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April 28, 2011

Quick clicks: Just the links edition

Been a busy week here in ASAE-land with two conferences in three days, so I'll skip any effort toward pithy commentary on this week's collection of links from the association blogosphere. Just the links, but still good stuff. Enjoy.

"Why Private Social Networks for Associations Aren't About Networking" by Joshua Paul at Socious

Another installment of "Here Comes Clay Shirky" by Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, on the Thanks for Playing blog

"Oh, No!! It's Back!!" by Ellen Behrens at the aLearning blog ("it" refers to high gas prices)

"Four Benefits of "Gamification" for Associations and Nonprofits" from the YourMembership.com blog

"We're Good Because We Belong" by Jason Hensel at MPI's PlusPoint blog

"Consumer Use of Email Declines, but Association Deployment Remains Constant" by Tony Rossell at the Membership Marketing Blog

"The sponsors' perspective" by David Patt, CAE, at Association Executive Management

"Getting to know your members" by Shannon Otto at Memberclicks' Splash blog

"Talking to Members Counts as Research, Too" by Eric Lanke, CAE, at The Hourglass Blog

"What Is Your Transparency Architecture?" by Jamie Notter on the SocialFish blog

"Deference and Difference: Who Yields for Innovation?" by Jeffrey Cufaude at Idea Architects

"Your Meeting Starts In Your Participants' Mind" by Jeff Hurt at Velvet Chainsaw's Midcourse Corrections blog


April 27, 2011

Tweets from #MMCCon 2011, part 2

Day two of ASAE's Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference saw a continued flood of knowledge and insight for association professionals via the #MMCCon hashtag on Twitter. Some highlights are featured below; find the full hashtag stream here.

Stop saying "social media" to members. Marketers say that, people say Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. #mmcconWed Apr 27 15:12:51 via TweetDeck

#mmccon- first 2 steps to mobile success: ask why, then for whom? Great for board to ponder when they say "let's get on Facebook!"Wed Apr 27 19:05:09 via Twitter for iPhone

If your members can't remember your web address are they truly engaged in your assoc? perhaps theres a bigger problem #MMCCon lf4Wed Apr 27 17:38:25 via TweetDeck

Keep in mind criticizing someone's writing is like telling them they have ugly children / via @ceciliasepp #mmccon ls3Wed Apr 27 17:14:06 via ÃœberSocial

Get in local news. Regional watches local. National watches regional. Get points on the board. @tvondeak #MMCcon ls2Wed Apr 27 15:19:46 via HootSuite

Tip: Memorize your username character count to ensure RT space. RT @theSusanWright: #MMCCon Tweet less than 140 characters.Wed Apr 27 14:45:41 via Seesmic for Android

Next time you email blast your members, include their mbrshp expiration date in the message. Tip I heard at #MMCconWed Apr 27 15:38:45 via TweetDeck

Spelling counts! It shows you care #MMCCon la3Wed Apr 27 17:56:10 via Twitter for iPad


Stop using open rates now

At the MMC Conference, I heard the term "open rate" several times. It's a statistic that really grates on me. It has one teeny tiny use, and it's not at all what it sounds like it should be.

First, it's necessary to understand how open rates are tracked. You, or your email server, have to embed a tiny, usually transparent image into each email. To see the images in an HTML email, your client retrieves the image from the sender's server. Counting the number of times the image is retrieved divided by the number of emails sent that don't bounce back gives you the open rate.

The problem with this approach: users can turn off images. If someone opens your message but does not view the images, you will never know they opened it. And here's the hammer: what's the top business email client? Outlook. Default is for images not to load. Default view is also with a preview pane.

How else do people access their email? On their mobile device. In almost all cases, the default is that images do not load.

There are other problems, too, as the message preview option in some clients can also distort the number in the other direction.

So when you have an open rate of 30 percent, that does not mean that 30 percent looked at the message. Most likely, more people looked at it than that, what is absolutely clear is that you just don't know, unless you do everything in images and do not use text in your emails at all. (Such a decision will give you more accurate statistics, of course the rather nasty tradeoff is that you ensure your message doesn't reach as many people.)

So what is the use of the statistic? Not much really. If you send out a similar message every week, a newsletter for example, and you alter something about it, say you write a snazzy subject, you can tell if that has some impact on the people you send it to. If you go from 30 percent to 40 percent, it tells you that the new way to do subject lines probably gets your message seen by more people.

But that's about it. I don't even think you should use it as a trending statistic. For example, let's say a year ago you averaged a 30 percent open rate, but that rate has slowly declined so that over the last few months you've only averaged 25 percent. By itself that is not cause for concern. It might mean that your recipients have begun reading more email on mobile devices, which are less likely to retrieve the images than other email clients. Instead, you should rely on secondary measures. If you see that drop in open rate, and in every email you advertise a different book, and you're seeing that you're selling fewer books that are marketed in this way than previously, then you may want to rethink the emails to try to devise ways to make them more interesting to open (while also looking for other causes).

So please, stop using this outdated statistic. You want to know if your emails are working? Include links unique to the email, and see if you entice people to click. Or give a unique code for people to use when making a registration or purchase.

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Rosabeth Moss Kanter Urges CEOs to Learn from the Royal Wedding

I'm a longtime fan of Harvard University's Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and she pulls through for me again with her latest HBR blog post titled "Why CEOs Should Watch the Royal Wedding."

I had wondered how I could put a business spin on England's bigger-than-the-2012-Olympics event tomorrow, but I've also been thinking more about yesterday's sessions at the MM&C conference. Now Kanter has shown me the way.

In case you're unclear, we're talking about the ballyhooed nuptials of England's Prince William to Kate Middleton, which may manage to pull our ally out of its economic slump by the sheer scale of the event's marketplace of commemorative plates, mugs, apparel, towels, and everything else imaginable.

Kanter calls the global uproar--an estimated 2 billion people are expected to watch--"one more example of the coming of the experience economy, in which people pay for the chance to participate at particular times (Farmville, anyone?), and expenditures on goods and services come in bundles tied to particular events."

Specifically, she identifies three "strategic insights" more relevant to CEOs than the color of the Queen's hat, and here I paraphrase and urge you to read her full explanations:

First, the selling of so-called "soft stuff"--happiness, unity, shared experience, ritual, meaning, and tradition--can touch customers and members in a way that brings them running with their wallets open. "The joy factor ... is a better business theme to emphasize than the fear factor," Kanter notes.

Second, take the experience and share it on many levels, using many media methods and tying it to causes that matter to your customers. In other words, excel at brand management. While most news outlets have joined in the ruckus and are broadcasting the event live worldwide, Kanter points out that even the usually reserved royal PR propers are working Web 2.0 tools with vigor.

You'll be able to catch livestreaming on the Royal Wedding website, tweeting at the Clarence House royal wedding Twitter feed, and blogging by St. James Palace.

Panicked that you forgot to send the couple a "prezzie?" No worries. These "modern royals" are into cause as much as many other we've-already-got-what-we-need-thanks couples today--they're urging well-wishers to donate to a charity in their honor in lieu of gifts.

Third, be aware that not all attention to your events is necessarily good. Here, Kanter warns that big do's "focus attention not only on the message but on the cost of getting out the message, which can undercut the message."

I can see that's true. With an unverifiable but widely estimated pricetag of around $30 million, the Kate-and-William wedding did prompt my British in-laws to make a passing remark about the number of poor people who could be fed and clothed for that amount. And who among associations hasn't heard the occasional complaint that a nonprofit event shouldn't be so showy or expensive (as defined in their terms, anyway)?

As we've examined the latest trends and skills needed to rock the marketing and communications worlds this week during the MM&C conference, we've seen loads of good and bad examples from the association community and the corporate world.

And to me, the lesson that still reigns supreme--whether promoting a worldwide event or evoking genuine emotions and actions through good storytelling--is that content remains king.

Kanter doesn't say that straight out, but "soft" or "hard," stripped to bullet points or gussied up for a global showcase, tailor-made content is the core value to our customers and members.

I'll try to remember that while eating scones and sipping tea from the commemorative cup sent by my mother-in-law while I watch a 5 a.m. pre-wedding show likely focused on Kate's possible dress designer and the royal glass carriage.


Empowerment starts with getting out of the way

Josh Bernoff

The title of Josh Bernoff's latest book is Empowered, so it's no surprise that that idea emerged as a theme this morning at ASAE's Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference with Bernoff, senior VP of idea development at Forrester Research, delivering the opening general session. To be honest, I didn't expect the learning lab I attended next to have much connection to empowerment, but I was pleasantly surprised that it did.

Bernoff (pictured above) told a story of his experience being helped by Best Buy's Twelpforce and explained how the company organized itself around empowering any employee, not just those in customer-service centers, to help customers with questions. He called these empowered employees HEROes (an acronym for Highly Empowered and Resourceful Operative) and asked attendees if their organizations were giving their HEROes room to act.

In some organizations, "rogue" employees are resourceful in that they use emerging technologies to accomplish tasks but don't feel empowered to use them toward business objectives. Bernoff cited research that says one in five employees at nonprofits fall in the "rogue" category, a higher rate than in for-profit organizations. In other words, fewer nonprofit employees feel empowered to find innovative ways to do their work.

Bernoff also encouraged associations to deliver customer service through customer collaboration. "Peer-to-peer communication is more important than top-down communication," he said. (Find Bernoff's slides here.)

The learning lab "Delivering the Hits: Using PR to Tell Your Story and Change Minds" immediately followed the general session. Todd Von Deak, CAE, and Brendon Shank from the Society of Hospital Medicine told the audience of their success in telling their members' stories to the media. Storytelling was the major theme. "Good stories will find their way to coverage. Bad stories are just bad stories," Von Deak said.

The key to telling good stories? Focus on your association's members, not your association. Good professional stories aren't much different from good children's stories—they both feature characters, challenges, and results—but "your organization is not the best character in your stories," Shank said. "Nor is the CEO," Von Deak added. They argued that a story or quote from a volunteer or member will be far more compelling than one from a company spokesperson.

And thus the theme of empowerment came up again. In both sessions, Bernoff, Von Deak, and Shank urged association leaders to get out of the way, to let their staff and members shine through. The type of association professionals hearing that message at MMCC—the director-level types focused on marketing, membership, and communications—are the ones most likely to understand this idea, but they'll face the challenge of taking that message back to their bosses and colleagues.

For more insights from MMCC, check out http://mmccon.org or follow on Twitter via the #MMCCon hashtag.


When is it time to go?

Careers Paths in Association Management Panel.jpg

A couple brief thoughts from the early riser session, "Career Paths in Association Management" at the Membership, Marketing & Communications Conference: One interesting question was how do you know when you've been at place long enough?

Here's a brief synopsis of how each panelist answered the question:

Peter O'Neil, CAE, executive director of the American Industrial Hygiene Association: "I think leaving an organization can be one of the best experiences you can have. It's a growth opportunity, but ultimately it's a fine line--sometimes you just know when you're done.

Susan Sedory Holzer, CAE, executive director of Society of Interventional Radiology: "I would add that it's important to go to an organization where the members do something that you care about, that helping them do their work better is something you can take pride in."

Lauren Hefner, director, membership, marketing & communication of Laboratory Products Association: "I think it's important, particularly for people early in their association careers, not to leave because you're title chasing. Don't take a job just because it will look good on your resume."


April 26, 2011

Scenes from the First Day at MMC Conference

Here are some photos from ASAE's Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference. See more on the Flickr Group (and please add your own photos from the conference to the group).

General Session.jpg

Daniel Simons.jpg


Von Deak.jpg

MMCC session.jpg

Brand session.jpg


Exhibit with iPad.jpg


Tweets from #MMCCon 2011

A bunch of association communicators get together at a conference and—no surprise—they communicate prodigiously. The #MMCCon hashtag on Twitter was busy today as attendees at ASAE's Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference relayed wisdom from the presentations and conversations. Below is just a sample of what you can find on the full hashtag stream.

We're so confident in our preferences that we'll make up reasons why, @profsimons at #MMCcon gs1.Tue Apr 26 13:55:55 via Twitter for Android

For meeting attendees, know their budget cycle. Tie campaign to these dates. Good tip. #MMCCon lc3Tue Apr 26 17:29:22 via Twitter for iPad

disagree with: "wait for the members to lead you" with social media. members look to you to lead. stay ahead of trends. #MMCcon lb3Tue Apr 26 14:58:44 via HootSuite

Photos on websites need to demonstrate interaction, not talking heads. Need to tell a story relevant to the content on the page lc3 #mmcconTue Apr 26 17:54:29 via TweetChat

If you have a small budget, focus on doing a few things well instead of over-saturating all networks poorly. #mmccon lc3Tue Apr 26 17:26:19 via TweetDeck

I keep forgetting how valuable data is in association work. #MMCConTue Apr 26 21:03:19 via Twitter for iPhone

With the rising power of individuals, enabled by social media, are institutional membership associations still relevant? #mmcconTue Apr 26 21:00:46 via Twitter for iPhone

Members who do not renew may not be saying no, they may be saying not now. #mmccon lc4Tue Apr 26 18:46:23 via TweetDeck

All stakeholder relationships today are at least partly digital. #MMCCon lg2Tue Apr 26 20:03:19 via Twitterrific


SEO: No home runs here, just a whole lot of tee ball

From a marketing and communications standpoint, there is perhaps nothing more important than ensuring your association is at or near the top of the list of search results when people are searching on terms relevant to your industry, profession, or interest. I've read the articles and been to training on search engine optimization (SEO) like lots and lots of other folks. I was drawn into a session here at the Membership, Marketing & Communications Conference by its title: "From Page 55 to Page 1: One Association's Journey Out of the Google Abyss."

It's the story of how the Society of Hospital Medicine, and specifically, what they did after they learned that their job board--a new product they had high hopes for in terms of outreach and revenue--did not show up on the first page of Google results even though competing job sites did. And it wasn't on the second. Or third. They had to hit "more results" a total of (you guessed it) 55 times.

Alarmed they studied the issue and implemented strategies to improve, not only the new product, but the way the entire website would show on Google and Bing and other sites. What they discussed is not any different than what you'd read about or learn about in other SEO sessions. It's examining the language you use, some backend HTML stuff, and getting reputable, strong sites to link to your site. What they really learned is that it takes a strategy and a lot of effort, and it's continuous. They have some good, interesting tools they used that can be helpful to associations. (I'll follow up with them, give me a couple weeks and I'll update this post, ideally, with a link to a sample or two.)

But Todd Von Deak, CAE, the VP of operations and general manager of SHM, summarized the main point several times: "Don't look for the home run. Play tee ball instead." His point, it takes a lot of little things, all wrapped up in ongoing processes to jump 54 pages in Google. They talked about getting marketing and web staff on the same page as being critical--and I'd add all communications and content people. To successfully get to and stay at the top of search results requires the cooperation of anyone who has direct access to put things on your site to use the right terms and build pages in the right way. It sounds easy and simple, but it takes amazing discipline to pull it off.

They also reiterated a favorite theme of mine, which is that the most important part is getting highly rated sites to link to your site. The top way to do this, obviously, is to have good content--to put good, linkable material on your site. I've always tended to downplay the second way to get this done, which is to try to actively manage it. Basically, the strategy here is to assess who would be a good reputable site on which a link would be beneficial for your organization, and actively try to get them to do it. I always thought such a strategy would never pay off, but I'm not so sure anymore. For one, there are more influencers than there used to be, and identifying them is easier than before. Social media has changed this game, and even when you look at traditional media sources, they are doing tons of social media activities. And second, yes, it's still a lot of work and may not yield a lot of links, but search results are so important, why not put resources on it? Everything an organization decides to do, continue doing, etc., is a resource decision, and there are few things that are going to rate higher in importance than being at the top of search results.


Encourage questioning

Daniel SimonsMarketers and communicators know the difficulty in getting others to think differently. Often, the target audience is external: potential members, customers, the press, legislators, and so on. However, in the opening general session and a morning learning lab at ASAE's Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference today, attendees learned some lessons on helping those closer in—colleagues and volunteer leaders—to think differently.

Daniel Simons (pictured at right), coauthor of The Invisible Gorilla, And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, illustrated the many ways in which we assume—wrongly—that what we see is what we get and that the way we think is the way others around us think. He shared the somewhat famous selective attention test video that gave his book its name, and he urged association professionals to "break the systems" that they're used to in order to discover new ideas. Normal human beings often fail to notice the unexpected and are only aware of their own minds' fallibility when they are confronted with hard evidence of it, he said. In other words, you don't know what you don't know.

Simons gave audience members the ability and awareness to question their assumptions, but returning to the office and encouraging colleagues to test their assumptions may be a difficult task. I followed up with Simon for advice, and he recommended sharing an exercise like the video above with colleagues to at least open their minds to the need to question assumptions. He said the toughest challenge comes with questioning causes that we all assign to events. "People infer causal relationships," he said. When X happens, "it's natural to want to find a cause."

This context proved to be handy knowledge entering a learning lab titled "Have You Killed Your Sacred Zombie Cow Today?" immediately after the general session. C. David Gammel, CAE, executive director of the Entomological Society of America, shared some strategies for stopping old programs or processes that are no longer valuable. A common example is a management process for which the condition that caused it no longer exists, yet the process continues. In this case, Gammel recommended challenging that cause and bringing to light that it has changed or stopped. Again, data or hard evidence can help make the case.

Simons also discussed "the curse of knowledge," by which we assume that others know what we know. The key to breaking that curse, he said, is to put yourself in the same frame of reference as your colleagues or members (or whomever you're trying to persuade). Only then will you be able to understand what perspectives they have and what causes they're inferring and thus be able to challenge them.

For more insights from MMCC, check out http://mmccon.org or follow on Twitter via the #MMCCon hashtag.

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April 22, 2011

Earth Day: A Chance at Relevancy

Earth Day can be a fraud, a feast, or a fizzle.

It can be a great rallying date around which to publicly re-enunciate your organization's commitment to sustainability and showcase actions you've taken that back it up, or it either can be dissed as a greenwashing exercise or simply ignore it.

But are the latter two options very smart business choices with all of the studies showing the growing influence of eco-conscious consumers, the heightened watchfulness of media and citizen journalists, and the myriad hard data that have emerged about the positive ROI of a well-planned social responsibility strategy that syncs with organizational mission and core competencies?

If that kind of strategy sounds time-intensive to chart, it can be. However, it takes effort to plan any strategy, so I don't think that concern should be seen as much more than an excuse, especially when this approach jives so well with most our community's common goals of operating efficiently, attracting and retaining talent, holding tight to our budgets, bolstering innovation, engaging members, and building brand value.

It's heartening to see the many press releases from nonprofits and associations today as they urge members and consumers to switch to paper-free bill paying, plant a tree, volunteer, recycle, insulate, and more.

Less heartening is that so many associations are silent today. I promise you that no matter what industry or profession your group represents, your members--maybe not all of them, but certainly a growing percentage--are indeed moving toward greater sustainability. This is a chance for your association to be relevant. This is a chance to show value in a new way. There are serious opportunities here for any organization of any size in any location (you'll find some examples at www.asaecenter.org/socialresponsibility) to help members strengthen their businesses and professions.

So celebrate Earth Day today. Acknowledge it with authenticity. Tell staff, members, and others what you already are doing to help lighten your environmental footprint (that kind of self-audit is the first step anyway), and ask them what else you could be doing.

You may find the sustainability journey to be an enlightening road to greater relevancy.


Do less, achieve more

In my January 14 post, "Do association CEOs have what it takes to lead in the reset economy?," I identified three themes that emerged from a candid discussion among chief staff officers at the 2010 ASAE Annual Meeting. Perhaps the most challenging of these can be summarized by this question:

How do CEOs exert even more future-focused leadership while not being perceived as controlling or overly directive?

The premise, which we've discussed in previous posts, is that we have pretty much exhausted our options on the expense side, and now boards, realizing that hanging on until the upturn happens isn't the best strategy, are expecting that we grow our way out of our problems while pushing toward the desired future state. At the risk of oversimplifying the challenge, let me propose a possible approach to get the conversation going:

  • Do less, achieve more. Listening to Matthew May at Great Ideas really clarified, for me, the power of simplicity and focus. Many of our colleagues in the for-profit sector have learned this lesson the hard way, and "taking on too much" is considered a good predictor of failure. I realize that we've been saying this to ourselves for years, but given the above imperative, is there really any other way to move forward?
  • Push the partnership. We can't sustain progress toward big goals if we do not maintain the support of our elected leadership. Neither can we afford to be perceived as controlling or directive or worse. What we can do, however, is to intensify our promotion and facilitation of the board-CEO partnership (e.g. "We need to do this together").
  • Keep things in perspective. Finally, we all need to remember that we are helping an industry, profession, interest, or cause navigate a small part of its journey toward greater relevance. Great progress was made before us and will continue after we are gone. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to help lead an organization through times like these, and the learning experience will be priceless regardless of the quantitative outcomes, some of which will be beyond our control.

What are your thoughts on how we CEOs can become the leaders we need to be in these remarkable times?


April 21, 2011

Rethinking consensus

In a previous post, I put "Consensus bad" as part of the title. I wanted to expand on that idea a little more. There's nothing inherently evil about consensus. It's not something you need to work to avoid.

But consensus should be a warning. It should make you pause for a minute and question how you reached it. Let me explain.

Consensus usually comes about in one of four ways, two of which are positive and two of which are negative.

First, the powerful overcome the less powerful without regard to the merits of the arguments being made. Those without power go along with the decision. Why? Any number of reasons. Some will see it as a duty. Some will feel like they weren't heard or that the powerful had already made up their minds and there was no argument to be made. Some will lack self-esteem. There's no question conclusions reached in such a manner would not be as good as they could be for an organization.

Second, decisions get watered down to appease all sides of a debate. This one can be tricky, as negotiating and give-and-take can certainly be a part of good decision making. However, decisions reached this way are unlikely to be bold. They are likely to be safe and inoffensive; they will have low risk and low reward. Not inherently evil, but if it's the dominant way decisions are made in an organization, then the organization is headed for mediocrity and, ultimately, obsolescence.

A third way a group might reach consensus is that the better argument wins over all decision makers. It's pretty straightforward, and as long as everyone in the group feels like the process has been fair, that all opinions have been heard, and they don't feel pressured to vote with the crowd, then such a consensus is positive.

Finally, a group can devise, consider, and adopt an entirely new option as a result of deliberations. This is the best possible outcome of group decision making. By definition, it's outside the box; it's "other" on a true-false quiz; it's the road less traveled. It doesn't guarantee the decision is right, but I think it does guarantee that the group used the best possible decision-making method.

Two thoughts to leave you with.

First, I'm sure you spotted the corollary between the positive and negative kinds of consensus. There are only shades of difference between the powerful charging forward with their way and an argument that wins over individuals. Likewise, there are only shades of difference between negotiating a decision and developing an entirely new alternative. That's why if you do have consensus on an action, it should be a warning. It should make you go back and analyze how it was reached--was it a positive or negative process.

Second, mandating consensus will most assuredly lead to it, which means many of your decisions (and I'd say most of them) are likely to be the result of bad consensus, and your organization will suffer as a result.

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April 20, 2011

What if there were no legislators at your legislative fly-in?


So the government shutdown didn't happen, but it certainly had many people in Washington, DC, including associations, worrying over how to adjust if the shutdown had occurred. Perhaps none more so than the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association, whose legislative fly-in event was scheduled for April 11-12, the first two business days of the would-be shutdown.

I spoke with Tom Fise, AOPA executive director, today about how planning for the event was affected as the shutdown loomed.

"It probably advanced the aging process here a little bit," he said. "It seemed that everything had a contingency to it as we got down to the end."

The AOPA Policy Forum event, which draws about 120 attendees and features education on the first day with meetings on Capitol Hill on the second, had been scheduled about eight months in advance, and by the time the government shutdown became a clear possibility, the event schedule and meetings with lawmakers had already been arranged. Fise and his staff communicated with speakers and Hill staff so they knew who would and wouldn't be available in the event of a shutdown and planned backup options where possible. To a large degree, though, they simply had to carry on with planning and keep fingers crossed that the government would be open.

"There was not a lot of reliable information about what was going on. We took the optimistic view and told everybody, 'Definitely come in,'" he said.

One significant change AOPA made to its schedule—a handy solution, in my opinion—was a kickoff program with two former members of Congress, who would be available in either scenario, to open the event on Monday.

"We had these guys do a point-counterpoint about the budget process and the prospects for a governemnt shutdown, as well as the future issues of debt ceiling and the longer-term budget plan. That was really helpful for the attendees for putting all this stuff that they had been hearing about in context and knowing what they were walking into," said Fise. "When we added that in, we didn't know whether the government would be shut down or not, so it was kind of a way of dealing with whatever the situation was at that moment."

Fise estimated that the contingency planning presented by the prospect of a shutdown increased his staff's prep work by 15 to 25 percent. He credited them with stepping up to the challenge.

"Generally, having the attitude that the show must go on makes a lot of sense," he said. "When you look at the big picture and you think about members who have set aside the time to come in and bought airline tickets that are probably nonrefundable, you've really just got to mount the effort to pull the thing through, if there's any way possible to do it."

In the end, of course, the gamble paid off, as Congress struck a deal at the 11th hour to keep the government running. None the less, AOPA's ability to adjust on the fly is admirable. Many association event planners know the stress of an unpredictable external factor disrupting (or threatening to disrupt) an event. I'm curious how others out there have handled the need for last-minute contingency planning. And have any associations ever negotiated consideration for a government shutdown into their hotel contracts or cancellation insurance for legislative fly-in events?


April 19, 2011

Report outlines network-centric practices for engaging communities

In case you haven't seen it yet, you should check out the new report, "Connected Citizens: The Power, Peril and Potential of Networks," from the Knight Foundation and Monitor Institute. It's an important read for any association executive looking to better understand how to navigate the new world of collective action.

The Knight Foundation's aim is toward broad social change, but the principles that the report outlines apply in any community-based context, which includes an association's members and industry at large.

The report opens by illustrating how network-centric practices are already creating new forms of social change in a group of projects the researchers examined, and it offers five practices that the authors see as pillars of future community engagement:

  1. Listening to and consulting the crowds: Actively listening to online conversations and openly asking for advice.
  2. Designing for serendipity: Creating environments, in person and online, where helpful connections can form.
  3. Bridging differences: Deliberately connecting people with different perspectives.
  4. Catalyzing mutual support: Helping people directly help each other.
  5. Providing handrails for collective action: Giving enough direction for individuals to take effective and coordinated action.

They also illustrate how these methods can be put into action to solve long-term challenges in new ways:


[From page 8 of the report, pasted here with permission. Click to enlarge.]

Last week, I pointed to some ideas about the belief in building systems and environments that enable positive but unpredictable results. In that case, the term cited was "shaping serendipity." I like that essentially the same term appears in the Knight report. It reinforces the idea that social change agents—or associations, in their own spaces—can effect change by facilitation rather than force. Social technologies are continuously making that dynamic more and more feasible and effective.

Further on, the Knight report proposes some potential future scenarios for 2015 and details ways that nonprofits can engage connected citizens and utilize the above network-centric practices. You can find the full report at www.connectedcitizens.net.

Looking at those five practices above, I'm curious what experience your association might have in engaging members in network-centric ways or what opportunities you see where you could do so in the future.


April 15, 2011

Consensus bad, turbulence good

Just a quick thought based on a conversation I was part of a few weeks ago. In that conversation, there was a general consensus that the goal of a board meeting--the ultimate board meeting, if you will--is one that sails smoothly.

The people in the discussion had a lot more experience running boards than I do, but my position was: What's the point? Of course you don't want pandemonium. But I want my volunteers, the ones entrusted to chart the course for my organization, to wrestle with the hard issues. You can't struggle with difficult issues and expect smooth sailing. I don't want consensus. I want there to be various opinions, and I want those opinions debated out in the open, and I want people to have to vote on a course of action (or recommendation), and I don't expect that vote to be unanimous.

So my ideal board or volunteer meeting, then, isn't smooth sailing. It's one where tension is an integral part. It then becomes the role of the chair and/or staff to ensure that the tension is used creatively and constructively.

Smooth sailing? No thanks. Give me the choppy seas--you're doing more and having more fun, not to mention it's a choppy-sea world.

UPDATE: As was pointed out in the comments, Jamie Notter has an excellent recent post on consensus. I strongly encourage readers to check it out.

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April 14, 2011

What's in a name?

Let's talk titles.

A conversation with fellow YAEC-er LaKesha McGuire inspired this post, as we discussed what's in a title? Mostly as it pertains to lateral and vertical movement through the association world.

What's "lateral" though? Sometimes, a Director position to a Manager position can be lateral or even upward, depending on the naming structure. My mother is as high as she can possibly get at her mid-sized association, and has a Director title, as it's their top title. I work for a small staff association and have a Director title, but our jobs could not be more different.

Similarly, I've seen seasoned employees called "coordinators" who do incredibly high-level strategic work, and I've seen new part-time customer service reps called "coordinator".

How do you get around this in reviewing resumes for potential hires? How important is title to you? As important as a raise/promotion?

Some associations call their highest employee "CEO", others go with "Executive Director" or "Executive Officer" or "President". But "President" could also be your top board member. I think that structure seems to often mimic the structure of members' companies.

What structure does your association use? Have you had any confusion explaining it to people or in the HR process?

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Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Imagine my shock when I fired up my computer and discovered that a brand new association had been formed in direct competition with my own. Not only did it exactly mirror the menu of product and services NCRA offers so closely that they might have copied it straight off of our homepage, but a quick search of its membership list suggested that it already had thousands of supporters, including my entire board of directors.

But not so fast...

To be fair, the website never explicitly claimed the individuals listed on their site were actually "members." They just linked to a public directory from someone else's legal services website--a directory listing many hundreds of court reporters.

There is a (probably apocryphal) story that Alexander Graham Bell never had a telephone in his home or office. He wondered why he should expose himself to interruptions from "any idiot with a finger to dial with," or words to that effect.

In today's world, any idiot can put up a website and call it an association. Anyone can scribble out a little quiz and call it a certification. Anyone can start a blog, recruit two or three friends to comment approvingly on each new entry (or even invent some alternate, online personas and do it themselves), and claim to speak as the conscience of the industry, the profession, the nation, or whatever.

But if you peek behind the curtain, as Dorothy did, you discover that, like the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, there is less to the story than meets the eye.

The Internet has eliminated all barriers to catalyzing collaborative action. That's a good thing. But the Internet has also made it easier than ever to create an illusion of substance.

If anything, virtual associations that DO offer substantive value are even more damaged by sham organizations than traditional associations. A brick and mortar association at least has a mailing address to differentiate itself from the pretenders. But the need to demonstrate validity and credibility has never been more important--or more difficult--for associations of all forms.

Many of my members wanted us to demand that this new "association" take the site down or demand that they substantiate the claims made. I'm not sure anyone has the right to expect the site sponsor to do so. It's an open market: caveat emptor! It's up to my association to actually deliver on its promise and for the consumer to decide who is providing true value.

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Quick clicks: Small edition

This week's collection of important association links isn't "small" in terms of quantity, but it's a theme that keeps coming up, from small-sized volunteer opportunities to the small mobile devices that your members are using to the size of your staff getting smaller if you don't invest in their productivity. The level of thought-provoking ideas in the links below should be anything but small, however. Enjoy.

Microvolunteering. Robert Rosenthal at the Engaging Volunteers blog points to a new, free 40-page guide to microvolunteering: "How To Set Up A Microvolunteering Project" from Help From Home in the United Kingdom. Rosenthal calls it "most comprehensive guide to microvolunteering that we've seen." I agree.

Mobile tech. You may have seen my posts here from last week's Digital Now conference or been following along on Twitter. First-time attendee Carrie Hartin shares her five takeaways from the conference, and they all point to the rapid advance of mobile technology.

More mobile tech. Joshua Paul at the Socious Member Engagement Blog offers "10 Things Association Execs Need to Know About Mobile Membership Apps." He divides the list into mobile's impact on member engagement, selecting an application, and development costs.

IT and staff turnover. Wes Trochlil asks, "Are your lousy systems affecting staff turnover?" Cheaping out on technology doesn't just make your staff less productive; it also makes the good staff leave.

Strategy. Shelly Alcorn, CAE, continues her series on big-picture association issues, this time making a case for adopting a spirit of "cultivation" in association strategic planning.

Volunteer management. Jeff Hurt attended one of Cynthia D'Amour's Lazy Leader Road Show events and recaps it nicely here, offering some key takeaways. Among them: "Instead of an annual volunteer fair, volunteer recruitment is done all year long."

Content curation. Rohit Bhargava explains five styles of curation that provide value for readers, followers, members, etc. Thanks to Maddie Grant for pointing to this one. It's a great primer if you're new to the concept. (By the way, this Quick Clicks post is the first type of content curation: "aggregation.")

Video. So YouTube is getting into live video streaming. It's too soon to know the practical impacts this will have, but as more and more associations get into virtual and hybrid events that include online streaming, YouTube will certainly factor in.


April 13, 2011

Building the right systems pays off later

I'm still in the process of processing the swell of ideas and trends discussed at the 2011 Digital Now conference this past weekend. Looking back at my notes, there's one idea that came up a few times:

Good systems (or habits) will pay off down the road.

That's a simplified idea, but here are the two examples in which it came up at the conference:

  • The Society of Critical Care Medicine tracks its members' activities with the association and within the industry down to every last detail: meetings they attend, papers they write (both for the association and outside), discussions they join, and so on. SCCM staff are capturing so much information that they have established a predictive-analytics tool that they believe will help them identify future volunteer leaders years before they emerge. Executive Director David Martin, CAE, said this is only possible because SCCM has been collecting data diligently and systematically for a decade (to the point that staff who wouldn't get on board with proper data collection practices were given the boot).
  • Fellow Acronym blogger Mark Golden, CAE, moderated a session based on the book The Power of Pull by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison. He and his co-presenters explained that one element of a successful "pull system" is the ability to attract and convene new people, ideas, and information "so that serendipitous synergies occur." Mark called it "shaping serendipity."

Coincidentally, on my flight home I read "No More Privacy Paranoia," by Slate's Farhad Manjoo, in which he discusses the clash between privacy protection and the power of systems built to use personal information. Near the end he makes a point about Google that meshes the two ideas above:

"There's something important to note about the spellchecker, Flu Trends, speech recognition, and other Google products based on data. They weren't planned. Google didn't begin saving search queries in order to build the spell-checker; it built the spell-checker because it began saving search queries, and eventually realized that the database could be useful."

So again the lesson here is to create systems or environments that foster the building and sharing of knowledge, which can open up possibilities beyond what you might be able to predict. The problem I see for associations, though, is the ROI question. Asking a board to have faith that good things will happen if it approves a major investment probably won't fly. You'd likely need at least one significant return in mind, in hopes that that might be enough to make an investment that could pay off in other ways later.

Do you have examples of unexpected benefits from good systems or practices at your association? How have you made the case for investment in systems or habits that you know are best practices but don't have clear, direct returns?

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April 12, 2011

What can your members do for 1000 days?

Down the street from my office is the Polaner factory. About 10 years ago, I watched their "XX days No Lost-Time Accident" sign reach 1000 days. The sign was adorned with balloons and streamers. I was excited for them. Then a few weeks later, the sign was back down to seven days. A few of my coworkers saw it too. We didn't even really know what a lost-time accident was, but we were sad. After all, 1000 days of anything is quite an accomplishment. Then BAM! - the celebration was over.

This week the sign says 1507 days. WOW!

I've been watching this sign with anticipation for more than four years! What strikes me is that I don't know anyone that works there. I don't even buy their products. I did try their sugar-free product once and thought it was gross. I can go weeks and not even notice the sign. Still, this week I was compelled to send them an email through their "Contact Us" page to congratulate them. Here is their response:

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your kind comments about the hard-working staff at our Roseland facility. As a company that provides the public with high quality consumer products it gives all of us great pride in knowing that the dedication and strong work ethics of the employees at Roseland are appreciated and acknowledged. Please be assured that your comments will be forwarded to Management.

It's a nice formal response. Though, I don't think they seem all that excited either here or in general. They didn't even spring for balloons. It's not like they print this accomplishment on the jam labels. Only the people who drive by ever see the sign. And what does it really mean to me anyway? How is my life better because no one in their factory had a traumatic injury?

The whole experience made me wonder a few things:

  • What can your members do (or not do) for 1500 days?

  • What member accomplishments should be celebrated publicly?

  • How do we inspire the public to contact us and rave about our members?

  • Do members want us to tell the world?

  • How can we spread the word in a way that connects with the public?

I'm sure many of you have success stories or ideas. Share them!


April 8, 2011

Membership is a complex decision

Given the array of benefits at any given association, what's the best way to calculate the value of access to all of those benefits? Even for the association executive familiar with all the benefits, it's not an easy question to answer. So how do prospective members do it?

In the Friday morning general session at Digital Now, author Dan Ariely illustrated the various ways the human mind acts in irrational ways. Several examples he shared related to buying decisions, and he made two strong points that brought the membership model to mind:

  • The complexity of a decision can quickly overwhelm the mind. In the face of that complexity, doing nothing is often the chosen response.
  • The human brain has a difficult time assigning an absolute value to an object. Most buying decisions involve comparisons to other products, prices, and so on.

After his presentation, I asked him to apply these ideas to membership and product delivery. Here's what he had to say.

On the a la carte model:

"An a la carte option has the potential to be much more complex. What happens if the amount of choices are overwhelming and they don't know what to do? It will create procrastination; it will create delay."

On membership packaging:

"I'm guessing that people who are running the association know exactly what the benefits are. They can say, 'Here are the 17 benefits you're getting out of this, and here are the 15 benefits you get out of this and the 35 benefits you get out of this package.' But I am willing to bet a substantial amount of money that, if you ask the members, they have no idea what the benefits are. Or maybe they know some of them, but they don't really understand them fully. But for sure they don't understand how much they should be willing to pay for those benefits.

"So you're giving people an abstract, difficult decision about something they know very little about, with very little help. This is creating a very difficult decision in front of them, and the odds are for just giving up."

So both options can run the danger of being too complex. Whatever model they choose, associations must strive to make the decision to join or buy as simple as possible.

How to do that? Ariely offered a potential guiding notion when I asked about fundraising:

"For most people, their association is not the huge part of the way they define themselves. It may be a way, but it's not the major one. So why would they donate to an association rather than donate to my kids' school or to my local religious organization or to a disease that my mother had? It is important to realize that decisions about donations and coordinated action are about emotion and not about cognition. It's not about cost-benefit analysis."

Making an emotional case might be more difficult if you're not asking for money for a charitable cause, but the emotional decision-making basis remains the same, and you should find creative ways to appeal to it.

Follow along with the Digital Now conference through Saturday afternoon on Twitter via the #diginow hashtag.


April 7, 2011

If you could send a one-question survey...

In a morning session at Digital Now, panel speaker Richard Yep, CAE, executive director of the American Counseling Association, shared a guiding question for navigating the use of mobile technology to serve his association's members:

"How can we make your life easier?"

It's an apt question in the mobile context, but it applies to any association service: advocacy, education, knowledge sharing, community, and so on. And the more I think about it, I think this question might be the best question an association could ask its members. If I only had one question I could ask members, I think I'd put this one at the top of my list.

I'm curious what question you'd ask your members if you were only allowed one question. (If you were stranded on a deserted island with just one survey question...) Would it be an open-ended question? Multiple choice? Would it be about a specific issue in your industry or a program your association offers? Please share.

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The (possible) government shutdown

I recently had the good fortune to speak with Jerry Heppes, CAE, the CEO of the Door and Hardware Institute, and I asked him how the impending shutdown of the federal government would affect his government relations and advocacy efforts. Here's how it went (my commentary is in italics).

Q. What will the effect be on your group?

My members are in commercial construction and that industry has been in dire straights recently. If the government shuts down, they're the biggest owner of property in the country, so if they shut down for an extended period of time, that translates into less construction and that would be a bad thing for us--but I don't think that will happen.

I imagine that's the perception of a lot of associations: a short-term shutdown, while not ideal, is not anything to get too twisted about. If the shutdown were to drag on, however, it would likely have much more serious effects on the U.S. and global economies--and even many associations that were mostly immune to the recent recession could run into serious issues.

Q. What about ongoing efforts you have with agencies?

We do some work with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education and some other agencies--school security, the Stars Program (an energy initiative), that sort of thing. If the government shuts down, you don't just stop. There's always things you can do to get you're part of the work on the projects done, to get it ready for when the shutdown ends.

Again, sounds like the place most associations are in. If there happens to be an imminent deadline for an issue important to your members, or if you'd been working on securing a meeting with a government official for months only to have it scheduled for next week--well, I could see why you wouldn't have quite such a laissez-faire attitude.

Q. How is this going to end?

Well, I don't think this is something that will drag on for months; I think they'll get something worked out. And if a government shutdown is what it takes for the American people to get a better-managed budget, well then that would be a long-term win for us, despite whatever damage might come from the short term.

So there is a silver lining after all. Maybe.

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Are associations overlooking text messaging?

Mobile tech guru Tomi Ahonen (@tomiahonen) opened the 2011 Digital Now conference today urging associations to take advantage of mobile technology. He talked about using a multimedia approach, but some numbers he shared about text messaging (SMS) specifically were hard to ignore:

  • In, 2009 SMS passed voice calls as the primary use of mobile phones in the United States (long after this happened in many other countries in the world).
  • SMS use worldwide is big as eight Facebooks.
  • One third of SMS use in India is content (business to consumer).
  • MMS (multimedia messaging) has 2.2 billion users worldwide.
  • Even on smart phones, the top uses are messaging, apps, voice, and then mobile web.
  • 42 percent of American teens can send SMS blindfolded.
  • Opt-in (permission-based) mobile marketing campaigns average 25 to 40 percent response rates.

Most of of the buzz around mobile today is around smartphone apps, but this info makes me wonder if associations are mistaken to overlook simple text messaging as a tool for connecting with members. SMS is a very personal medium, so association using it must choose carefully, but the potential value of an effective use is high. 

Ahonen shared a slide with the eight unique advantages of the mobile medium. One of them stood out to me as a good way to think about possible SMS use: Mobile is available at the moment of creative impulse.


Associations that host meetings and education events have the opportunity to engage their members when they are most energized, during and immediately after such events. Often it's difficult to capture that energy. Enabling an engagement avenue via text messaging during events could be a great way to do so.

If you have ideas or examples of SMS use at associations, please share. 

(And you can follow along with the Digital Now conference on Twitter via the #diginow hashtag.)

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April 5, 2011

Like Club Med, but with less sand

I have a friend who is just now starting out in her career, and is finding herself overwhelmed with the many possibilities of what "career" could mean. She has a marketing degree, feels like everyone else does too, and is struggling to find her "place". Something that feels like more than a job.

I, of course, am trying to move her toward the association world. She's having a hard time picturing herself in what she imagines to be a thankless job with a low salary - the jobs she's finding are largely administrative and don't pay very well.

I've explained to her that we're sort of a... club, almost. Not just ASAE - but the association sector as a whole. My Facebook is full of association professionals. My Twitter is, too. I go to happy hours and if I happen to meet someone who works for an association, it's like we have an immediate "bond" - even if that person works in IT and I work in membership. Where else can you find that? You don't see people at parties immediately connecting with those around them because "Oh, you work for a company? ME TOO!"

But with the association world, it's somehow different. Whether or not our organization is charitable, I'd imagine that most of us still feel like we do some semblance of "good". We're serving our members' personal or professional needs, usually providing some sort of education and growth opportunities. Our members WANT to come see us a few times a year at meetings. With the exception of dues time, they're usually interested in what we have to say. And that's because it's all of our jobs, no matter our title, to make our particular member base happy.

For that reason, we really do seem to connect with one another more than a lot of other career groups. I LIKE being a part of ASAE and the other association networking groups I belong to. I like spending my time with other similarly-minded professionals.

So, I'm trying to get my friend out to one of the networking happy hours, because I have no doubt that once she gets in, she'll be hooked. To me, this camaraderie is one of the major benefits of this profession. Her questions have me really analyzing and revisiting why it is I have stayed in the association world thus far.

What would you tell a friend who wants to know why they should look into this job market?

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Comparing apples and blueberries (Ode to Godin)

Seth Godin has a nice post this morning on his blog about the difference between apples and blueberries. If you produce apples, he says, the consumption model is such that a bad one here and there won't hurt too much as long as the good ones are really, really good. So your goal is to make the good ones the absolute very best. You want people to remember your great apples.

Contrast that with blueberries, which are eaten several at a time. One bad blueberry spoils it, so your production goal is consistent quality. You want to make blueberries that are consistently very good and have zero defects.

The point Godin makes is you need to know in which model your organization functions so you know where to put your emphasis. When I think about this in conjunction with associations, these are some of my thoughts:

Large meetings, with breakout sessions: It's counterintuitive, because it seems like people consume them in multiples like blueberries, but I would argue you should treat them like apples. If you can deliver a couple really big juicy ones that attendees love, they'll forgive the other mediocrity.

Online coursework: I could be swayed on this one, but I lean toward the counterintuitive blueberry. Yes, of course you want to be great, like apple production, but throwing together one that goes bad potentially ruins all of them. I think I'd put my emphasis on consistent quality here.

Articles & information: I think it depends. For the people who know you and like you, then I lean toward the consistent quality of blueberries. But if you want to attract the attention of those outside your group or on the fringe, then you want to wow them with the most delicious apple they've ever tasted.

Advocacy: This is a tough one. So tough, I have to change the rules. I think most groups are blueberries trying desperately to produce apples. I think the cacophony that bombards those you want to influence means they're not going to consume your blueberries or your apples. You need something entirely different. A Purple Cow maybe.


April 4, 2011

My Twitter confession

On Monday I created a Twitter profile. You might be thinking I'm behind. It's true. I confess to resisting. I wouldn't do it even when my employer started tweeting.

All these communities and email accounts - I didn't want one more site to have to log in to, another password to remember, another type of notification to create a folder for and then not read for two weeks. My 19-year-old brother just created a political community and invited me to join. Nope. Not doing it.

I'm just not convinced that I have to be that connected.

So why did I decide to join Twitter? ASAE's Component Relations section has monthly virtual lunches. I like to sign up as soon as I get the notification. Unfortunately, sometimes I have to work through even a virtual lunch. This month's promo said, "Join the discussion using #CRPLunch on Twitter." I'm sure it says it every month. But this time it made me think, "If I miss it again, I can go on Twitter and see what I missed." The lunch was on Tuesday.

There I was -- a bright and shiny newbie. I uploaded my photo, created a bio that was too long, edited it. Still too long. Edited it again. Three more words had to go! Finally done. Figured out how to follow NJSCPA. Now what is this whole "hashtag" thing? Was I supposed to follow it? I searched for it and Peggy Hoffman's name came up. She was past chair of the Component Relations Section, comments on the listserve a lot, commented on one of my Acronym posts - so, I followed her, assuming that would get me the event discussion. (I hear you laughing at me!) Later, I was alerted that Peggy was following me. Cool. I hadn't even tweeted yet.

On Tuesday, I connected to the lunch and opened Twitter. Where was the discussion? Where was Peggy? I searched for #CRPLunch. Ahh, there it was. I saved the search. I didn't tweet anything to the discussion. I thought I'd screw it up.
It was a great lunch, and I found the tweets to be a great way to record ideas as they happen. And I didn't have to keep tedious notes.

Someone I don't know followed me this morning. Do I keep it all professional or throw in some personal stuff? I still haven't tweeted. I guess I'll figure it all out and come up with something to say, edit it, and finally hit Tweet.

I'd love to hear your Twitter story - why you signed up and how it's valuable to you. And, Peggy, I'll still be following you!

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