Making Group Management Tools on the Web Not Suck

Jeremy Zawodny wrote about Yahoo! Groups recently and group management in general has been something on my mind.

My life is full of groups...lots of groups, maybe too many, that I participate in the management of in some way.  Let's see, I'm sort of the information and process coordinator here at USV, for starters.  I run a 25 pair mentoring program for NYSSA with over 100 alumni.  nexyNY is over 100 people.  I help Sandy with the Hoboken Cove Boathouse.  I'm the co-Chair of the Fordham Young Alumni Committee.  I run two softball teams and a dodgeball team.  That's not to mention I'm also on a football team and a softball team that I don't run, volunteer at the Downtown Boathouse, and actively take part in my high school's alumni listserv for people in business.

Obviously, being able to leverage technology to manage this monstrosity of a life I've created for myself is crucial.

And thus far, doing so has been a miserable failure.

Is it me?  I don't think so.  I think the current offering of group management tools come so far short of their potential.

The problem is that none of them is wide enough in scope to prevent the need for most groups to use two, three, four, or a dozen tools at once...making management of the tools almost as difficult as management of the group. 

It shouldn't have to be this way either, as most groups basically want to accomplish the same things.  They want to communicate and organize , and they want to do so in a way that is self-sustaining.

Now, how they specifically execute those goals differ from group to group, but someone should be able to build a service that is flexible enough to give people choice and tailor the service to their own needs.  Not every group needs a web page at their own domain to post pictures on and not every group needs a listserv, but the fact that there are exactly zero web services that offer both is just ridiculous.  There's a huge hole in the market and its being filled by Yahoo! Groups, Evite, Typepad, snot, and duct tape, among countless other web services that accomplish one narrow task.

Meetup probably comes the closest to being an all-in-one, but it doesn't allow much branded customization.  It doesn't make a lot of sense for me to use Meetup to manage my alumni committee...its more for the organizing and discovery of groups where you don't walk in already having the people for the group (like finding German speaking stay at home mom knitters in Saskachawan).  It doesn't sit seemlessly in the background either.  If you want to use their tools, which is probably the most complete set around, you're on Meetup...and for some groups trying to create their own brand, like nextNY, this isn't  a good fit, not to mention that it doesn't plug in with Flickr, LinkedIn, del.icio.us, etc.

Anyway, here's what I think an all-in-one service needs.  Jeremy, are you listening?

Prerequisits
Signup has to be really easy and managers need better tools to track activity post signup.  Who is signed up, who is getting emails, what they've signed up for, etc...that should be the first thing managers see on their group homepage.  Sometimes I feel like the same 20 people contribute to my listserv and I never know if the other 80 are even getting my mail or opening it.

Walkthrough...I'm amazed at how many people still can't get the whole reply all nature of listservs. Add on top of that general unfamiliarity of wikis, tagging, etc. And whatever you build, it needs good tutorial that gives real live examples of why and how someone would use any of these tools.

This app should be comprehensive, but feel lightweight.  So, while it might have a lot of tools, it shouldn't feel too heavy if you're only using one or two of them.

Organize

Groups need management...sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Excel has long outlived its usefulness as a way to keep your group info list. Jotspot has the Tracker, but it hasn't really been fully integrated into the rest of the service. Plus., its not outward facing.  I have to type someone in..there's no signup page that automatically populates the sheet.  Groups need a simple database with flexible fields that can be updated from anywhere by the members themselves. It should have fields that are only viewable to some people and it should also been integrated with the rest of the sites features, including profiles. 

Profiles should mostly be generated by the use of the site, with the ability for users to add more. This way, even if I don't add to my profile, you can see that CEONYC has attended 2 offline events of the group, took part in three listserv discussions, and is currently seeking developers for a new startup via a job post e-mail.

Maybe the most important aspect of a group is its own self-sufficiency.  That means the storage of a knowledgebase.  For more sophisticated groups, that means the retention of a charter, meeting minutes, etc.  For other groups, it could be just quick notes on who you call at the local American Legion to rent a space for a meeting.  Notes should be wiki-like and documents should be easily organized with access controls. 

Groups also need Evite functionality, but it should be made even simpler. A lot of people don't have the time to go to evite or they're emailing from mobile phones. Members should be able to respond just by writing back with a yes or a no and then their message. Autoexporting events to this group's blog, Outlook, other blogs, upcoming, etc would also be nice.  RSVPs should build the member attendence record.


Communicate

The idea of evites brings to light the fundamental problem with listservs. Not every listserv email is the same. This is why groups struggle with not knowing whether default replies should go to the group or to the person. That's because the answer really is, "It depends." A group discussion should have very different charactoristics than and invite. I may want replyalls on a debate, but not to hear, "Sorry, I can't make it." Someone else might never want replyalls. That's why groups should be given to the tools to easily create different types of messages that only go to certain subgroups--subgroups whose members can organize themselves into.  So the fringe members will only get events while the managers will get internal discussions.  E-mail types in groups generally include discussions, event notices, job postings, and idea proposals.  Each of these e-mails should be formatted differently, dictating different types of interaction around them.

Some groups want to also communicate with the outside world with a website. A great group tool would allow the creation of a domain mapped website. The site should enable easy publishing of blogs, events, photos, q and a, the listserv or member profiles....basicially anything going on on the inside should have the option of being flipped to the outside and placed wherever they want with little widgets.  So, one groups front page could be mostly discussion and photos, while another could be more event focused.  None of this should require anyone to see any HTML.

So that's what I've got so far anyway.

Thoughts? Ideas?