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October 31, 2006

Hyperniche

The November Fast Company has an article I almost skipped over: "Hyper-Local Hero" by Chuck Slater. I'm glad I didn't, it's a good read, but more importantly, it had a lesson for me in my approach to association websites.

The article is on Rob Curley. The one-sentence synopsis: Curley has moved from small newspaper to small newspaper and turned dull, unimaginative websites into creative bursts of local activity by developing ideas he describes as "hyperlocal."

The difference between a small-town newspaper and an association isn't as great as you might think. Such a newspaper might server a public that is anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000—right in the wheelhouse for many professional societies and even trades when you factor in management teams. As the title of the posts suggests, I'm now thinking of association websites as a way to be "hyperniche."

Look at the sidebar "Rob Curley's Greatest Clicks." It's a dozen of his successful creations. Imagine how just a minor change—as minor as changing "hyperlocal" to "hyperniche"—could make them applicable to association:

Local Survivor Game—make it an "Idea Survivor Game" where a group of your profession/industry thinkers are challenged with a new real or semi-real scenario to offer advice. Each week, visitors vote one thinker out of the game.

Eclectic Podcast—make it "Status Quo Destroyer Podcast" where every week or month you challenge a different piece of conventional wisdom that holds your industry/profession back.

Geocoded News—make it "Niche News" where people select a particular topic from a list and get recommendations for articles to read, book reviews, education reviews (and upcoming opportunities), etc.

That's just three out of a dozen. And if there's an idea I could leave you with: When you see something interesting, steal it. Adapt it. Allow it to help you make something special.

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October 30, 2006

A reporter’s take on PR

The goal of media relations is to convince reporters and editors that your association’s news is worth writing about (or broadcasting). But rather than taking the time-consuming approach of researching a reporter’s interests and crafting an appropriate story pitch, a lot of organizations take the easier, but ultimately less fruitful, option of carpet-bombing a media list with untargeted press releases. Unfortunately, writing something in news release format does not automatically make it newsworthy.

Steven Perlstein, a business columnist for the Washington Post, had a very instructive rant in Friday’s paper about this very topic. If you’d like to see a reporter’s point of view on media relations, I highly recommend checking it out (and adjusting your approach to PR accordingly).

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October 27, 2006

Advocacy 2.0

Everything is 2.0 these days. Web 2.0. PR 2.0. And it seems like there needs to be some exploration of Advocacy 2.0 in the association world.

Campaigns - for both social issues and political candidates - are largely being fought (and won or lost) online now. Web sites, blogs, vlogs, mashups, video sharing, photo sharing, social networks, mobile messaging, mapping. These tools are now being used by the candidates. It's time for the advocates to catch up.

More than 1,600 candidates for office around the country posted profiles on Facebook, according to Dan Solomon in Online Media Daily. Many candidates have also taken to MySpace to interest a younger demographic in volunteering and contributing to campaigns. And it seems to be working.

Solomon remarks that any organization with a political or social agenda should be doing the same. Kind of sounds like an association, doesn't it?

And Advocacy 2.0 is not Web only. Two hundred and twenty million Americans now use cell phones, PDAs, BlackBerries and other devices every day. In August, I mentioned TxtVoter as a free tool that your association could use to allow members to register to vote via mobile phone. Mobile Voter offers a similar service. The New York State Democratic Party has just created a Mobile Action Network to connect with its most dedicated activists.

At the Mississippi Hospital Association, we use One Fast Call to give our members the option to receive our advocacy alerts via cell phone. (Many of our members who work in hospitals are not sitting in front of a computer. We had to find a solution for a fast response when needed.) I record one voice mail message into the system, select the groups I want to send it and it goes to all selected. We promise members that we will only use this method to contact them when the issue is very important and time-sensitive.

Charitable organizations are now exploring ways to collect and process donations from cell phones. Association PACs should be doing the same.

In the coming weeks, I am going to seek out tips and tools for associations to expand their advocacy programs to encompass new media. When possible, I will use the tools myself and tell you how they work. If you have any suggestions of tools you've used or if you would like more information about a certain program, leave a comment here or e-mail me at slea@mhanet.org and I will look into it.


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October 26, 2006

Another quick post on October’s Associations Now

For those of you who were intrigued by the concepts behind the October Associations Now cover story on gaming and virtual worlds, but perhaps aren’t ready to hunker down with electronic gaming as a hobby, there’s a new travel service out there that way be for you. Synthtravels bills itself as the first virtual travel agency, specializing in online worlds like Ultima Online, Second Life, and World of Warcraft.

You still have to purchase and install any needed software, but once you’ve set up your computer, Synthtravels promises to connect you with an experienced guide for a tour of the world. They even offer special VIP packages where you can meet the “celebrities” of a particular virtual community.

Perhaps a way to try the gaming concept on for size!

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Innovation and leaps of faith

Jeff De Cagna takes Associations Now to task with a post on his Principled Innovation blog. As usual, Jeff offers well-reasoned and thoughtful points, almost all of which I agree with. But I do disagree with his characterization of the "Calculated Leaps of Faith" article in the October issue.

First of all, the article isn't about innovation per se. Everything that Jeff says about innovation being a discipline for organizations to practice in the many posts on his blog and in the several articles he's written for us over the years is heady stuff that I'd advise association leaders to listen to and try to implement.

The article is about seeing the need for a massive course correction and having the determination and courage to act. The word "innovation" appears once in the article, in a way that I believe is consistent with the notion of an organization practicing the discipline of innovation:

Building an organization that thrives on calculated risks requires a variety of ingredients. Among them are a seasoned and courageous CEO, thorough research and planning of "risky" endeavors, the ability to predict change, a board and staff team that is encouraged to embrace and cultivate innovation, and, perhaps most importantly, a plan for getting from Point A to Point B.

Angela Brady, the author of the piece, is saying that the innovation discipline is one of several interconnected qualities that risk-taking organizations need to have if they are to be successful.

Jeff seems to especially bristle at the notion of "faith." I would argue that short of clairvoyance, every decision is a leap of faith. The pool at the bottom could very well be 6 inches or 20 feet. The article is about doing what you can to ensure before you leap that you're aiming for the 20-foot pool, but you never really know for sure. What you do know for sure is that the wild animal that chased you to the cliff means certain annihilation.

A final point: Sometimes, the best thing that can happen is to smack into the 6-inch pool, blow the organization apart, and piece together the parts that will enable you to soar from there.

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The baby bottle measure

ASAE & The Center recently published 138 pages that started to define what being a remarkable association is (7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don't).

If you think his schtick is insightful—which I do much more often than not—then you'd have to agree that Seth Godin is a remarkability maestro. His Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (my edition is 142 pages) should be at the top of the list for anybody aspiring to be anything other than mediocre.

In case you don't have time to read those 280 pages, check out this 33-word post on Seth's blog, "What it means to be remarkable." He left of off eight words: "If not, then why do you do it?"

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October 25, 2006

Getting to know your members

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath—a study of how and why some messages “stick” in the popular consciousness and others don’t. One story they tell is about a brand manager at General Mills who revitalized the Hamburger Helper line.

When she began her work, she was given reams of sales and marketing research data (the “death binders,” she called them). But none of that was as valuable to her as what she gleaned by actually watching customers “in the field.” Seeing a parent put a meal together while holding a baby on one hip and watching small children pick through unfamiliar foods at dinner gave her a whole new perspective.

A related question was raised earlier this week during ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership’s CEO Think Tank on 7 Measures of Success. Attendees were asked whether staff at their associations visited members at work. Scattered hands were raised around the room—it certainly wasn’t a majority. And come to think of it, in my past experience in association management, I’ve never had the opportunity to observe a member at work. I regularly spoke with them about their jobs; I wrote articles on the issues facing their profession. But none of that was the same as actually shadowing a member as he or she supervised construction of a bridge or sampled for chemicals at a manufacturing plant.

Clearly, quantitative research has its place. But I think we would be much more inspired to come up with solutions to members’ daily challenges if we were able to see them, up close and personal.

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October 20, 2006

Making the last impression into the best

As a new Acronym blogger, I’d like to introduce myself. I recently joined the ASAE staff as deputy editor of Associations Now; previously, I was the senior manager of communications for the American Industrial Hygiene Association in Fairfax, Virginia.

Because of this transition, over the last month or so I’ve had occasion to think about some of the best advice I’ve received as a professional. “You’re only as good as your last two weeks on a job,” I was told. It’s true; if you morph into a stereotypical short-timer, you’ll leave a trail of disgruntled co-workers behind you. “She used to do such a good job,” one of them might say. “But toward the end she just wasn’t reliable.”

I wonder if a similar paradigm might be helpful in thinking about customer service. Since any individual member of your association might not be in contact with you regularly, any impression could become a last impression. “I’ve had some good experiences with my association,” one might say. “But the last time I called I was transferred three times, and then the person I spoke to didn’t get back to me with an answer for two weeks.”

If you were to always respond to a member as if it were your final opportunity to impress him or her, what would change? What would you do differently?

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5 more to see

I'm long overdue in needing to put 5 new blogs for people to check out.

You can always see previous lists of five blogs we recommend by accessing the category "Five to See" on the right. The current 5 to See list is always in right-hand column near the bottom.

The blogs on this list aren't for the quick readers—well, most of them aren't. These blogs tend to have long, thoughtful posts and, I would think, tend to be pretty high on the opinion meter. You can agree or disagree with the positions of the bloggers—I certainly do—but they bring rigorous thought to their arguments.

Gladwell.com by Malcolm Gladwell—One of my favorite writers. He writes very fluid prose so even if his chosen topic is dry as a bone, he's a joy to read. I consider him a great critical thinker, and I always take something away from his fantastic New Yorker articles and books.

The Becker-Posner Blog by Gary S. Becker and Richard A. Posner—These are two brilliant minds, Becker a Nobel winner in economics and Posner sits on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. They tackle wieghty subjects, and you're likely to disagree with them at least some of the time, but the arguments they make seem to combine academic rigor yet be accessible to nonacademic types like me.

Thomas P. Barnett::Weblog—Barnett is one of the heavy influencers in the U.S. military and its approach to the threats in a hard-to-define, turbulent world. The presentation he created about a particular worldview was hungrily devoured by the military braintrust and became the outline for his book, The Pentagon's New Map. He has since followed up with A Blueprint for Action which answers some of the questions the New Map asks. Hard to pin down politically, he essentially speaks his mind with a strong point of view, sometimes criticizing the current administration, other times praising it. And as for strong points of view, how about these to pique your interest:

Iran—let them have the bomb. North Korea—likely to need military intervention to stop Kim Jong Ill.

Global Voices—I'm a big believer that the important news of today is mostly international news. If you still get all of your news from American sources, then you are seeing the world through a pretty limiting filter. This blog is a project that brings the everyday perspective from around the globe into view.

Finally, above I said most of the blogs aren't quick reads. Here's one that is. And it's decidely different than the others. After all that heavy thinking, consider this blog:

DaveBarry.com—Always good for a laugh, Barry has a keen wit and childish playfulness. And, come to think of it, Heavy Thinkers would be a really good name for a rock band.

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October 19, 2006

A couple of good reads this morning

Here are a couple of interesting things I ran across this morning:

U. of Penn's Wharton School talks to some of its professors about how they use blogs (or why they hate blogs) in "To Blog or Not to Blog: Report From the Front" (registration required). It essentially interviews several of the faculty asking them how they use blogs or why the don't. One takeaway nugget: one professor uses a blog as a live, interactive syllabus—posting homework, reading assignments, and the like.

The Washington Post of all places tackles an emerging trend that journalist Alan Sipress calls "the wisdom of the few" in his article "The Top Pickers vs. the Pack" (registration required, I think). It's a riff from James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, which proposes that a group of people—particularly a large group of people—can make better decisions than any single member in the group. Sipress explains the trend of taking the wisdom of crowds approach, then finding the best performers within a given crowd and using their judgment to make decisions. The power of web collaboration, and no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit, fuel the trend. What does this have to do with associations? See the article from the Winter 2005 issue of Journal of Association Leadership on Surowiecki's book.

And a final link for those truly into the whole wisdom thing, while researching this post I ran across this gem of a dialog between Surowiecki and Malcolm Gladwell on the Slate site.

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October 13, 2006

My interview with Jim Collins

I pick up my phone and Jim Collins is on the other end, waiting to be interviewed. Yes, that Jim Collins of Built to Last and Good to Great fame.

The interview had been in the works for a looong time, maybe eight or nine months since he was confirmed as a speaker at the last annual meeting. We decided to try to schedule it for after the meeting. Busy schedules collide and I was under the impression that he needed to do it through email. Not ideal, but he's Jim Collins, so I understand.

I'm trying to get it into the November issue of Associations Now, so I'm interacting with his organization there in Colorado to try to make it happen. On the last possible day to get it into the issue, I get the surprise phone call. No pressure or anything.

One of the things that struck me in his Good to Great and the Social Sectors monograph and then in his address at the annual meeting and again in this interview is his description of legislative leadership (listen to his 60-second audio explanation). As I begin to grasp this concept better, I plan to make it part of my pitch to authors who have important ideas that need to be shared but who know little about associations. When I ask them to write for Associations Now in the future, I want to succinctly use this description to help explain how the association audience is different than others.

What he means by legislative leadership is that leaders in social sectors, including the association sector, rarely if ever have the absolute power to make a big strategic decision on their own. In practice, they must cobble together enough support to make such a decision. As you’ll see in the November issue, Collins visualizes this as a power map where each individual is a bubble representing the percent of power they have. He didn’t say it expressly, but I got the impression from Collins that 51 percent was a key number, that when you got to that point, you then had the power to make your big strategic decision.

By definition, I suppose that’s true, but in an association setting, I think acting with 51 percent has the potential to blow the whole organization apart. I am an enemy of the word “consensus,” which in this scenario represents 100 percent. I think there are a lot of reasons why consensus is no way to make decisions, but I think a lot of associations feel it necessary to get there or to get close. The problem is, it takes a lot of time and a lot of will to add to your power points. You could also dilute the decision as you modify your position to increase support. Not to mention, almost all of the time, consensus is illusion.

The reality—at least as I define it—is that most association leaders would say consensus is ideal but they at least want to get well past 51 percent. Where’s the imaginary line in your organization? Is it 75 percent? 80? Sure, it changes with the magnitude of the decision, but we’re only talking about major, course-changing decisions here. Does it go to 90 then?

Here’s my controversial call—maybe 51 percent isn’t so bad. Associations spend a lot of time being politically careful. There are times when you’re looking at the big, big, major decisions that the organization may just need to be blown apart. It seems to me if you’re going to be a great association leader, you need to know when is the right time to charge forward with your 51 percent and when you should lay low and build support higher.

Collins has a way of making those who interview him feel very secure and smart, and he does it by being genuine, not slick. He closed the interview by asking me what I thought needed further study in the social sector. I stuttered and stammered an answer and said I’d email him. I have more of an answer now. I think he’s hit on something important with this legislative leadership idea, so I think the next step is there.

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October 12, 2006

SBA Turns Web Site Into Compliance Center

The Small Business Administration is unveiling a revamped Web site today to give business owners a centralized source of regulatory information, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Business.gov, formerly devoted to starting and managing a business, now focuses solely on compliance. The site pulls together links from 94 federal agencies' Web sites on business compliance topics ranging from hiring and firing employees to importing goods. New features will be added in coming months, including MyBusiness.gov to let businesses customize the site to their industry. (No association area yet.)

The decision to redesign the Web site came after focus groups of business leaders revealed last year that many small businesses had trouble finding regulatory information online. (And, interestingly, businesses with fewer than 20 employees spend an average $7,647 per worker on compliance, or 45% more than larger firms, according to the SBA's Office of Advocacy.)

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October 6, 2006

Out and about at the Tri-State Conference


The opening night dinner reception at the Tri-State Conference





The mad scramble for food




The view from my hotel room balcony at Baytown Village




Tea at Sea on The Solaris




Shopping at the Tea Room at the Sandestin Resort

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The great spam battle

It was looking like spam was going to win the battle, but, risking the ire of the nuisance gods, it appears that we've come out on top. At least for now. For those of you with blogs or considering them, I asked John Stone from our service provider to explain what we've done to combat the comment spam:

"Over the last few months, the delivery of spam and junk posts through Web based forms has risen significantly. Comment forms like those at the bottom of ASAE's blog site can easily receive hundreds of junk posts a day. While it may be simple to delete each post, it's a time-consuming process and ultimately degrades the quality and value of the site.

To reduce automated posts, many sites have turned to reverse Turing tests, more commonly known as CAPTCHA. CAPTCHA is simply an acronym for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart,” and is trademarked by Carnegie Mellon University.

A CAPTCHA reduces automated posts by asking a question that only a human would be able to answer. The most popular test challenges a user to enter obscured text embedded within an image. You'll notice these graphics on many reservation system sites, online stores, and at the bottom of ASAE's own comment form.

commentform.jpg

While it is relatively easy for a person with good eyesight to see and enter 9059, an automated computer program or “bot”, is essentially blind to anything but the publicly available HTML source. A good CAPTCHA program, will insure that there is no textual reference to the image's content, making it easy for us to identify the real posts.

html.jpg

While CAPTCHA does a great job blocking automated computer software, it isn't perfect. Common problems with a visual CAPTCHA are that it can make it very difficult for those with visual disabilities to participate and it's only a matter of time before automated software includes optical character recognition that does it's best to decipher your obscured image.

Deciding whether your site should use a CAPTCHA is probably more difficult than actually implementing one. Many Web based applications already include plug-ins that simply need to be enabled; many others will make such tests standard features in their next releases. For custom sites, CAPTCHA is still an option and can be installed within a few hours once a few key elements are configured.

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October 5, 2006

Hello from SanDestin

Hello, from the lovely Sandestin resort in Miramar Beach, Fla. I am here attending the Tri-state Conference of the Alabama Council of Association Executives, the Mississippi Society of Association Executives and the Louisiana Society of Association Executives. We're fun by ourselves, but when you get all three of us together...watch out!

I'll be filling y'all in on the great educational sessions. And if you are considering having a future meeting at SanDestin and you have any questions for me, just e-mail me at slea@mhanet.org. I'll try to get the information for you. (And if you want to say Hello to a friend in one of those associations, let me know and I will try and track them down for you.)

My first session this morning is Creating High Energy Websites and PR Materials: Applying the Science of Behavioral Kinesiology to The Art of Creating with Jerry Teplitz. I hope it's as interesting as it sounds considering its 8 a.m. and I haven't finished my first cup of coffe yet!

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October 2, 2006

Do you know your Long Neck?

longneck.gif
The Long Neck, according to Gerry McGovern, is where the long tail meets your Web site. It's the understanding that 90% of your Web visitor are only going to read 10% of your Web content - and if they can't find it quickly, they won't even read that much. McGovern, in his latest book, Killer Web Content, explores the disconnect between the information companies have on their Web site and the words Web searchers use to land there. McGovern's company joins these two together to create what he calls Customer Carewords - the words your customers love and are looking for.

The graphic, from his Web site, uses the tourism industry as an example. In a Customer Carewords poll of over 1,000 people in 12 countries, people were asked to choose the tasks they most wanted to complete on a tourism website. 147 possible tasks were offered such as: planning a trip, vacation packages, getting here and around, accommodation, special offers, things to do and see, etc.

The top seven carewords, representing five percent of the total tasks, got 35 percent of votes. In fact, the top seven carewords got more votes than the bottom 120 carewords. This tourism Long Neck represents the essence of what a tourism Web site must do to be successful on the Web.

McGovern argues that too many of us have wed Web publishing to data management when they should actually be completely separate. Too many of us "dump" our information on the Web, offer a search engine and think "If it's out there, they will find it." (Or as Peter Drucker put it, we’ve spent the last 30 years focusing on the T in IT and we’ll spend the next 30 years focusing on the I.)

McGovern defines "killer web content" as the tiny fraction of the content you produce that, if properly written and published, will make your Web site a success. But if it's buried down deep with the other 95% of the content that no one is reading anyway, it will never be found. (And taking the wrong content out is just as important as promoting the killer Web content. The wrong content gets in the way of the right content.)

McGovern writes:

In an age of information overload, content management must be more concerned with what you don’t publish. It is easy to put everything you have up. It is easy to take a print document and save it as a PDF. But that’s not management, and those who take that approach have no future as content managers.

Ouch.

At past workshops, McGovern asked Web managers to stand up if they could swear in a court of law that all of their Web site content was accurate. Nobody stood. I wouldn't either.

If you, like me, don't have the money to hire Gerry McGovern to poll customers on your Web site on the words they love, your own site statistics are a great place to start. See which pages are getting the most hits, which keywords are landing Web searchers on your site and how many visitors go directly to your main page (I'm assuming these are members or vendors who know your association well). For example, at MHA we get the most hits from Google searches - and the #1 search string is Mississippi Hospital Association, so the majority of searches landing at our site are for people looking for us (not the other 5,000 documents that we have posted). Our top four search strings are, in order: Mississippi Hospital Association, Ms Hospital Associaton, www.mhanet.com (which is not our Web site by the way - we're at www.mhanet.org) and Mississippi hospitals.

Phone calls from members and vendors are also a good indication of what they can't find on your Web site. Log calls in your area about requests for content and ask others to send you an e-mail when a member calls and asks for specific information.

McGovern talks often about what your "Web team" can do to make your site successful. Of course, in the association world, the Web team is often one person. And that one person generally has a laundry list of other responsibilities, with Web management just one of many (like myself). But as Web content becomes an increasingly critical part of any association's communication strategy, we're going to have to all force ourselves to turn an increasingly critical eye to our Web content and organization.

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