Use Social Media to Reach—and Listen to—Your Community
By Andrea Brescia
More and more Americans are getting—and sending—their information through social media in real time: from politics and breaking news to sharing family photos and learning about events. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the favored community forums for staying in the know. Facebook pages, Twitter streams, and even community-designed apps are popping up all over homeowners associations—sometimes both officially and unofficially.
With such a powerful platform at your fingers as well as those of your members, how can you best use social media to your advantage to build and protect your brand? How should you monitor the open comments sections? Can you be held liable for a user’s comments?
We’ll give you some guidelines on how to maximize the conversations that are taking place both on your official social media pages and in member-created online community forums so that you can manage the messaging while responding to the pulse of your community. Also, we’ll tell you how to safely create a powerful marketing tool by using and monitoring your members’ comments.
Nine Ways to Manage the Message
While more casual than other forms of marketing, social media is a powerful marketing tool and each post counts. As such, your messages should be carefully crafted—and planned—as part of your overall marketing strategy. “We regularly schedule a blast every week for our events department, and we plan Facebook posts as part of our normal communication,” says Wendy Taylor at South Riding Propriety, an association in Virginia with over 6,000 homes.
Here are nine ways to help you manage your social media strategy:
 Assign point people to monitor sites. South Riding has a social media policy in place and assigns several people to consistently monitor their sites. “Only a few people can post on our Facebook page,” she says. “We try to centralize it with two of our staff members so that we are controlling the marketing message.”
Similarly, Tammy McAdory at Kiawah Island Community Association also uses a communications staff of two people, with one staff member designated as the primary point person and the other a backup. Both monitor the comments sections and keep information fresh, interesting, and up to date.
 Avoid legal and ethical risks. “Managing a social media site is relatively low risk,” says McAdory. “The Federal Communications Decency Act provides protections against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold us, as host, responsible for what others post.” (See “Federal Law Allows Blocking of Offensive Material Online,” below.) Her staff is also careful not to use ads or banners, to avoid being seen as recommending a particular service or provider. She further cautions that copyright issues are probably the most common pitfall, so her team publishes only those photos and videos that either the association has taken or has permission from the source to use.
 Monitor and remove inappropriate comments. A lot of discussion takes place in open comments sections and Facebook posts. While social media sites can reinforce positive images of the community, members might also use the sites to express frustration or just vent. Again, make sure to appoint designated staff to monitor the comments daily and charge them with removing or hiding negative or inappropriate comments.
“We will hide personal comments or offensive language,” says Taylor, adding that they will address the personal comments that they hide one-on-one. “For example, if someone is venting over a community standards issue, then that department would reach out to the member directly,” she says. “But we don’t do it through Facebook.”
McAdory agrees. She says that they trust their members to behave appropriately, but when they don’t, they immediately remove the posts. “We won’t allow personal attacks,” she says.
At the same time, McAdory says that they don’t respond online to grievances because responses wouldn’t reach all of their members. “Official communications are published in our printed monthly newsletter and/or our weekly e-news, which are sent to all members,” she says. Knowing what percentage of your membership is online can help you decide when you need to use print, mail, and more formal methods to reach everyone—and help you craft an effective way to integrate social media into your marketing plan.
 Listen in on community-created Facebook sites. While not official, Facebook pages that have been created by your members to get to know each other, share non-official community news and events, swap advice, etc. can be a powerful tool to help you get to know the issues and concerns of your members. At South Riding, Taylor says that rarely they need to remove a post on their official page, because the members have created a community page that parallels the official HOA page. Because the association is so big, the members created their own site to post things regarding, say, hiring a babysitter, finding a restaurant recommendation, and other community networking. Taylor says this is the site where people usually vent.
“We monitor it,” she says, “to know what issues are out there.” The complaints usually involve misinformation, she says, so her staff will try to direct members to the association’s official page where the correct information will be posted. Sometimes, they will even ask certain members to post the correct information on the unofficial pages or to try to direct users to the official page.
 Avoid creating sites and pages that you don’t use. A dormant site reflects poorly on the association and unmonitored and uncensored comments can quickly become an issue. “It’s not enough to be on it; you have to continually engage,” says McAdory, adding that similarly, over-posting can be detrimental as well. You must find the right balance for your membership.
 Use social media to build the association’s brand. “Social media are additional channels that help us maintain a consistent voice, and to reach segments of our owners who prefer social media communications,” says McAdory, adding that the voice of social media is more personable and human. “It removes some of the ‘big business’ aspects of what we do and humanizes the association to its members, many of whom never come into personal contact with operations,” McAdory says. “This translates to trust and credibility because we want to provide as many methods for members to reach us as possible—and we want to be repetitive.”
McAdory also acknowledges the wisdom of the old marketing “Rule of Seven,” using Instagram, multiple Facebook pages (for special events, etc.), mobile apps, and text messages to reach members multiple times using multiple platforms to share the message. Unlike other forms of marketing, you can reach members and convey information in a casual voice. But although you’re using an informal tone, make it consistent, she advises.
 Help your seniors and older adults get online. According to the Pew Center for Research, the use of social media among those 65 and older has tripled since 2010, when only 11 percent were on social media sites. Today, 35 percent of people older than 65 are using social media—meaning the seniors in your community are getting on the tech bandwagon.
“Our goal is to continually grow social media, helping our often older demographic to get comfortable with it,” says McAdory. To do this, she says, her staff posts appealing (or sometimes controversial) information. Additionally, since 80 percent of the association’s members are not there full time, they find photos to be a very compelling way to engage them.
 Use caution before promoting non-sanctioned association events or news. Think twice before publishing information that might be seen as outside of official association business. It’s important to use social media activity as you would any other form of marketing for the community. You don’t want to appear to show favoritism or that you’re endorsing non-official association events or news. Taylor says her staff doesn’t post anything non-sanctioned on their sites with the occasional exception of county-driven news that impacts the community’s core mission or values, such as county meetings or findings.
 Consider the benefits of an app. South Riding developed an app that it also uses to push information. To encourage members to download and use it, they built in functionality so that members can access the popular pool facilities—including the high-in-demand water parks—using the app. “People are always losing pool passes,” says Taylor. With the app, she says, they can gain access, reserve guest passes, and centralize the access.
Federal Law Allows Blocking of Offensive Material Online
The Federal Communications Decency Act provides protection to social media providers for comments posted by readers under the following section:
§230. Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material
(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material
(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
(2) Civil liability
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—
(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or
(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).
Tammy McAdory, CMCA, AMS, PCAM: Communications and Outreach Director, Kiawah Island Community Association, Inc.; Kiawah Island, S.C.; email@example.com.
Wendy Taylor, PCAM, LSM: General Manager, South Riding Proprietary; South Riding, VA; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrea Brescia is a New Jersey-based editor who writes for housing-related publications and organizations.