Influence in the Context of Associations

"Influence" is a concept I know I'm reading, hearing and thinking about and I know I'm not the only one. I think it's interesting to sit where I sit--an online community & social media manager for an association--knowing my concept of "influencers" is a lot different than that of the people higher up in my organization, and I'm sure the same can be said for many other associations. That's to say, traditionally the people who are considered to be influential in the association world are board members and committee members. Whether an association has 500 or 5,000 or 500,000 members, in many associations staff are taught that only a handful of members deserve red-carpet treatment. If they call, it's unacceptable for them to be put on hold. If they email, you better respond right away. These people matter: 1)board members, 2) committee members, 3) possibly notorious trouble-makers or complainers. The rest of the members are members, sure, but they're not VIPs the way 1, 2, or 3 are.

Now there's a new reality where, in the larger world outside the walls of any given association, a different handful of people matter. Their peers respect them and value their perspective. They are considered to be thought leaders. They matter a lot to their peers. However, to the staff at the associations they belong to, they may very likely be invisible. In many, if not most, cases they are not board members or committee members. When they email the association with a concern, the email may be ignored. If they blog about something or tweet about it, nobody rushes to respond. To association leaders accustomed to thinking that only board members matter, this new handful of people they've never heard of may well not matter at all. Who reads their blogs anyway, those execs will assert? Nobody will care what they say on Twitter--because it's Twitter. These people don't really matter so it's not important to worry about concerns or opinions or ideas they express. Or so many association execs think.

Here's the thing that many association execs don't understand: to their peers, these "nobodies" DO matter. They may actually matter a lot more to members than board or committee members do. While we used to revere people because they were elected officials of an association, now we value those in our field whose ideas or work we respect. So there's a big disconnect between the handful of traditionally influential people sitting in the boardroom with the association's senior staff and the handful of members attending, say, a tweet-up at an annual meeting. Execs think the center of power and influence sits at their table but members may feel quite differently.

As more and more associations launch private online communities for their members, the dynamic is going to change and, generally speaking, more traditional volunteers like board members may not be as active as younger or more "early-adopter-ish" members are. Which will mean that, as time goes by and more of your members begin interacting in the online community, a new group of influencers will grow out of those interactions. Meanwhile, traditional influencers--board and committee members--will become less visible and, therefore, less influential and important, at least to members. Will you know when this change occurs, or will you be stuck in thinking the wrong people matter the most?