Building Community Online Electronic Media Can Boost Association Communication

Building Community Online

 It’s often hard to fully comprehend how quickly technology has evolved during our  lifetimes, and much of that change is a result of how much closer we’ve become—virtually, that is. Whether it’s finding cheap plane tickets, or a restaurant for a Saturday night on the town,  the Internet seems to always have the answers. Technology also has transformed  the way we communicate by providing us with new places to correspond, through  email, message boards and social networking websites. But what is readily  available at our fingertips is not always properly used, even if it seems to  provide immediate satisfaction.  

 The Web Necessity

 Still, given the need for neighbors to communicate, it’s no surprise that leaders of homeowners associations are using the web to talk  with each other in-house, build community cohesion and to distribute important  information. More frequently these days, property managers and board members  are taking their communities online and using social networking sites like  Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to connect with each other. While these tools  can be useful in spreading important news around the community, they also can  be launching pads for misinformation and rumors, which cause problems in a  building. Clearly, how one uses online tools to interact with the community can  define the success (or lack thereof) of that communication.  

 In a time when nearly everyone—from children to septuagenarians—are surfing the web, not having a web presence for a multi-family community is  becoming the odd exception. That’s because the easy access for users, and the breadth of contact available  through the Internet, is far more effective than other forms of communication.  Spreading the word via the web allows you to be able to address a broad market,  while everybody gets the same information and you are able to get immediate  feedback, says Steve Cohen, vice president, operations, for A&N Management & Consulting in Boca Raton. But the very things that make the Internet so  attractive as a communications tool, also can have a downside, he adds.  

 “You can misinform people very quickly, and many people view things documented  online as the end all to be all. There’s a potential for error,” Cohen says.  

 Sometimes, using a hard copy newsletter or a piece of regular mail to convey  community information might be more appropriate media for a particular message,  but some people tend to use the web even for such messages, partly because the ‘net is so easy to use. That’s why A&N Management & Consulting still uses quarterly paper newsletters for its clients, in addition  to helping them maintain websites and convey Internet-based messaging.  

 A&N Management’s online system allows the company to develop individual web pages for its  communities, through its company website. Through that system, the company  develops the client’s site, so the community can post board meeting agendas and minutes, community  rules, and other useful information. Sometimes, the ability to use online tools  for a community can be a lifesaver.  

 A&N Management’s personnel use Twitter to convey short, important messages to people in their  communities when needed. So when a resident with Alzheimer’s disease walked off a community’s property, the management company used Twitter to tweet a message for residents  to be on the lookout for the man and to contact the company if they spotted  him. “After we put out that message, we were able to locate him quite quickly,” Cohen says.  

 Steven Weil, president of Royale Management Services, Inc. in Fort Lauderdale,  says his company also has a web portal, through which it provides websites for  the communities it serves. The websites that the company creates for its  communities give very detailed information, including meeting minutes and board  correspondence, as well as copies of all building records. Residents can even  scrutinize a copy of the landscaping bill, or the community’s financial statement.  

 “The object is to provide everything online. Any record is available to residents  online, including violation notices,” Weil says.  

 Royale Management Company is a subsidiary of the RMS accounting firm and as  such, the company’s employees are mindful of the need for transparency in management operations.  When the company issues a financial statement to a community, it even includes  copies of checks and invoices, offered as PDF files to resident users. Legally,  community records must be given to owners who ask for them, Weil says. “We look at the website as being a portal for people to access information,” he says. Royale includes its web services in its overall yearly management fee.  

 Though getting a community online may seem like a tough challenge for late  adopters of this medium, companies such as A&N Management do the work for the client. Having an information technology expert  on its staff, A&N Management creates a community’s web page through a pre-set template. Cost for the setup is $75, and technical  support for a community’s web page is $100 per year.  

 Virtual vs. Real-Life

 One downside of using the web to communicate with neighbors in a community is  that in places with many retirees, such as Florida, some senior citizens may  still not be ready to embrace the Internet, even if they’ve used it in the past. The degree of acceptance of the web varies from  community to community, but some places have many residents who aren’t interested in the medium.  

 “Most young people are into the Internet, but older people like to deal with  people in person, and they prefer phone calls,” says Valerie Schreibman, a licensed community association manager and owner of  Sunshine State Property Management in Lighthouse Point “We’re trying to get older people interested in the ‘net, but mostly it’s not working. You’ve got to have it, but the selling point [for a management company] is the mix  of personalities.”  

 The tools of the Internet, while needed, cannot replace the human touch, though.  

 “People involved in community management want customer service,” Schreibman says. “They want a human being on the end of the phone line.”  

 And while Facebook can be a useful way for management companies to stay in  contact with existing clients, and it also can be a great marketing tool to  interest new clients, it doesn’t replace the sound of a real person’s voice, says Tara Chiucchi, LCAM, a portfolio property manager for The  Continental Group in West Palm Beach.  

 “Some people like to be contacted through phone calls, or they prefer you meet  with them at their home or at the office,” Chiucchi says. “While the web won’t detract from a sense of community within an association, people should  remember that only those who are comfortable with it will take advantage of it.”  

 The web shouldn’t be the only means of communication within a community, Chiucchi adds. “People want to feel that they still matter,” she says.  

 Many management companies recognize this fact, which is why many still follow  old protocol. That means posting door-hangers informing people of community  news such as upcoming board meetings, and also dropping letters in residents’ mailboxes when appropriate.  

 Another negative of using the web for inter-community communication is that it  is an impersonal vehicle that users easily disassociate from. Tone is critical  in Internet-based messages, but the easy disassociation of users from the  medium makes some people less likely to be highly attentive of the tone they  are using in the messaging. But in online communications, tone can easily be  misinterpreted. And because of these and other unique characteristics, the web  can be a bad place to negotiate or mediate issues.  

 “One of the pitfalls of having this technology take the place of other  communications is never having enough communications. It’s very easy to use it as a crutch, rather than sitting around a table and  actually meeting with people and talking with them,” Cohen says.  

 The advantages of creating and maintaining a web component to a neighborhood’s communication plan are obvious—most people are online these days, and providing information they need on the  web means serving them better. And while there are few people these days that  don’t use computers, even those who avoid the machines altogether have neighbors  with a PC, tablet or laptop.  

 Clearly, nearly all multi-family communities can benefit from using online  communications tools such as a website, or a social networking site. Experts  agree that a community’s website should be attractive and easy to read, and that it should include  information that people want and are likely to access. But who is responsible  for the community’s online communications? That depends upon the community.  

 While many management companies will handle the start-up work for a community  website, that’s just a beginning. The question of who adds content to a community website, and  who updates the site regularly, is a decision made by the community’s board of directors. The ruling group may choose to have the management company  update the site, or they could elect one of their own—such as the board’s secretary—to handle the updates. Control of the content of the community’s website is not a given, and if content on it is allowed to be posted  unregulated, the site could become a source of rumors, which is the opposite of  its purpose.  

 “The real problem of the web today is that the board has to have a way of  controlling the website,” Weil says. “Who adds content, and who decides what the content will be?”  

 Professionals are usually close by, ready to help a community’s leaders deal with the problem. Royal Management Services provides support for  its web portal community websites. The company’s staff will walk board members through the process of how to use the website,  by doing so either over the phone or in person.  

 Even if a board uses a seamless way of updating a community’s website, some residents could still be left out of the online loop. Even so,  managers and board members can close the information gap between computer-using  residents and those who don’t use computers by providing some redundancy in communications. Many management  companies provide newsletters once, twice or four times a year by regular mail  as well as online. Others back up important notices posted online by sending  such notices directly to residents’ homes via door-hangers, and by posting them on physical community bulletin  boards. And for those residents who want nitty gritty details of transactions  or other community information that may or may not be posted online, management  companies typically will mail copies of the information to the resident  requesting it.  

 Providing such information via regular mail can be a fine line, though. Copies  and postage can add up and be costly, and excessive requests for such  information by regular mail might cause some management companies to draw the  line on the requests at some point. Some residents, especially those pursuing  personal agendas that may be contrary to the board’s focus, may request an inordinate amount of these types of documents.  

 “Our biggest tightrope is limiting what information we send to owners,” Weil says.   

 Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The South  Florida Cooperator and other publications.