When Ginny Butsch and her fellow staffers at the Educational Theater Association started to build their online community about six years ago, one idea came up that seemed kind of radical at the time: What if their forum wasn’t available only to members, but available to anyone who wanted to jump into the conversation?
Back then, EdTA had digital walls to separate what was available for members and what was available to the general online public. What they were considering now wasn’t even about taking one of those walls down; it was about never putting one up in the first place.
“We weren’t sure (about the risk). Would it mean people would stop paying for membership?” Butsch said. “But it hasn’t been like that at all.”
As of February, the association’s online community will have launched five years ago, and the power EdTA found by not putting it behind a paywall or membership login has created something even more powerful had they ever used those rules in the first place.
“Our mission is to make sure every student has access to theater education, and we didn’t want not being able to pay to be a barrier to learning more and connecting with other theater teachers,” said Butsch, who serves as EdTA’s community engagement manager. “That’s been a really good thing for us. A lot of good come from that.”
Early on, for example, a teacher posted a comment into the online community about needing a response from a publication company to retain the rights to put on a school production. This teacher was having a tough time locking down the details, and it turned out another teacher had been having the same issue, so they discussed options. But the publishing house actually saw the posts and was able to circle back and solve the issue.
Still, that kind of good doesn’t happen without a bit of elbow grease behind the scenes. When the online community launched, which they did with the help of HigherLogic, Butsch said, managing it still took up just about all of her time. Today, though, it averages about 17 posts a day and is more self-sustaining — but even that isn’t by accident.
One of the keys to the online community’s success has been a solid code of conduct, which was written with community members.
“We wanted them to view (the community) as a professional tool and something to use often, also wanted it to be able to be used while they were at work,” Butsch said, an important consideration given how often schools have various online settings and firewalls to prevent students from straying too far from their studies.
All that work, however, has produced another benefit to the online community: Ideas. The associations’ staff often turns to the message board for content ideas, suggestions for professional development and training.
“It’s also an easy way to find members who are experts or leaders we wouldn’t have otherwise known because they’re not at events or we don’t see them in person,” Butsch said.
Since the online community’s launch, not a single day has gone by that it hasn’t gotten a post, proof, Butsch said, the association is on the right track.
“This proves they’re always on: weekends, mornings, holidays. They’re always thinking about work and trying to get something new accomplished,” Butsch said. “It gave us more insight into their lives.”