This story was orginally published on Greensboro Is Talking by Policlicks CEO Dan Romuald.
This is Part II on my series on VFW WebCOM-World’s Largest Organizational Blog Network. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, click here.
Before attempting a project the magnitude of the VFW WebCOM Network, you have to look at the entire project and determine its purpose. What will it do and how will it meet the needs of the organization and our company?
When examining those questions it became clear that the purpose of the network was threefold. It was these problem areas that have forged the direction of the network and have become the guiding principles for it’s development. Why WebCOM? WebCOMMUNITY, WebCOMMERCE & WebCOMMUNICATIONS.
An examination of the VFW organization early in the process found that fewer than 5% of the 8500+ VFW Posts around the country and around the world had any kind of internet presence with an even smaller percentage of those sites actually active. Investigations also lead to the finding that a substantial number of state Departments also had no or only a very limited internet presence. Our first task then became giving those local and state-level entities a voice in the community.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars organization is laid out much like the levels of government you see in our country today. There is a National level which oversees the operations of the entire organization, 54 State and Overseas Departments which manages the operations of membership within it’s respective borders and over 8,500 local posts around the country and the world which make up the VFW community. Unfortunately, the VFW community has seen declining membership in recent years as the older World War II and Korean War veterans have begun to pass. This demonstrated the need for the organization to attract new and larger numbers of members in order to remain viable.
With the proliferation of weblogs in recent years along with their ease of use and low overhead costs, “blogs” seemed to be a natural fit for an organization of this size. The explosive growth of the Internet and of blogging in particular opens a whole new avenue to attract potential membership. But without a substantial web presence, the organization wasn’t maximizing the potential uses of this new medium.
So we set out to give each entity a voice in the community and the current WebCOM network is the result. Each level of the organization now has it’s own voice in the internet community and it’s own local community. The weblog platform gives the local Post entities a medium for showcasing the work they are doing in their communities, a method to put the spotlight on their own members, a vehicle for attracting new members from the pool of internet-savvy veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and a press-release machine via both the weblog itself and the integrated mailing list features of the software to disseminate information to the media, membership and potential members. With the “completion” and integration of the weblog network in 2006, the entire organization now had a public face to present to the community.
While the weblogs serve the purpose of community-building for the organization, we also realized that it was imperative that we also give individual members a voice outside of the weblog comment boxes. So in early June 2006, the VFW WebCOM Membership Forum was launched in order to provide a central location for the entire VFW community to come together to discuss issues and share ideas. Members and current active military personnel are also being encouraged to start their own weblogs within the network.
With membership on the decline, the ability for the organization to generate revenue has been declining as well. With active conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, an ever-increasing burden has been placed on the VFW to help support active military personnel and their families. This has created a need for the organization to seek new revenue-generating opportunities to help fund their support programs and general operations.
Early in the process, Policlicks was able to secure revenue-sharing arrangements with participating Departments. This allows us to include advertising opportunities throughout the network and benefits all levels of the organization and specific VFW programs.
It also affords advertisers the opportunity to specifically target their advertising buys to national, regional, state, MSA or even hyperlocal levels. Through a partnership with the Adify advertising network, it’s as easy for Joe’s Pizza down the street from the local post to advertise on the network as it is for a major corporation to place a national buy. This hyperlocal approach also allows politicians at all levels to reach the VFW voter demographic with it’s attractive 90% voter participation rate.
In addition to sponsored advertising opportunities on the weblogs, forum, calendars and email (more on the email and calendars in the next section), membership and other VFW supporters as a whole can also help generate income for the organization through revenue-sharing arrangement for keyword searches conducted thru VFW Department-branded web browser toolbars (via Conduit). These toolbars also contain other useful tools, a VFW Podcast player, and a state-specific RSS aggregator allowing members to see news from all of the Posts within the state Department and other sites in the network.
The network will also be incorporating VFW Department-branded online storefronts to enable product sales in the near future. (More on this in a later installment.)
In speaking with VFW members and officers, it quickly became apparent that they were eager to use the internet to solve some of their communications problems, but lacked the vehicles to accomplish those tasks. In indentifying those issues, it became apparent that there was a need for both internal and external protocols to accomplish those objectives.
On the external front, the weblogs addressed the need to be able to communicate with membership, potential membership and the community as a whole as well as providing a method for issuing press releases to the mainstream media. After the launch, feedback from the users also indicated a need for a calendar system to allow the Posts better share their schedules. Several solutions to this request are under consideration and rollout of the calendar network should begin soon.
Internally, several areas have been identified which can increase direct communication within the organization and also result in cost-savings for Departments and Posts. A huge cost-savings can occur by moving many of the most common forms required by the organization to an online system and transferring them electronically via email instead of incurring postage costs. Development of this system is nearing completion and should be available soon.
Another major internal communications tool is nearing completion and is in early-stage testing. The VFW WebMail Network (via OutBlaze) is a members-only email network which currently features email addresses for over 31,000 officers and Posts in the organization. Eventually, all 2.3 million members and auxiliary members will be issued a VFW WebMail-specfic email address which will be tied to their local post communities. Through the development and implementation of distribution lists, a state-official could, for instance, send one message that will be placed in the inbox of every member in that state. Or, on a more local level, a Post Commander can send out one message and have it distributed to every member his Post at a moment’s notice. Officers and membership can then respond directly to the sender. This level of two-way connectivity has never before been achieved in the organization and we are extremely excited about it’s forthcoming rollout.
In my next installment, I’ll take a closer look at what is still to come for the VFW WebCOM Network.