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Building Community Online Electronic Media Can Boost Association Communication

It’s hard to imagine 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 homeowner’s 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.

With technology improving at such a rapid pace, people are expecting more and more information to be available on the web and associations are embracing the trend by providing homeowners with the ability to pay dues online, and providing access to governing documents, meeting minutes, newsletters, and audit reports, the benefits are enormous, says Tejas Kadia, chief executive officer of Reliance Property Management Group in Jersey City. But the very things that make the Internet so attractive as a communications tool, also can have a downside, he adds.

“If the security features of the association’s website are compromised, it could lead to privacy violations and open up liabilities for the association,” Kadia says. “Fortunately, there are some excellent companies out there which specialize in building association websites and understand these security concerns. The association can protect itself by ensuring that it does not post anything to the website which may be considered highly confidential in nature. Futhermore, there are insurance companies which offer data breach insurance to protect against the risk.”

Cyberbullying, or the use of the Internet and related technologies to harm others is also a concern. “A negative aspect of the web is if it is used in a vicious way or if someone says things that slander the other residents or community,” says Martin Laderman, president and CEO of MEM Property Management in Jersey City. “Once that happens the information will be removed immediately, but sometimes it’s too late and the email already has legs on it. Another concern is that we’ll post minutes and financials that are not to be viewed by the outside community that is password-protected, but passwords are made to be broken. We don’t keep social security numbers and driver’s license numbers, but the names are out there with phone numbers and account balances so that’s information you are putting out there that can be hacked.”

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 Internet is so easy to use. The ultimate goal for many property management companies is to provide everything online. Any record is available to residents online, including violation notices.

Though getting a community online may seem like a tough challenge for late adopters of this medium, companies such as AtHomeNet and AssociationVoice can do the work for the client.

AtHomeNet offers websites designed for homeowner associations, condos, neighborhoods and communities of all types and sizes. A few features that are included in its web services are announcements, amenities reservations, online payments option, photo albums, message boards, job bids, email bulletins, message boards, among other services. Plans begin at $35.00 a month.

You will receive your website within 24 hours from AssociationVoice, a company that specializes in creating websites for co-ops, condominiums and HOAs. Board members will have several steps to complete for setup, such as uploading documents, entering news items or calendar events, and inputting a community directory. Most communities will have their website ready to launch within a week or two. Associations are allowed to have as many site administrators as they would like for the community site. AssociationVoice also provides tech support via phone or email during regular business hours with limited weekend hours.

Virtual vs. Real-life

One downside of using the web to communicate with neighbors in a community is that in places with many retirees, 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 since some seniors tend to be more tech savvy than others, but some places have many residents who aren’t interested in the medium.

“It is important to remember that building a community website is a complimentary feature, an additional communication tool. It cannot replace traditional methods of communicating with homeowners like telephone, fax, postal mail and in-person,” says Kadia. “Association boards and their management companies should be prepared to send hard copies of newsletters and other correspondence to owners who may not be able to receive this information online.”

“When people go to a website they have to register their name so we will know which ones are registered and not registered,” said Laderman. “We recently had an election so we sent out an email blast to residents telling them the time and place. We knew 260 units were registered email users, and the 50 or so that bounced back we did individual mailings to. The units that are not registered with the website we always follow up with a letter in the mail or under their door after an email blast.”

The tools of the Internet, while needed, cannot replace the human touch. Kadia and Laderman both agree that people involved in community management want customer service and at the end of the day 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, a property manager for The Continental Group, which is based in Florida.

“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.

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 have neighbors with a PC or laptop. Clearly, nearly all multi-family communities can benefit from using online communications tools such as a web site, 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.

In the Loop

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.

“Websites are a great way for us to get the word out. You can go online and see what time the pool party is,” Laderman says.

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator and other publications. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.

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