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—is 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. An association website can serve three main purposes: communicate, inform and market, says Tim Arel, a property manager at North Point Management in Amherst, New Hampshire. But the very things that make the Internet so attractive as a communications tool, also can have a downside, he adds.
“Some associations provide a section for owners to blog comments. Instead of creating an area for positive and productive comments, this could become an area where owners express their complaints and dissatisfaction,” says Arel. “In the case where the website is public, this now creates a negative image of the association. The net result is that instead of creating something positive, the website hurts the image of the association to potential buyers. Another area of concern is having personal information on sites creates security concerns. Boards must be very concerned over the exposure of personal information, as well as the potential liability on the board and association.”
Difficult to read text, aggressive pop-ups, pictures that don’t download, excessive advertisements, hyperlinks that don’t work, equals a poorly designed website, and that’s a big no, no. “It might be best to have no web presence if the site is poorly constructed, developed or written,” says Michael Palomo, service coordinator for Urban Property Management Corporation in Boston. “A bad presence, unprofessional, not easily navigable or perhaps poorly selected images sends a bad message and is worse than no presence.”
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. The ultimate goal for many property management companies is to provide everything online. Any record is generally 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 specifically for homeowner associations, co-ops, condominiums, 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 and message boards. Plans begin at $35.00 a month.
Associations can receive a 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. Associations are allowed to have as many site administrators as they would like for the community site. AssociationVoice also provides technical 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, its residents may not be wired. 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, and some seniors tend to be more tech-savvy than others, but some places have many residents who aren’t interested in the medium.
“Not all owners have Internet access. Boards must be careful not to become totally reliant on the website for providing information to their owners,” says Arel. “This could create a situation where some owners feel excluded and that the board is not considerate of their needs and circumstances.”
“For our clients who do not have access to the Internet we communicate with them through USPS or the phone,” adds Palomo. “However it is the very rare owner in our market that does not use the Internet.”
The tools of the Internet, while needed, cannot replace the human touch. Arel agrees 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, LCAM, a property manager at 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 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.
Out of 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. Managers and board members, however, can close the information gap between residents who use computers and those who don’t 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 very good tool, but they do not eliminate the need for a board and management to reach out directly to owners,” Arel says. “With technology, it is easy to forget that boards and management are dealing with customer service. Websites can be impersonal and do not take the place of a phone call or in person meeting.”
Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to New England Condominium and other publications. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.