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December 22, 2006

The power of blogs

I believe that one of the most powerful—and underappreciated—things about blogs is their ability to give us an entirely new perspective on a city or a job or a person, a window into a life completely different from our own.

For instance, I bookmarked Scott Lynch’s personal blog because I enjoyed reading his first novel. But in addition to writing, he is also a firefighter, and he blogs about his experiences on the job. A recent entry gave me a peek into the challenges of that job that I had never considered:

“It’s difficult to think of our cuddly, cozy, familiar homes as inherently dangerous places, but believe me, outside of the Acme Razor Blade and Hydrochloric Acid Factory, homes are the most unpredictable and dangerous places you could ever think to have a fire. We keep so much stuff in so many weird places—through thoughtlessness, negligence, or unhappy accident—that can ‘enhance the experience.’ You want a ready-made hazmat incident? How many chemicals do you keep under your kitchen sink? Twenty? Thirty? What fun things happen when you burn them together? How about your bathroom cleansers? Your aerosol cleaners and air-fresheners? Stacks of batteries? Shotgun shells? Knives and swords? Weightlifting equipment? Good lord, what do you have in your garage? Weed killers, fertilizers, several different types of oil and fuel, wasp spray, spray paints, varnishes ... rakes, chainsaws, hatchets, knives ... you've got ’em. I've got ’em.” (Scott Lynch)

Now I have a whole new reason to respect firefighters and the work that they do, one that I may never have thought of if I hadn’t read the blog of a firefighter.

For associations representing professions or industries that are underappreciated or even unknown to the public—could a member’s blog help open people’s eyes? Not a carefully massaged press release, but a simple, first-person account of day-to-day experiences in your profession or industry. I’d be curious to see it happen.

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December 19, 2006

Members: They're a lot like us

I have several consultant friends who work in the association biz. A lot of them joke about how all association executives think their members are so unique -- as if there is no group of people in the world quite like "our members." But are we really so different than the members we serve?

Two recent conversations have caused me to re-think how I perceive our association's members as different from me. A few weeks ago I was doing member visits with a man who's currently serving on our executive committee. As I drove him around the city, he told me that many of his wealthiest clients were self-made real estate moguls, buying up properties in a most unscientific manner. One client in particular evaluated properties based almost entirely on whether or not he would be willing to live there himself. If he felt he would be willing to live in that house, so too, he reasoned, would a bunch of other people.

Closer to home, I participated in a cross-departmental team meeting recently to discuss implementing an automatic dues renewal process. We had already established that everyone in the room was paying some bills on an automatic withdrawal system. As we were approaching consensus, two of my colleagues suggested that we poll our members to see if they'd be willing to opt in to the new program. At this point I chimed in, saying, "Look, if we're paying our bills in this way, why do we think our members wouldn't? I know this might sound heretical, but our members are a lot like us!"

Then it dawned on me. In our well-intentioned efforts to reduce risk, we sometimes go off on wild goose chases, trying to make absolutely certain that our memberships will accept new programs. We take the long road to our ultimate decision by trying to back up our premonitions about what will succeed with hard data. Trouble is, research can never truly eliminate this risk. Sorry to break it to you, but no matter what your data says, there's always a chance that your programs just won't stick due to sub-par implementation or factors beyond your control.

I don't advocate a retreat from research, but there are times when it's both expedient and appropriate to abandon primary research in favor of applying secondary research, and your gut instincts about it, to your membership as a short cut. Determining what kinds of content to offer your membership at the annual meeting is probably not one of those times. But determining if your members would be willing to renew their dues in monthly installments probably is.

Twelve percent of Internet users have downloaded a podcast. If your members are Internet users, then it's not a stretch to assume that approximately 12% of your members are listening to podcasts. What else do we know about your members? Well, they drive Toyotas, shop at Target, drink Starbucks, watch too much television, expect to be able to find stuff quickly on your homepage, write blogs, have downtime waiting for the subway, like to be both educated and entertained at meetings, and are more passionate about their hobbies, friends and families than they are about work. You don't have to ask them to determine this. You can extrapolate it from other research.

Members are not so different than us. So here's the question: How much effort do you expend basically verifying that your members are just like everyone else?

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December 18, 2006

Joining the (association) Marines

Ann Oliveri left an intriguing comment a few weeks ago in response to a post of Scott’s. She asks, “What if membership in your association was more like joining the Marines than paying for a magazine subscription?”

This might be scary to a lot of us, especially associations with a nice solid group of dues-paying “mailboxer” members. But Ann’s question reminds me of a service organization I belonged to back in college, lo these many years ago. While anyone could join, to make the transition from pledge to full member you needed to fulfill a number of requirements, including interviews of members and pledges (a networking activity) and service hours (contributing to the core mission of the organization). By the time I was done, all of that work had solidified my personal connection and commitment to the group. I remained a very active member for the rest of my time in college.

If your association doesn’t already require additional service of members above and beyond payment of dues, what would happen if you did? If you made sure those requirements drew people into meaningful, engaging projects—not just warming a seat—I bet you’d find your members experiencing that same excitement and commitment that I felt back in college.

(And for your mailboxer members, you could consider a “corresponding member” category that would allow them access to informational materials without having to go through the additional work full membership would require.)

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December 13, 2006

Lessons from the World Rock, Paper, Scissors Society

The light-hearted World Rock, Paper, Scissors Society (WRPSS) is an extraordinarily successful experiment in viral/word of mouth communications. Although delightfully silly, WRPSS offers up some valuable lessons for those of us who--perhaps--take ourselves too seriously

WRPSS founder and managing director Doug Walker was the luncheon speaker this week at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) Summit in Washington, D.C. Doug's day job is Interactive Strategist at an ad agency TBWA\Toronto. He identified four keys to their success: authority; mutation; participation; and, "accretion."

The WRPSS is the authority quoted by the New York Times when the childhood game of rock, paper, scissors is invoked to resolve gridlocked decisions by art auction houses and state court judges. How did they become the authority? They said they were. Interestingly enough, visitors attracted by word of mouth added their strategies and experience to a long threaded message, which in turn became a book. And, as we all know, publishing a book makes you an authority.

The idea quickly mutated, adding more of the trappings of an association, including paid memberships and meetings. What the founders learned was that they had to quickly mutate to keep up with their members' fantasy. Last year their annual world championship made all the network and cable news shows with the winner featured on every late night night talk show. Check out the NPR story on their mythological history.

Participation was key to their success. At the meet, they treated competitors like athletes and groupies like special interest groups. But the most telling lesson learned was "accretion." Walker said that participants grew the mythology, identifying with the group, and each step of WRPSS' development layered on the last. He said you could have never launched it as it now exists, but each activity led to the next or "accretion."

"A few people played their roles (leaders) and we attracted more and more people," Walker said. In fact, they were so successful a producer from Fox News covering the championship launched a competing organization.

The lessons from social media not only make for a powerful fable, but also a game plan for any start-up associations, lessons not unlike those now being learned by WOMMA.


December 11, 2006

Ideas for meeting planners

Jeffrey Cufaude is guest blogging this week at the Meeting Industry Gurus blog, and he's already posted some simple ideas that could liven up education sessions and make it easier for attendees to connect.

Speaking as someone who isn't always comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger--even at an association event--I think Jeffrey's ideas could provide extra ways for more introverted members to network without fear. And a few of his other proposals suggest ways to add value to things that are easy to think of as purely utilitarian, like speaker bios and nametags.

I'll certainly be following the MI Gurus blog to see what else he has to say this week ...


Panel discussions 101

Nearly every conference has them: the dreaded panel discussion. And although there are many brave association professionals out there finding new and better ways to educate their members, the fact is that sometimes a panel discussion really is the best approach. If you have five experts who can pull off a lively discussion of a hot topic, why wouldn’t you put them on stage and let the audience learn from their debate?

The problem is that we tend to use the format as a default when we have people who aren’t experts; people who aren’t comfortable enough in front of an audience to be lively and interesting; or a topic that doesn’t lend itself to discussion.

All of that said, if you’re going to have a panel, you might as well have a good one. Several bloggers have written some great tips for speakers, meeting planners, and moderators that could take your next panel discussion from a snooze to a conference highlight:

• 12 Guidelines for Great Panel Discussions (be sure to review the photos down the right side of the page)
• How to Kick Butt on a Panel
• 10 Rules for Being a Great Panel Moderator


December 7, 2006

org 2.0

Seth Godin is offering a free one-page instruction manual for nonprofits that is a crash course in Web 2.0 (The pdf is at the end of this post.)

Of the six suggestions, I now rely on two: Google Analytics for real time tracking and technorati.com to find out what bloggers are saying about ULI. (If you have any remaining illusions about copyright, this experience will set you straight.) Blog on.

Download file


December 6, 2006

Reuters Partners With Yahoo For Citizen Media Site


This week, Reuters and Yahoo launched "You Witness News," a Web site that allows amateur photojournalists an opportunity to submit their pictures and videos of newsworthy events. The best pictures will then be displayed on Reuters and Yahoo's online news sites, accompanying written coverage of the events.

"Citizen journalism" has become something of a buzzword in the past few years - with the advent of YouTube, Flickr and the like. And I have been pondering lately some of the ways that associations can tap into this passion. When you think about it, citizen journalists, for the most part, are volunteers, and just like the volunteer leaders we work with every day, these folks are so passionate about weather or photography or the perfect cup of coffee or seeing their name on Yahoo News that they will take the time to upload their photos and their videos.

Association staff - like Yahoo and Reuters staff - cannot be everywhere all the time. Yahoo's You Witness site goes one step beyond just accepting photos and videos and actually has video lessons on how to take the perfect picture, the quickest way to upload materials and how to tell a story.

I don't have the budget to start a Mississippi Hospital Association You Witness site, but I can easily put a blurb on my Web site encouraging members to send me their photos and videos of industry-related events and happenings, from a training drill in their hospital to an opening reception at a national convention.

While I'm still pondering how associations can tap into the zeitgeist of citizen journalism, let me know if you have any ideas. You can leave a comment here or e-mail me directly at slea@mhanet.org. I'll post a round-up of all the responses when I have thought it through a bit more. And if you have any examples of associations tapping into citizen journalism, please let me know that also.

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December 5, 2006

Can associations be mavericks, too?

I had the opportunity last week to hear Polly LaBarre speak about her new book Mavericks at Work. After spending considerable time studying “maverick” companies in industries ranging from entertainment (HBO, Pixar) to retail and mining (Whole Foods, Goldcorp), she and co-author William Taylor have quite a few lessons to share.

One remarkable trait shared by the companies they studied is the concept of “strategy as advocacy.” These companies have a mission and they’re in business to advance it. And by mission, they don’t mean one of those meaningless statements of interchangeable corporate-speak terms. Internet banking company ING Direct wants to “lead Americans back to savings.” Southwest Airlines wants to “democratize the skies.” Cranium, the game company, wants to help people “laugh and feel and connect.”

Of course, using strategy as advocacy means that you will alienate some people. When ING Direct fires approximately 3,500 customers a year—and even rejects potential new customers—that don’t fit in with its mission and criteria, it is doing something alien to most associations (and for-profit businesses, for that matter). As association professionals, we aim to bring people together, and the bigger the tent, the better. But if your association really threw its energy and resources behind a simple, compelling mission—if you had the ability and indeed the requirement to say no to requests that didn’t fit with that mission—how much do you think you could you accomplish?

With that kind of mission, I bet a lot of associations could move forward far more quickly than we can when we try to be all things to all members.

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December 4, 2006

Extreme jobs?

I read an interesting article in this month’s Harvard Business Review entitled “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Work Week.” It struck a particular chord with me because I average 55 hours per week and when I travel a lot, which happens frequently, it can average nearly 70 hours per week.

As I read the article I couldn’t help but think of all that we are told about the up and coming generations – Gen X and Gen Y. I have both read and been told that they want more life balance, more time to do what they enjoy, etc. But what happened to enjoying work? I get a lot of joy and satisfaction from the work that I do, and while my wife and three children might disagree with me, I do my level-best to balance the significant responsibilities that I have at home (my wife will tell you that we live in an equal opportunity household!) with those I have at the office.

Like you, I am often asked by younger professionals how to get ahead in association management. At the end of the day, in my mind, good or bad, right or wrong, you must work hard (and smart) if you want to excel in this or any other profession. And working hard often translates in to working long hours – longer hours than one might really want to work – in order to get ahead. I had a young colleague in my office not long ago who badly wants to climb the association management latter but he expressed wanting to do so without working more than 7.5 hours daily. That just doesn’t compute for me – and that’s what I told this colleague. I told him work smart and work hard, do the job you’re doing now AND the one that you want to do next. Smile. Be gracious and courteous to all. Dress better than the going “business casual” environments dictate these days. Be honest and genuine. Be ethical and moral. And if you can do all of this in 7.5 hours per day, more power to you! I never figured out how!

Something to think about.

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December 1, 2006

Competition? What competition?

Moises Naim, editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote an interesting entry in WashingtonPost.com's PostGlobal blog yesterday. The premise is nothing new: The new guard is pushing out the old guard increasingly fast. But his message made me pause for a couple of reasons. First, I liked his quoted research (though I have not tried to find the source to ensure he is portraying it accurately or to assess how sound I think the research is):

"According to professors Diego Comin and Thomas Philippon of New York University, a company in the top 20 percent of its industry in 1980 faced only a 10 percent chance of no longer being an industry leader five years later. By 1998, that risk had more than doubled. In fact, 39 of the top Fortune 100 companies in the United States were not on that list last year."

I also think Naim convincingly ties other sectors into his arguments, including elections/politics and religion. And now my realization: I would consider most associations the old guard. Are your eyes open enough to see a new guard emerging? Are you exploring or embracing "new guard" tactics yourself?