NTEN Case Study: Engaging Community from the Cloud to Conference Ballroom (and Back)

Everything Megan Keane does as the community engagement manager for NTEN is driven and supported by one simple principle: “It’s all about the people,” she said.

Keane joined NTEN in 2012 and has worked as a community manager in the nonprofit sector for several years. “It’s about making that personal connection and getting community members to talk to one another — online and off — and not just one-to-one, but one-to-many,” she said.

And though the Cloud helps foster a sense of community in a number of ways, it also “isn’t foolproof,” said Keane. “The Cloud is such a buzzword, but it’s a tool like everything else. You can’t use it without keeping those principles, and your mission, in mind. And,” she added, “the Cloud breaks; it is not always your friend.”

Since so much content on the web isn’t static, “you can have ongoing conversations,” Keane said. On the NTEN Connect Blog, for instance, community members can comment on posts, and experts from the nonprofit technology and NTEN membership community can contribute content and share best practices with others.

But even archived and less dynamic content still can foster engagement among community members. “Someone can stumble across an old conversation, and it’s still there as a resource. The person isn’t just finding an article or an archived webinar but there’s this whole conversation about the topic that people have been sharing. Even if it’s a few years old, often the principles are still relevant. Technology may change, but the principles and general strategies usually still apply.”

Keane also maintains an active NTEN presence on several social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and, increasingly, Google+ since NTEN’s G+ page is serving as a growing source of traffic to its website. “In terms of community engagement, I haven’t seen a lot of discussion happening there yet. But [because of the traffic], it’s something you can’t ignore as a channel. . . . Sometimes the tool kind of picks you rather than you picking the tool.”

Listening to your audience is crucial to community engagement, Keane noted. She uses Cloud-based Netvibes to monitor social analytics and as a feed reader of sorts to learn what community members are talking about on their own blogs and on social media. She uses the information to create a periodic member roundup post for the NTEN blog and also tweets about the post. “It’s a small way of giving individual members the spotlight, and people really appreciate it,” she said.

The practice jibes with Keane’s view of her role as that of curator. “With the sheer amount of information out there, giving the community an easy way to access it is important — pointing them to the cream of the crop, recaps, other meaningful content and conversations, both from NTEN and other organizations. I’m wading through it so they don’t have to,” she said.

Listening also helps Keane and NTEN stay responsive to member needs. “I look at what people are talking about. If they’re asking questions about mobile or responsive design, to give two recent examples, we might write an article for the blog or develop a webinar on those subjects.”

The Cloud also supports off-site events, such as NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), although Keane uses her go-to systems and tools somewhat differently in the conference ballroom than her NTEN office.

Twitter is big at the conference, both for participants and staff. “So many people use it (and the conference hashtag), and it becomes more customer-service oriented, Keane said. She and other staff tweet everything from last-minute room changes to reminders about sponsored breaks (i.e. free snacks).

Twitter is also a way for participants to share the conference experience with their own followers and colleagues who may not be attending. Or, as was the case at the most recent NTC, to alert NTEN staff of technical issues with myNTC, the conference platform for scheduling, discussions and other interactions. Upon seeing the tweets, staff promptly contacted the vendor, Zerista, and the issues were resolved.

Keane used Cloud-based Google Docs (Drive) with presenters on the conference panels she moderated, both during planning and for the presentation itself. And she used the NTEN blog, where she promoted award winners in “ready to go” posts she had written prior to the event. She used Facebook to post a few photos of conference highlights, with links to NTEN’s flickr photostream.

Although, or perhaps because, Keane relies heavily on the Cloud at events and for her day-to-day work, she appreciates the need for a plan B. “Especially at conferences with a lot of techies,” she joked, Internet access and sufficient bandwidth can quickly become an issue. (At NTC, NTEN asks participants not to access the Internet from more than one device at a time.)

When, just a few minutes before her NTC panel, Keane’s presentation in Google Drive wasn’t accessible, she was reminded of the importance of having a backup. Similarly, when presentation slides were not available to Online NTC viewers, Online NTC hosts at the conference tweeted the slide content so participants watching the live stream still had context for the sessions. When the myNTC platform wasn’t running smoothly, the hard-copy conference guides NTEN had prepared in advance came in handy.

Technical challenges aside, Keane takes advantage, and encourages members to take advantage, of opportunities to interact with colleagues in person, since connection — be it real-world or virtual — lies at the heart of community engagement. “You have to strike a balance; you don’t want to be at the conference in-person and then spend all your time online.

Kim Roth