topic, something that never comes up in personal communities.
Organizations are drawn to the community model because it offers an opportunity for deeper relationships with members or donors. However, the migration of lists into community platforms may actually inhibit that goal by trying to transition a content-oriented group to a person-oriented community. Perhaps it would be better to keep these two functions separated, at least initially.
What are alternatives? From my vantage point, the development of models for professional or organizational communities is still in its infancy. One leading provider suggests establishing a new community of all members to help get the community ball rolling. Another possibility would be to create one or more new communities based on personal (or organizational) characteristics such as location, career stage, or volunteer activities. For most associations, chapters, regional and state affiliates have always had a vibrant local community, for example. Over time these communities of people might begin to absorb the content-oriented listservs.