The condo/HOA future is online

Using the Internet to spread information strengthens your condo or home owners community, which adds value to every owner’s home. “Associations are notorious for conflict,” says Luis Maimoni, creative director at Fresh!, a marketing company in Long Beach, Calif. “A great way to fend off conflict is if everybody knows each other and has good working relationships. Additionally, associations are often controlled by a few activists. Using the Internet helps democratize them by bringing more people in and letting them have a full-throated voice.”

You may not even need a website. Many associations instead use social networking sites, the online equivalent of a town hall meeting room and bulletin board, to bring neighbors together.

A website is a collection of pages, pictures and other information that’s found at a particular place on the Internet and maintained by a host. A social networking site is a website where people get together online. Running a website is like building an online room. Using a social network site is like holding a meeting in someone else’s online room.

“A lot of conversations start with, ‘We need a website,’ when simpler solutions would get the job done,” explains Dan Hess, a Chicago-based interactive consultant. Be honest about the online presence you truly need and consider how many people are likely to use your site. The more basic the functions and the smaller the group, the less fancy your online presence should be.

If you’re just looking for a place to exchange ideas, consider using a social networking site such as Facebook.com or Ning.com, says Art Hanson, a tech consultant in Harper’s Ferry, W. Va. Within an hour, you can establish a presence on a social networking site and email an announcement inviting your neighbors to visit your new online meeting spot.

If you’re convinced you need a website, many sources offer templates and step-by-step instructions, including WordPress, GoDaddy, Google, and Costco. Some are free; others total hundreds of dollars annually. Expect to spend a few days, says Ted Ferretti of the Ferretti Technology Group in Westford, Mass., to get your website fully populated.

Other great options for community communication include listservs and newsletters.

Win support for your website

You’ll need to cultivate an online community just as you’d do with your neighbors face to face. Ask community members what they’d like to see and get buy in, advises Maimoni, so that when your site is live, residents will participate.

What should go on your website? Anything that would interest your neighbors. At a minimum, include email and phone contacts for your association and local government leaders, maps of the area, HOA rules and regulations, as well as fun items, such as a calendar of events.

Also, you can build your community with free content from RSS (really simple syndication) feeds from news sites, popular blogs, and blogs produced by community association attorneys. You can also sign up for free articles through sites like www.freesticky.com and www.articlegeek.com.

But the best way to get your neighbors involved, says Hess, is to provide information that’s directly relevant to them. Add information about upcoming neighborhood and volunteer events, suggests Hanson, and show transparency by linking to bylaws, rules, and meeting minutes.

Don’t invite legal liability, advises Elizabeth White, an attorney at LeClairRyan in Williamsburg, Va. Have an attorney craft a strong disclaimer of liability for the actions of members’ using your site, and appoint someone to monitor posts to promptly remove slanderous, libelous, and offensive comments.

Protect your members’ private information, such as email addresses, and ask whether it’s truly in their best interest to enter into advertising agreements that require you to disclose their data in exchange for revenue. Finally, place confidential and financial materials behind a password-protected wall, and even then think twice about uploading them.

“Don’t put anything on your website,” says White, “even if it’s password-protected, that you don’t want to see in the newspaper tomorrow.”