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August 15, 2012

Digital Event Engagement Manager: A New Role for Association Pros

The following is a guest post from Maggie McGary, online community and social media manager at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Last year, my first year attending ASAE's Annual Meeting & Expo, I was totally overwhelmed by the experience. This year, I was a little better prepared and went in with a game plan: Pick a session during each timeframe, then two backup sessions in case the first was full. I also spend so much time immersed in social media—learning, doing, speaking—that I thought my time would be best spent not attending any sessions dealing with social media.

At any rate, that's how I came to attend the Learning Lab "The Strategic Impact of Digital Events on Meetings," even though I'm not a meeting planner (currently; in past jobs I have done meeting management). As luck would have it, the session felt a lot like a social media session—a lot of talk about traditional versus new, with face-to-face meetings being the gold standard (like traditional communication media) and virtual or hybrid events the shiny new thing (like social media).

Lots of the same issues were addressed as are addressed in nearly every social media session: How do you get executive buy-in, how do you generate revenue from this new way of doing business, will this new way ruin the old, tried-and-true way we've always done meetings? As with social media, there are a few examples of associations who are already demonstrating success with virtual or hybrid meetings, but there still remains a lot of skepticism about moving into foreign territory.

What struck me most, though, was that I was sitting in a room full of seasoned meeting planners, many of whom are certified meeting professionals and have invested entire careers learning the business of running meetings. There I sat, a person who has spent the past four years in the business of online engagement, and it occurred to me that there's an entirely new field open to online community and social media managers: digital event engagement manager.

If the future of events is driving online engagement and being able to generate measurable results online in addition to, or instead of, face-to-face meetings, community management is at least as valuable a skillset as—if not more valuable than—meeting management. I wondered which education gap would be harder to fill—community manager retraining to learn meeting management, or meeting manager retraining to learn online community management? I also wondered who will fill that gap. Will fundamentals of online engagement and social media management be added to the list of things you need to know if you want to be a meeting manager, and, if so, will that be a new part of the certified meeting professional program? Or will community managers need to learn stuff like what's a BEO and which is a better seating setup for learning, hollow square or horseshoe?

Obviously, I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know this: Build it and they will come doesn't work for online communities, so it probably won't work for online events either. Meeting managers planning on adding digital meetings to their association's learning mix would be smart to start boning up on the fundamentals of online community management.

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July 25, 2012

The 40-Year Lesson: Insights from a Retiring Association CEO

Caught in a deadline jam for Associations Now after a snafu that meant pulling several short articles, I was lucky enough to earn the sympathy and help of one of the great leadership icons of our community: CEO & President J. Clarke Price of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

Price is actually leaving us all after 40 years of service. He gave notice two years ago and will head out of the office in December to hopefully tee off on the golf courses of Hawaii and elsewhere, then delve into favorite cause-related activities. I had to cut a bunch of Clarke's comments because of space limitations in the magazine, so I want instead to share them here as advice and insights from one of our most admired colleagues.

1. Association CEOs must stop complaining about time pressures and embrace the huge responsibility they bear for the success of their association's social media strategy. "Social media is one of the differentiators today," says Clarke, who has been called a "Technology Superstar" by one of his industry's trade publications. "Too many CEOs--and occasionally myself included--dismiss social media by rationalizing 'I don't have time for that' when we really do need to be spending time in the social media universe. Whether it's blogging, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the social platforms, the CEO needs to be vocal as one of the loudest and clearest voices of the association and the profession or industry. I'm critical of myself, because I don't spend enough time being part of the social atmosphere."

2. Being an early adopter of technology tools and applications is essential, too. "It's been fun moving from a two-way pager in the early days to the earliest Blackberry to the Palm Treo to the next gizmo iteration and then to the iPhone and iPad that I use today," Clarke says. "And I still carry an old Motorola Razor that I use just because I'm just more comfortable with that sort of phone, and the battery life is great."

3. In the big, long scheme of things, people mean the most. "As a career accomplishment, being featured in ASAE's 7 Measures [of Success] book was a pretty big deal for the organization and me. But I'm proudest when I think about the people I've hired, some who are still here and some who've moved on to bigger roles in other associations and industries or professions," he says.

4. You never forget some of your earliest CEO mistakes--and what you learned from them. It's apparently a long story, but Clarke says one of his most memorable mistakes involved a simple proofreading gaff. "Proofread carefully," he warns. "... I was almost fired in 1975 because of a very sloppy proofreading job on a bylaws ballot sent to every member!"

5. Have leadership role models--a lot of them. "I don't have just one," Clarke says. "I've learned a lot from colleagues in other organizations (particularly the Ohio State Bar Association, Ohio State Medical Association, and Maryland Institute of CPAs)....[and] just observing and working with John Graham the year I was ASAE chair."

And finally--because who doesn't always want to know this when they talk one of the association world's wise elders--what's Clarke's favorite board management tip after 40 years in the trenches?

"Plan! Think through the likely avenues of discussion and be prepared for the unexpected."

I hope retirement brings you expected and unscripted joys, Clarke. Thanks again for sharing not only your thoughts with me but with so many of us over the years in the association community. I'd love to hear what others have to say about Clarke's tips and observations.

You also can wish him well and hear about the books and information sources that have influenced his past and current thinking as a leader if you join us for the education session "Conversations That Matter: What We Learn From What We Read" Tuesday morning, Aug. 14 in Dallas at our Annual Meeting & Expo. I'll be joining Clarke and another longtime industry leader, Gary LaBranche, to lead a rowdy, fun, and very practical (if last year's version is any indication) discussion of the books, blogs, Twitterstreams, and whatever other info sources (okay, the emphasis is often on books) that have jazzed your thinking in the past year. Leave room in your totebag for at least one free book from our giveaway table!

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An Olympic Celebration of Excellence

Happy Olympics, everyone! With the U.S. Women's Soccer Team kicking off the whole darn sportsapalooza this morning against France, the 2012 Olympics and the world's witness of performance excellence and resilience begins.

I just love the Olympics--the athletes and their gritty stories of perseverance, pain, and triumph; the cultural insights into the host country; the anxious coaches and families who sacrificed so much to enable their athletes just to be there; and the overall national pride that buzzes through America and around the planet when we see the best-of-the-best give it their all.

I've been fortunate to interview a few Olympians from figure skater Michael Weiss, who practices at the same ice rink that my family goes for a laugh and a tumble, to speed skater Apolo Ohno, who told me that his favorite inspirational book is In Pursuit of Excellence.

Both of these medalists have now joined our own ranks, leading active foundations to help next-generation athletes rise within their sport, set aggressive goals, and make healthy life choices. They are passionate about their nonprofits and causes, just as we are. They are committed to creatively communicating positive messages to their target audiences, just as we are. They do not fear the sheer scale of the social and economic problems they are tackling, whether reversing obesity trends, convincing under-age teens to avoid alcohol, or urging students to stay in school so they can secure a stronger spot in America's workforce. We don't back down, either.

As we unite around the world for the next few weeks to cheer the titans of sport, give yourself and your colleagues an extra yell as well. While we carry no ribbons with gold around our necks, we too have much to celebrate and strive for in the ongoing competition of association life. Happy Olympics!

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May 14, 2012

A little curation on curation for associations

Two weeks ago I shared a few thoughts on how the concept of curation might work (or is working) in the retail industry, and I promised to dig a little deeper into curation in the association context. That post drew some interesting comments, so first I recommend going back and reading them.

That discussion got me thinking a lot about the topic, and so I spent some time reading what others have written about content curation already (which is quite a lot). In the interest of practicing what I preach (and in not restating what others have already said much better than I could), I decided to gather and share a handful of the most useful resources I've found on content curation:

Where to start if you're new to "curation":

On the actual job of curation:

On associations' role as content curators:

More curated info about curation:

After all that reading, I came to a couple conclusions that I think can also help you approach curation at your association:

Curation is a philosophy, not a tactic. If you take some time to read some or all of these articles, you'll find that "curation" takes on a lot of different meanings and forms, depending on who you talk to. You might find that frustrating, particularly if you're looking for how-do-I-do-it-today advice, but I think curation is best viewed as a philosophy rather than a tactic. I like Rohit Bhargava's definintion, because it encompasses any range of methods that accomplish the same goal: "finding, grouping, organizing, or sharing the best and most relevant content on a specific issue."

You can apply that goal to just about any form of content that your association might produce, ranging from blogs and magazines to research and education. But make note of the wording: "the best and most relevant content," not "your best and most relevant content." That's the shift that associations have to make, from being the source of expertise to being the conveyer of expertise, regardless of the source. Viewed this way, curation is more of a new filter or lens through which to look at the things associations already do, rather than an entirely new source of value.

Real time vs. long tail. Of all the various forms that content curation can take, I see them mostly falling into one of two buckets, which I haven't seen clearly identified elsewhere:

  • Real-time curation. This is the ongoing, day-to-day form of curation. It's how you keep your members up to date. The subject area can be wide (as wide as your association's profession, perhaps), and the criteria for selection expand from "best" and "relevant" to also include "new." This form can appeal to a big audience, but it has a short shelf life, as it needs constant attention. Think "today's top news."
  • Long-tail curation. This is the long-term, highly specific form of curation. It's how you help your members dig deep into a topic. The subject area in each case is narrow, and the criteria for selection might be best described as "the absolute best" and "the most relevant." And the timeframe for selected content can go back for years, as long as the content stays relevant. This form appeals to a specific audience in each case, but it has a long shelf life. It could be maintained with only periodic updating. Think "Wikipedia."

Both of these forms can be valuable for associations to provide to their audiences, because they address two different user scenarios: the user who engages often to stay in touch, and the user who only comes to you when they have a specific problem to solve. (Of course, these aren't exclusive; a single person can engage with your association in both ways at different times.) But in either case, if your association is the place to easily find the best information and knowledge from throughout your profession, you'll keep those users (members or non) coming back.

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January 20, 2012

How connecting differs in person and on the web

In the space of a few hours earlier this week, I came upon two articles about human interaction that seemingly contradicted each other:

In the former, Lehrer explains a newly released study that found that college students at larger universities have less diverse social groups than those at smaller universities. The conclusion drawn is that a larger environment allows the natural tendency toward seeking relationships with similar people to play out more thoroughly. As the study's authors put it, "Our findings reveal an irony—greater human diversity within an environment leads to less personal diversity."

Meanwhile, many experts have assumed that the boundless environment of the internet has allowed this same dynamic to turn the net into an "echo chamber," leaving us all increasingly isolated from differing people and viewpoints. The Slate article, however, points out a massive study conducted on Facebook that suggests the opposite is true: social networks (or at least Facebook) expose users to a large amount of novel information (i.e., ideas you most likely wouldn't have found on your own), because the vast majority of online social connections are weak ties. Simply put, the echo chamber theory doesn't appear to be true.

So, in person, opposites don't attract, but seemingly opposites do attract in the internet. The important difference between these scenarios is strength of connections. The former study examined the diversity in close personal relationships, while the latter examined the diversity in weak connections. Very different scenarios, and the evidence from each supports a fairly simple (and perhaps obvious) conclusion: strong relationships arise naturally from compatibility, while weak connections require less compatibility and thus allow for greater diversity.

So why might any of this be relevant to you as an association executive? I see a few lessons to draw, and while none of them are new or novel, the studies serve as important reminders and reinformcements of the following ideas:

Weak ties are conduits for knowledge sharing. My colleague Mark Athitakis asked "What's a Weak Tie Worth?" a few weeks ago and suggested that it might be difficult to turn weak ties into strong ones. I think both of these studies confirm that, but the Facebook study in particular further proves the great value in a large network of weak ties. Working to grow that network—and to help your members grow their weak-tie networks with each other—is a valuable goal in itself.

Growing diversity is another case for online social networking within your membership. Another reason to count the Facebook study in the "pro" column for engaging members through private online community platforms and on external social networks. It's not just a greater volume of connections that can be made online than in person; the online environment allows for the diversity of those connections to be higher, too. And we know that greater diversity in ideas and information being exchanged leads to better decisions, more innovation, and so on.

But just creating a diverse environment isn't enough. Particularly when it comes to your staff or your volunteer leadership, where weak ties that might exist need to be built into strong ties for effective work to be done. Getting a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints in a room together is the right start, but human nature (sadly) will still resist the forming of diverse relationships unless they're fostered intentionally. Cross-functional teams, task forces, and committees must be created with purpose.

I'm curious if these studies align with your experience with your relationships and networks and those you see in your associations.

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November 15, 2011

What's a Weak Tie Worth?

Call it a bad habit: Too often, we think of "habit" as a four-letter word, a thing we're morally obligated to shake off, like smoking or celebrity-gossip websites. (I conquered the former about six years ago; my battle with the latter continues.) So I was struck by a recent Slate piece, written by management experts Chip and Dan Heath and bearing the Slate-ishly counterintuitive headline, "Four Excellent Habits."

The piece lays out four lessons, largely drawn from the world of sociology, that have the potential to improve your career or business. The tips might be familiar to readers of their most recent book, Switch, but it's worth reading as a refresher. (And if you haven't read Switch, you can check out a Q&A Associations Now conducted with them last year.)

The third lesson the Heaths address in the article has been much-discussed in the past year or so. It has to do with the term "the strength of weak ties," a phrase coined by sociologist Mark Granovetter to explain why distant acquaintences often are better resources for job hunters than close friends and family. Long theory short, those acquaintances are the repositories of job tips that you likely would never hear about in your immediate social circle. Weak ties are indisputably powerful on the job hunt: As the Heaths point out, "in about 83 percent of the cases, the critical job lead came from a weak tie."

But does the "weak ties" concept scale? Are weak ties worth pursuing if you're trying to expand your organization's membership, running for office—or, say, trying to topple a government? Malcolm Gladwell expressed skepticism about that last point earlier this year when he considered the role of social media in the Arab Spring protests: "The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency," he wrote. "But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism."

Gladwell caught flak for diminishing the value of social media, but I see his point—there is only so much that two weak ties are willing to give each other. Need me to provide a job tip or a bit of advice? Sure. Need me to drop everything and join your revolution? Well, a skeptic may ask, what's in it for me? What connects both cases is that the weak tie is asked to make a decision: How much information and assistance am I willing to provide to people I don't know very well?

That's what makes weak ties relevant to associations. It strikes me that many organizations are very good at slicing and dicing their demographics—understanding their members' age groups, incomes, job roles, and general interests. Associations can target-market well. But it's a trickier business to build connections to "weak ties"—drawing on the less-engaged member, or the person who should be a member but isn't, even for the kind of occasional requests for assistance that a job-hunter might ask for. Is it possible for weak ties become strong ones? Or are organizations destined to be stuck in the 1-9-90 model of engagement, where a small minority of engaged members sets direction for the whole?

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October 17, 2011

The catch-22 of volunteer recruitment

Reaching back a few weeks to a post by Shari Ilsen on the Engaging Volunteers blog, "Why I'm Not Going to Volunteer with Your Nonprofit." She adapts seven reasons people cite for not donating to a nonprofit and equates them to why they also don't volunteer. Great reading for anyone in the business of volunteer recruitment.

One of the reasons stuck out to me the most: "I don't know anyone else who volunteers with you." From a personal standpoint, this probably isn't the excuse I'd give out loud for declining a given volunteer opportunity, but it's the one I'd be feeling in my gut, most strongly influencing my decision. I'm an introvert, and I don't think I've joined or volunteered for anything in my life without doing so with a friend. That sounds sad to me now that I've typed it out on a screen, but I'm just being honest.

The truth is, though, that there are a lot of introverted people like me in the world, including in your membership or pool of potential volunteers. (The Decision to Volunteer supports this dynamic: "I was asked by another volunteer" was the third-ranked channel through which volunteers first learned about volunteering with an organization, while "I didn't know a current volunteer" was among the top reasons cited by nonvolunteers.) So it's clear that asking your current volunteers to recruit potential new volunteers through word of mouth is a method that must be employed to overcome the "I don't know anyone else who volunteers with you" hurdle.

But this presents another problem. Many associations lament that their volunteer leaders aren't diverse, and they struggle to find new potential leaders from beyond the networks of members who already participate. Asking your board to recruit people they know as new volunteers just gets you more people who look, think, and act the same as the leaders you already have.

So there's your catch-22:

  • Potential volunteers feel more comfortable volunteering when they know a current volunteer, but …
  • Potential volunteers who know a current volunteer are probably a lot like your current volunteers.

No one said volunteer recruitment was easy. I don't have a magic solution to offer for this dilemma, but I think the underlying strategy to break free of this problem focuses on fostering new connections. So, rather than asking volunteers to recruit a friend, challenge them each to make a new friend at your next event. Conversely, when you do identify strong potential volunteers, connect them with current volunteers as quickly as you can, so they can no longer say "I don't know anyone else who volunteers with you." Interested to hear your thoughts on volunteer recruitment. How have you tried to solve this problem?

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September 7, 2011

An Anniversary No One Will Forget: Associations Vary in 9/11 Treatment

So many associations are gearing up to share tributes, assess their industry's progress, and conduct community service projects in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that it's impractical to list them all. That said, I do want to share some of the tools, communication efforts, and creative projects in case some organizations are still pondering what their staff or members might want to do:

Created a microsite of resources. The American Psychological Association (APA) has set up a microsite with resources to "help people cope and build resistance" during the emotional days around 9/11.

Partnered for a TV special/podcast/on-demand show. APA also partnered with "Nick News With Linda Ellerbee" to co-develop a TV report called "What Happened? The Story of September 11, 2001," which ran September 1 and is available on iTunes as a free podcast and in Nickelodeon's video-on-demand offerings throughout the month. A related discussion guide helps parents and teachers talk to kids about the tragedy and tough emotions.

Developed a so-called "impact kit" for reporters--a compilation of stats, resources, and trained commentators who can discuss an event from the perspective of its impact on an industry, profession, or locality. The Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) has organized materials around terrorism and insurance to aid reporters covering the 10th anniversary, including prepping its board president for media interviews and promoting I.I.I.'s white paper on "terrorism risk and insurance." A strong quote in its press release will likely get good response from media: "The 9/11 attack was the largest payout in the history of insurance until Hurricane Katrina in 2005," says President Robert Hartwig said. "Insurers became the nation's economic 'first responders,' and as construction progresses on the site of the former World Trade Center, insurance claims dollars continue to play an essential and highly visible role in rebuilding lower Manhattan while also mitigating the overall economic impact of the 9/11 attack."

Conducted a 9/11-related study. A good example was released this week by CoreNet Global, an association of corporate real estate and workplace professionals. The study concludes that 9/11 "had a permanent effect on the workplace," in part by accelerating the trend toward "distributed work" conducted by workers in multiple locations. "The focus on risk management as an intrinsic strategic planning and management function also grew stronger," according to the association. "Business disruption planning became a common element for many corporate workplace and asset managers as a result of 9/11," says spokesperson Richard Kadzis. "Elements of this planning include mobile work plans for employees, facility collocation policies, redundant facilities, energy back up, business continuity plans, and off-site data storage."

Combined old-time traditional communication tools with social media tools to promote public service. The Michigan Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI) has launched a billboard and Internet campaign called "Remember Through Service" to mark the day by highlighting the service of Michigan Muslims to the nation and to "provide an accurate depiction of how Muslims contribute to the broader society." Individuals highlighted include a doctor who was a first responder to Ground Zero, a Detroit police officer, an assistant prosecuting attorney, an assistant principal in an Ohio public school, a Vietnam veteran, and a volunteer doctor at a free medical clinic. You can see the billboards here[LINK TO http://www.4shared.com/photo/BMwnt-sz/CAIR-rev.html] and related YouTube videos[LINK TO http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCC1mg8Guw8].

Volunteered like crazy. The goal is more than 50 million--that's the magic number for how many volunteers the government, community partners, and others hope to engage in community service projects such as park cleanups, mentoring, and food drives. Any organization still interested in community service projects can go to www.911day.org for a list of opportunities.

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August 23, 2011

"So where were you?"

OR: "A Blogger Extrapolates a Hazy Lesson for Associations from a Mid-Afternoon Earthquake"

OK, so there was an earthquake in Virginia today, which was felt by much of the Eastern United States. You know that much.

After the initial bewilderment and after the checking in with family and friends and colleagues, the rest of the afternoon was filled with trading stories about who was where when it happened and what it felt like. This happened in person and online.

Throughout the afternoon, I was struck by the energy in those conversations. It was something everyone could talk about. We have these sorts of moments of common shared experiences increasingly rarely. (On a national scale, the last two I can think of were the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death and the Super Bowl, but again, the quake was only on a regional scale.)

Seth Godin pointed this out less than an hour after the quake, and it also reminded me of the discussion about the value of commiseration here on Acronym a few weeks ago. If you're on the East Coast, pay attention to the energy in people's voices as they talk about the quake today. It's proof positive of that deeply human desire for shared experience.

The lesson for an association? Next time you're planning an event or meeting or even just a group project for volunteer members, think about today's earthquake buzz and think about how you can spark that kind of shared experience. When your members get together, give them an experience that shakes them up a bit (in a good way, of course). If you can give them something they can all talk about, they'll be building positive bonds that they associate with your community.

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August 19, 2011

What We Learn from What We Read

Good news--people are still reading. And some are reading a lot (20% of adults read more than 21 books per year, according to a 2010 Harris Poll).

That was clear from the crowd that raised their hands to the question during the session "What We Learn from What We Read" at the ASAE Annual Meeting in St. Louis recently.

The best news--they want to read "smart," meaning they want to be mindful of what reading is influencing the thinking and actions of their colleagues in other organizations while also finding inspiration, ideas, and knowledge in less-common sources such as literature, non-business books, mobile phone applications, new-book aggregation or executive summary websites, and more.

Panelists Jeffrey Cufaude (moderator), consultant Joan Eisenstodt, CEO Mark Anderson, and I shared not only what we were learning by reading beyond the "obvious business sources" (Harvard Business Review, New York Times, etc), but also the resulting ways we've applied that learning to our work and personal insights on everything from community building to leadership to technology.

Since we all admitted our book addictions and the difficulty of narrowing the choices we'd share at the session, our panel posted additional suggested reading and sources around the room, and attendees could jot down on cards anything of interest. For folks at the session or overall meeting, don't forget to download the session materials that list even more resources or to order the CD to listen to the session.

One of my favorite parts was when we asked the audience to share what books and sources they thought others should know about--you can hear their suggestions in the session tape, and I urge you to share your own favorites in the comments section of this post.

In doing my research for the session, I ran into a quote by Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, that we used to move people into thinking beyond their own learning and toward that of their members and colleagues: "...[P]eople are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one's communities."

If true, doesn't that leave a huge opportunity for associations to aggressively curate the overwhelming amount of content for their community?

Most organizations already are trying. For instance, on the plane, I sat next to an Avectra professional who told me that the entire company is reading Race for Relevance and then will gather to talk about it.

Another attendee said that her CEO picks two books a year for the board to read, and it's the first item on the agenda because discussing ideas and new information "gets people's mental juices going" right away.

Our panel added more suggestions such as running regular book reviews online and in publications, offering virtual book/information clubs for members, creating reading-learning-applying online communities for open conversations around new books or sources, mobile apps that aggregate top news of interest, and what-I-learned-from-what-I-read education sessions.

We all have had such a tremendous response to the session that we may pitch it again for Great Ideas or next Annual Meeting in Dallas, and we're discussing the potential of an open sharing community to continue the momentum of the session.

We hope you'll join us in our virtual book nook to share your favorite reads and learning, too.

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August 8, 2011

It's not just the topic that counts. It's the community.

The following is a guest post from Peggy Hoffman, CAE, president, Mariner Management.

I attended one of the Conversations That Matter sessions today at ASAE's 2011 Annual Meeting & Expo, and my biggest takeaway is that the right people in the room will make the session better. I was in the "Open Discussion Forum for Executive Management Staff" where I witnessed—and participated in—a lively conversation on four wide-ranging topics. Because the session was designed as a safe space, I won't share the details, but I do want to share that the session provided a great example of part peer-support group and part professional learning. We were invited to bring up stories that highlighted a challenge, celebrated a success, or shared an "a-ha" in each of four areas. The group then collectively discussed options. There were three people who got sage advice, several more that went away with actionable ideas, and likely even more who tucked business cards and names in their pockets.

This was not a formatted, lecture, or prepared case study or even experiential learning. This was an informal conversation that mattered. It didn't matter what topics were brought up, it mattered that the right people—all senior association professionals—were in the room. It mattered that the people in the room came with the intention of sharing and not judging. It mattered that we had two CEOs facilitating the conversation that brought their own challenges and successes to share.

Earlier in the day I attended another session that had a good topic but not the right people. I'll vote for the right people over the topic every day. Which gets me to my main point: we have an obligation in preparing professional development programs to begin with defining who should be in the session, then clearly communicating that to the potential attendees. Any thoughts on how to do that effectively? Love to hear ideas so I can both improve my programming and improve my choice of programming.

Side note: many thanks to Executive Management Section Council, of which I am a member, for hosting this session for the second year in a row and especially to EMS council member Stephen Gold, JD, CAE, president and CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI and council vice-chair Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, executive director, National Business Officers Association, for facilitating a conversation that mattered.

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July 22, 2011

Value in commiseration

If you read this month's Horizons column by Betsy Boyd-Flynn, CAE, in Associations Now, you know she and her organization have been through some difficult experiences of late. This week Betsy followed up with me to mention that she'd received several emails from fellow association professionals who all said it was nice to read about a colleague facing similar challenges. She described them as "me too" messages.

This reminded me of an important dynamic that I often lose sight of: Sometimes it feels good to commiserate with a colleague, even if there aren't any answers to a problem. It's nice to know you're not alone. Blowing off some steam lowers stress, and it creates a natural bond between colleagues.

We all know that, of course, but my job is generally to find and share people's answers to problems, and I think a lot of association jobs are focused on that. And even when an association promotes a networking event, for instance, it's often played as a chance to learn from colleagues and to meet people who could become future business partners or colleagues. Those are the more tangible benefits, which is why they're easier to point to, but a lot of the value in networking is in shared experience. We talk about programs that offer "takeaways" for participants, but the simple bonding over shared experiences is what leads to the positive feelings people have when they walk away from a face-to-face event.

In a time when so many challenges have no immediate answer—economic woes, evolving technology, and shifting demographics come to mind—associations will do will when they provide their members and customers with opportunities to commiserate, to share stories, to understand each other, and to feel understood.

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June 15, 2011

What good is governance without influencers?

I've been mulling over the topic of "influence" for a couple weeks now, ever since I read Maggie McGary's blog post, "Influence in the Context of Associations," on May 31.

She raises a point that traditional influencers in associations—board members and other volunteer leaders—are being supplanted by thought leaders whose influence is sown in the digital realm:

"[A]s time goes by and more of your members begin interacting in the online community, a new group of influencers will grow out of those interactions. Meanwhile, traditional influencers—board and committee members—will become less visible and, therefore, less influential and important, at least to members. Will you know when this change occurs, or will you be stuck in thinking the wrong people matter the most?"

I agree with her on this point. The rise of online influencers started years ago, and they're here to stay. Maggie and I traded some thoughts in the comments, but I want to take her "are you missing the revolution" question and discuss it further, because I think it challenges the association governance model itself.

From a basic perspective, association governance is a structure through which a large community organizes its members' beliefs and goals and channels them into action. In the past, this structure created influence and bestowed it upon those within it (volunteer leaders) just by virtue of the association's position as the sole arbiter of networking, advocacy, and knowledge exchange within the industry. There was simply no other game in town.

But, increasingly, members can now share their beliefs and goals—and can influence and be influenced—without the formal structure. So where does that leave governance?

I see three options, but each one raises more questions:

  • Keep the traditional system, but bring new outside influencers into the system (i.e., nominate your online influencers to be real-life board members). Sounds good, but do these people want to participate in that role? Or, if they do, will they lose what influence they had?
  • Ditch the governance system. Can an association without a governance system still even be called an association? Relying on leaders and influencers to arise "organically" seems to me like a Wild-West scenario. I just don't see how collective action on a large scale can occur without some sort of organizational system emerging.
  • Develop a hybrid. Hybrid is a nice word, but I have no idea what this would look like. In some way, it would mean creating better connections between traditional leaders and outside influencers.

In any case, the dilemma Maggie highlights is a significant challenge for effective governance. If governance is supposed to be the method for gathering an industry's collective goals and channeling them into action, it's going to have to evolve the capacity for capturing influence that's now arising in a greater variety of places.

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May 6, 2011

Setting meaningful goals for community building

Per my previous post about my interest in the community-building sessions at MMCC, I'm adding a second set of thoughts here about a different question: How do you set goals for something as emotionally based as "community?"

Sure, my colleague Chris Wood, director of ASAE's Convene Green Alliance (CGA) for sustainable meeting planners, and I could just look at CGA program attendance, newsletters published, registered members, and business partners attracted, but we want to consider goals around value, the quality of the relationships in the community, the relevance of the knowledge shared, and the "ROE" (return on engagement, as so many MMCC speakers referenced), too.

"The challenge [with community building] is to do it at a methodical, measured pace and to introduce one piece at a time," advised Ray van Hilst of Vanguard Technology when I asked him his thoughts. Ray wins my "good sport award" for stepping in at the last minute to fill the shoes of an ill Chris Bonney, supporting Andy Steggles and Joe Flowers in a crackin'-good session about community-building/social networking trouble-shooting.

"Just say 'we're adding a feature to the website,' rather than 'building a social network' to avoid any anxiety within the group, he continued. "Remember, it's quality, not quantity" [that counts most when evaluating a community]. So often numbers and expectations are unrealistic."

Still, if a numerical goal must be established for "community" in a work plan or to satisfy higher ups, he recommends looking at the levels of engagement or percentage of participation in some of your other key activities--maybe in your webinars or at your annual meeting--versus your overall membership size, and "approaching a possible number like that."

Thus, if 20% of your members attend your conference, you might set a goal of developing an engaged community of around 20%.

"Take a look at everything else you're doing [and the respective participation percentages], and ask yourself, 'Would we consider ourselves successful if we did the same thing with our community?' Then you can manage that expectation issue," he advised.

Interesting idea. What do other folks think?

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May 4, 2011

Getting "Elders" to Engage in Community-building

I've been reviewing my notes and conversation from MMCC last week and ran into a good community-building example described by Joe Flowers, who has spent three years as community manager at the 5,000-member National Association of Dental Plans, a trade group.

I had asked Joe for suggestions about how to entice the most senior, most experienced members of an organization to actively participate in an association community when they might be feeling like they already have a strong enough professional network and often "don't learn much" from education sessions, publications, list servs, or conferences anymore.

Joe responded that NADP had tackled the dilemma by "educating our members that their entire staff could be part of any [association] conversation," rather than just one or two individuals. He learned that his older members were concerned about the quality of the professionals who would be leading their companies once they had retired or moved on.

Joe e-mailed volunteer groups with specific numerical goals aimed at boosting the community, asking volunteer members to send an association e-mail to 10-15 people at all levels of their workplace each month. The e-mails invited these individuals to share opinions, attend association events, and sample NADP content. They also included specific and easy sign-in instructions so they could try out what membership might feel like. Joe then "let it snowball from there."

It did, although NAPD "took a hit" when it switched to a better platform that not everyone immediately embraced. "They went back into their shell a bit, but now they're coming out again" because they miss what they gained as an active community member, Joe laughed.

His job has been particularly tricky because members are highly competitive. But by focusing community discussions on research studies, legislation, and committee work while avoiding product-oriented subjects, companies were not nervous about having lower-level staff involved and often found common ground.

When discussions lagged, Joe seeded the site with provocative data, restarted popular conversations from the past, asked for comments to a document, or collected suggested messages that members wanted the CEO to make in his next media interview.

As a result, "we've seen a steady increase [in the community's engagement], and we've pulled data showing about a 10% increase in website traffic each month, and even a 45% increase one month." The month before NAPD launched its community strategy, its site attracted 1,000 unique visitors, Joe noted. Five months later it's at 10,000 and has "a lot more engagement points now, too."

Those are impressive numbers. I wish Joe well in his new PR job, which starts tomorrow in California, but am sure that his oversight of NADP's community will be missed. Meanwhile, I'm going to look for similar good examples of inclusive communities that appear to excite members of all professional levels.

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April 27, 2011

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.

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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.

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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:

knighttable1.jpg

[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.

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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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March 30, 2011

Us vs. Them

Not too long ago, I lost my temper on the Acronym blog. I shouldn't have. It never advances dialogue. It didn't help.

What set me off was a blog post in the "I've got social media ... who needs an association?" genre. The posting itself was no doubt sincere, and it wasn't as arrogant or doctrinaire as other examples from the genre that I could cite. I unfairly vented on the poster when what really bugged me, and has been bugging me for a long time, wasn't anything he explicitly said. Rather, it is a notion that I have seen flourish in online forums, a notion that assumes social media makes traditional associations obsolete.

My vent came across as "nothing good in the way of collaborative, real-world impact can happen outside of the traditional association model." It wasn't what I meant, and certainly not what I believe. But there it was. It provoked the predictable response accusing me of denying the power of social media to serve as a platform for concrete action and making excuses for the failure of traditional "brick and mortar" associations, which have lost all relevance in today's digital world.

So let me correct any impression I may have given that I am anti-social media or a defender of the status quo in associations. Social networking has changed associations in major ways. Associations that might have been coasting along on their prior reputations have been challenged to deliver real value and create new and more open opportunities for member engagement, because if the emperor has no clothes, the web will make that apparent immediately. Social networking has created whole new capacities for service, action, and involvement.

But I still maintain that the idea that either form (virtual or physical) of associative activities is unnecessary and disappearing (or ought to) does a disservice to both types of community. It isn't a case of "either/or." The proper conjunction is "and." Virtual and traditional aren't mutually exclusive. Both elements bring something unique and valuable to the constituency they share. And together they achieve synergies that add member value that is beyond what either could achieve separately.

There are certainly examples that could be identified of utterly failed traditional associations and equally unproductive social networking initiatives (the space outside the red lines in the diagram below). There are probably examples that could be cited of associations having real impact and delivering real value without any significant virtual component, as well as examples of purely virtual movements that are changing the world in significant ways (the green and yellow spaces between the red lines). But there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, where virtual and traditional overlaps. That's where we ought to be focusing.

Us vs Them.jpg

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March 25, 2011

Associations Pledging to Participate in Tomorrow's Earth Hour

If your organization and staff are interested in an easy, fun, and free way to show support for protecting the planet and urging action on the problem of climate change, consider participating in World Wildlie Fund's global Earth Hour 2011 tomorrow night at 8:30 p.m. for one hour.

A phenomenal success, in part because of its simplicity, visibility, and measured impacts, Earth Hour has inspired pledges to participate from government and business leaders in a record 131 countries, along with hundreds of major companies such as Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Coca-Cola, and IKEA, and even more NGOs and individuals. Association participants include Building Owners and Managers Association International chapters, sports associations, astronomy organizations, and hospitality groups. For a partial list of participants this year, go here.

I've also been seeing hotels, restaurants and local shops use Earth Hour this year to plan and promote festive events to engage guests and customers, including dining-by-candlelight dinners, s-more making in hotel lobby fireplaces for kids, glow necklace distributions at clubs, lantern walks in art galleries and shops, and glow-in-the-dark crafts and family-night gaming. You'll also find that hundreds of major international sites such as the Empire State Building, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge are participating, too.

I remember when this all started in 2007. I had heard that several associations were going to participate, and one was planning some tie-in events at its local conference since the events would overlap. Organizers were having a great time finding ways to integrate both fun and information into the single dark hour, and they apparently got rave reviews from attendees, especially about the candlelit pathway up to an outdoor stargazing event that had been put together with the local planetarium and a nonprofit chapter of astronomers.

That first year, Earth Hour drew 2.2 million individual participants and more than 2,000 businesses, according to World Wildlife Fund. Tomorrow, only four years later, those numbers have grown into the hundreds of millions of registered participants, and organizers have expanded the event by calling on each of them to go "beyond the hour" by committing to convert a single hour of darkness into a single commitment to do one regular thing that helps the environment address climate change. Suggestions include easy actions such as commuting to work or the subway station by bike one day a week, switching to CFL or LED lights, or holding "meatless Monday" dinners.

You can learn more about what people and organizations are pledging to do at www.earthhour.org/beyondthehour.

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March 14, 2011

Creating Your Own Competition

In Sunday's Idea Lab "Embracing the Unofficial Leaders in your Membership," led by Peggy Hoffman, CAE, and Peter Houstle, attendees explored the association conundrum of how to relate, ignore, or handle the "unofficial" association organizations.

Often some of the brightest and most dedicated members of an association form these groups in order to meet a need they identify and "split" from the association because they feel the association:

  1. Is not in a position to respond quickly enough to meet the need;
  2. Would not see the activity to key to the association's mission;
  3. Would not support the activity to the extent they desire it be supported;
  4. Or some combination of the above three.

Most likely you all have experienced both sides of this scenario: being the association and leading or participating in the unofficial group. For instance, have you attended a YAP party or a small regional meet-up?

Many associations' knee-jerk reaction is to be threatened by such an activity. But, don't! Or at least, don't be threatened immediately. Attendees mulled over the idea that these groups may in fact be vital or, at the very least, helpful, to their associations for the networking opportunities they provide, the awareness they create of the organizations, the missions they help support, and so on. Therefore, it behooves association leaders to pause, consider the dynamic, and determine how to approach the unofficial group, if at all. View draft questions to consider in the "Embracing the Unofficial Leaders in Your Membership" page in Associapedia. Peggy and Peter strongly encouraged all of us to contribute to the wiki entry as we move forward, so please contribute likewise.

In summary, I found this session especially enlightening since we left with a framework on how to identify the potential unofficial groups (as opposed to reacting once they are discovered) and create strategies for future involvement. Associations can't spend every day preparing for the what-ifs; however, given the frequency of unofficial group creation, preparation for such what-ifs seems a valuable use of an association's time.

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March 11, 2011

Lessons from geocaching

My personal hobbies don't often intersect with my professional duties, but since it's Friday I'll make an exception and introduce you to geocaching. It's a fairly new hobby with a growing community facilitated mainly by a single for-profit company, which offers some interesting lessons for associations.

But first, some background. All over the world, people have hidden small containers and posted their geographic coordinates online. Anyone with a GPS device can find a cache and sign the log inside. The fun is in the hunt and in feeling a bit like a secret agent. I once found a cache inside a hollowed-out bolt on a street sign; others might be hidden in stumps or rock walls deep in the woods. It's also a great excuse to get outside, and the barrier to entry is low. All you need is web access and a GPS device, which these days includes most smartphones.

The geocaching community is an active one, with a few million people that participate, ranging from novices to highly engaged enthusiasts who blog about geocaching, discuss it in forums, and hide caches for others to find. Does that engagement curve sound familiar?

The geocaching community's leading facilitator is a for-profit company, Groundspeak, Inc., which operates geocaching.com, by far the largest repository of cache locations. The people who founded Groundspeak a little more than 10 years ago could have established a nonprofit to oversee the activity, and, in fact, there are competing geocaching sites run by nonprofits, such as Navicache.com and Opencaching.us, but the one run by the for-profit has been the most successful.

So what can association professionals learn from Groundspeak's success in fostering the geocaching community? Here are a few thoughts:

Get out of the way. On the geocaching.com homepage, Groundspeak isn't mentioned once "above the fold," which is a sign that the good of the geocaching community is the company's primary goal in managing the site. Of course, Groundspeak sells its geocaching gear and accessories below and alongside the functional areas of the site, but none of those offers are pushy or in your face. This allows the community and hobby to thrive without overt interference.

Freemium and products. That's the business model for Groundspeak. Access to the hobby and the community is free, and I'd bet that the majority of geocachers in the world have never spent a dime with Groundspeak. But the ones who are enthusiastic can opt for a Premium Membership or can purchase geocaching gear that Groundspeak sells. By aggressively and skillfully facilitating access to the hobby, Groundspeak grows the geocaching community and, thus, its pool of potential customers. It's important to note, though, that this approach takes a great amount of faith in the "get out of the way" philosophy.

Smart, useful tech. Geocaching.com is a powerful but easy-to-use site. The tools and info geocachers need is front and center and easy to find, which is why users keep coming back and why, in turn, it's the dominant site in the community. Meanwhile, Groundspeak hasn't built everything from scratch. Its cache locator map is a Google Maps mashup, its videos are all posted via YouTube, and its forums run on a licensed platform. Once again, this all arises from a dedication to providing what the geocaching community finds most useful, not what might benefit Groundspeak most directly.

We often hear that "associations need to behave more like businesses." I'd argue Groundspeak's model and methods are the type of business behaviors associations should emulate.

Anyone out there a geocacher? Know of other examples of communities fostered by for-profits that associations can learn from? Please share.

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January 19, 2011

Online Community Cacophony

Okay, so a long time ago I wrote several blog posts related to Goplow.com, our associations new content+community website, and I promised more...and then I didn't get you anything else because nothing great happened for a while. But I am here with an update as our small association pushes itself hard to build this resource we've created. And I must say that creating and growing an online community is the wild west of the association world; one must stay true to the association's goals and fight through the cacophony of noise that is out there relating to creating and fostering a digital community.

Thanks to great resources at ASAE and some solid colleagues met through the annual meeting, I was emotionally prepared for the initial LAL (lull after launch, just made that up). Since then, we've made some good headway, here are some things we have done:

A Great Story: We launched a video contest for our publication in the fall. Each issue we feature a snow professional on the cover, and it's a great honor, so we created a contest where folks could submit videos explaining why their story should be told. We got a whopping 8 entries, 2 of which didn't qualify, so sounds like a drag, right? I disagree; we got 6 great companies to share their stories with us, and the winner especially had a powerful story that I think will resonate with our magazine readership, and we probably would have never known of it...and we doubled our traffic to the site BTW and people really watched the videos.

Partnering: We forged a new publishing partnership, believe it or not with our main competitor online in our market. We strategically built our site to differentiate it from this site from the start, so together we complement each other and offer better choice for our advertisers and end-users. This allows us to spread our message via email and in print to new audiences, at much higher numbers then previously; we provide quality content links, they feature their diverse community, and both sites drive traffic.

Synergy: In the past year we launched an online marketplace with another partner, linked to our site homepage. In 2011 we hope to take this a step further, pulling the sites closer by creating a sub-domain on our site for the marketplace, which will allow us to leverage the high-SEO potential of a site like the marketplace (tons of links to other sites!), and make it easier to market the sites (instead of separate URL's) to drive traffic, and make it more intuitive for site users.

Constant Review: We just finished a user's survey, and thanks to a very strong financial start for the site in terms of ad sales, we are able to re-invest a portion of that revenue into the site in 2011. Concept is: launch, implement, review, rework, and the process starts all over again.

Would love to hear how others are building their online communities in any function, or if anyone has advice for us as we grow our fledgling community!

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January 14, 2011

Haiti: Where And What Are Associations Still Doing?


The first Haiti earthquake anniversary this week has prompted myriad progress reports from the many associations and nonprofits who responded with volunteers, professional guidance, money, and resources. With almost 500 projects and 80 major NGOs doing on-the-ground work in the devastated region, it's easy to get confused about who's doing what as our community continues to respond to the crisis.

Luckily, this week also marks the release of a helpful free tool that aims to foster partnerships among nonprofits and associations, "strengthen corporate and NGO relationships, and increase transparency and accountability." It's called the Haiti Aid Map, and it's a who's-doing-what-where map with snapshots of projects and their coordinating groups. Created by InterAction in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Business Civic Leadership Center, it was funded by FedEx, a master of organization and mapping.

I encourage you to refer to it, whether you have ongoing projects there or not, because so many of your peers are making a difference in that challenging zone, and you may find something that would inspire your organization to get involved as well.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of things that associations are doing right here in the U.S. that are improving life in Haiti. If you're mostly interested in philanthropic giving, perhaps some of their projects will prompt you to write a supportive check.

The American Library Association (ALA), for instance, has distributed $25,000 to clear and prepare land and complete designs for one of three libraries it plans to rebuild and equip through its Haiti Library Relief Fund . Its needs a lot more money, though--just one library will cost an estimated $325,000-$350,000 to rebuild and equip.

The Haiti-inspired partnership between the American Dental Association's Division of Global Affairs and Health Volunteers Overseas has focused on raising $300,000 through an innovative Adopt-a-Practice program to rebuild 30 dental practices, almost one-third of all dental health facilities in the region. ADA also has developed an International Disaster Assistance Volunteer Inventory based on a survey for members interested in volunteering in the aftermath of an international natural disaster.

The American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, in collaboration with the ABA Family Law Section and Section of Litigation, and the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, hosted a free webinar on "How Attorneys and State Court Judges Can Aid in Finalizing Adoptions for Haitian Children Now in the U.S" and is offering its materials for free downloads to anyone interested.

Also, for the record, as a result of such outreach work, many organizations also have found that they've galvanized members, boosted innovation, and added meaningful value to their brand and membership offerings. Please accept my personal congratulations for your efforts and commitment. I've heard astonishing stories of what your members and staffers are doing even a year after the earthquake.

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December 15, 2010

If you build it, will they come?

"We built a community/online presence/networking application - but our members don't use it."

I've heard it several times through the course of the 2010 Technology Conference, to that point that it sounds like it could be a systemic problem. So I went to a couple of leading suppliers in the online community platform space on the exhibit hall floor and asked them to tell me about the characteristics of their best implementations.

From Andy Steggles at Higher Logic, I learned:

Probably one of the most important things is to autosubscribe your members. You have to be smart about it and approach it in way that's not going to tick them off, but opt-out is going to be more successful than opt-in.

Another point is pretty ubiquitous for any project: establish your goals. You're going to set up a community differently if your goal is to raise awareness of something than if your goal is to provide member value.

He also talked about limiting and defining the groups. If you're an organization with 100 local chapters, does it make sense to set up a different discussion group for each geographic region when every discussion would be on similar topics?

A final notion is one of taking risks and being creative in the strategy you employ. He reported that the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics is one of Higher Logic's more successful implementations. A primary goal for them was adding value, which would generally mean building a wall for members to enjoy exclusive access to high-quality content. The approach they took, however, was the opposite. Open up the content so anyone can access it, but you needed to register to participate. It was a huge success for SCCE, increasing awareness, prestige, and generating significant membership growth.

From Elizabeth Baranik at NFi Studios, I learned:

You need to know your successful communication channels--what is it that your members respond to? Is it email marketing, newsletters/magazines (print or online), Facebook, LinkedIn or any of the other social media platforms? You need to know the channels that will lead to people joining your network.

You also need to be relentless. You don't need to spend tons of time, perhaps 5 hours a week, but you do need to be consistent. One of NFi's successful clients is the Florida Society of Association Executives, and the reason is continuing, fun, engaging messages for members to get involved in the community. In this regard, it helps to have a project owner, someone who is taking responsibility for developing a working a plan of consistently promoting the community to members.

Finally, she talked about being smart about the launch of the community. If you have an annual meeting where a large contingent of your members are present, create an experience at the meeting where people will wonder what is going on and will want to join the community.

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November 22, 2010

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

It's bulb planting time. You buy these brown objects that look like misshapen shallots, put them in the ground, wait until the spring, and ...Voila! Bunches of amazing colored blooms all over. There's an obvious analogy here about sowing seeds for the future and planning a colorful garden. What are we doing now that will yield something better in six months? I'm convinced the bigger challenge is how messy are we willing to get to make it happen? Unlike those bulbs, our challenges don't lie dormant for months and suddenly burst into colorful landscapes.

I recall in one association we prided ourselves on creating a "well-oiled machine." You know: no real glitches, smooth services, everything meets expectations. Technology upgrades anticipate the next market curves and drop onto our system running exactly how the vendor showed us in the demo. Members read each and every email we send, and they eagerly await our every communication. (OK, so I exaggerate a tad.) We made great strides toward that "Jiffy Lube" goal but it didn't happen without disruption. The dilemma was to negotiate how much mess was tolerable to achieve the changes?... how much of the well-oiled machine is allowed to squeak while staff and volunteers are busily re-tooling, re-organizing, replacing, downsizing, and upgrading? Fundamentally, our model was that we essentially controlled the structure and the pace of change.

Earlier this week I was listening to a presentation by Clay Shirky on leveraging social media for charitable cause organizations. The audience wrestled with the notion that struggling organizations with too few staff could unleash a donor base to spread the word about the organization, reach donors and attract media far faster now than with conventional communications. It can seem overwhelming - especially when we already wear so many hats and now think about adding hats for tweets, friending and blogging. How riskier is it to sow a few seeds and pretty much get out of the way?

We're in the flat world now. Not the one with the map that kept explorers in check, but the one that has lifted the veil and the firewall. What hasn't been zapped has been "apped. "With new tools are new opportunities. What keeps me up at night is not whether we intellectually understand it...it's whether we can mobilize our organizations to embrace and lead rather than succumb to fear that the current environment is too scary for bold action or be afraid of what would happen if members really exercised their power.

If there's a silver lining in the economic roller coaster, it may be that we realize things aren't going back to the way they were...so neither can we. If we team up with enough 20- somethings with no pre-Internet/pre-smart phone memory, we may get there. Entrenched behavior is completely changing because it can. Our fee- for- service -with- the- opportunity -to- comment model isn't participation. Our members are posting stuff everywhere and generating content at a pace we can't keep up with. But are they doing it in our organizations? (It should be more liberating, but I suspect there's enough Type A in most of us that we're avoiding this as long as we can.)

Give me the hand trowel, the hose, and the garden gloves. And throw in a sample of people with passion for planting. Make sure there are enough tools for everyone. Are we really that afraid that some squash might show up among the hyacinths? Half the fun is in choosing the colors, designing the beds. The other half is in the mud pies.

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November 1, 2010

Open Community is your people

I'm pleased to post this guest post from Maddie Grant & Lindy Dreyer on their new book Open Community (we're honored to be the first post on the tour!). Be sure to follow the tour as it heads to a lot of the really great blogs we're lucky enough to have in the association space.

OC_badge_booktour.pngAcronym is the first stop on the virtual book tour Maddie Grant and Lindy Dreyer are doing to explore concepts from Open Community: a little book of big ideas for associations navigating the social web. This post is Lindy's take on the open community concept and why it's important.

For association executives, community is old hat. It's what we do. It's central to our work. And yet, for some reason (actually a lot of reasons) what we know about community isn't always translating well to building community online. Maddie and I have talked to thousands of association executives who have voiced their frustrations about the social web--from the overabundance of tools and the disorderly experimentation of staff and members, to the lack of organizational support and the unwieldy processes for monitoring and managing social media, and that's just the beginning. It's easy to get bogged down in the newness and the detail, and miss the bigger picture--not the 10,000-foot bigger picture, but the "just high enough to make practical sense" bigger picture.

So we started writing the book, and the idea that kept popping up is the concept of open community. We added the definition of open community on Associapedia, but here's the gist. Your open community is your people who are bonded by what your organization represents and care enough to talk to each other (hopefully about you!) online.

To be clear, the open community concept is not about building an online community platform or internal, private social network. That could be one tactic in your arsenal, but one of the most important first steps toward building community online is accepting that your open community is out there, not just on your website. Your stakeholders are connecting on their own terms in the social spaces where they spend the most time, and you need to be where they are. Sometimes, rather than hosting every conversation and leading every initiative, your organization can (and should) simply be present as a supportive participant.

It's really important that your association figures out how to connect with and support your open community, because if you don't, someone else will. I know that's not news to you Acronym readers, but it bears repeating. And repeating. And repeating, again.

How is your association building community online? What's your strategy for connecting with and supporting your open community? Is it working?

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October 26, 2010

Collaboration for collaboration's sake

A few weeks ago, Scott linked via Quick Clicks to a blog post by Marsha Rhea titled "Calling Time-Out on the Culture of Over-Collaboration and Over-Commitment." She argues that association executives are overcommitted to collaboration, leading to some bad side effects:

"[H]ow can anyone do quality work racing from one staff meeting to the next conference call with a volunteer committee … ? More association and nonprofit executives need to call time out and recognize the high cost of this behavior. Sure they do an amazing amount of good work in any given day. I admire their stamina and flexibility. Yet I am confident they need more wide open expanses of unscheduled time to do truly great work and lead breakthrough changes in their organizations."

I'd like to echo Marsha's concern about over-collaboration, but I'm not worried about the side effects. I worry about the direct effect. Is all that collaboration really worthwhile?

Associations are, in essence, groups of people with a common purpose, so our first inclination is to answer "yes" to that question. I've never quite understood this degree of faith in the collaborative process, though. It assumes that, because a solution was found via a group, it must be the best one. I just don't buy that that's always the case. (I come from a writer's background, though, where solitary work is the norm. Maybe I'm just biased.)

I can't discount collaboration entirely, of course, because I've certainly worked in some highly productive group experiences. But another reason I find the belief in collaboration puzzling is that we've all seen how it can go wrong: Show me an association executive who says she has never at least once seen something watered down by a committee, and I'll show you a liar.

To put it simply, assuming collaboration is always positive puts a greater value on process than it does on results. It ought to be the other way around. Surely collaboration is great in the right situations, but not all the time.

So perhaps the question isn't "Is collaboration worthwhile?" but rather "How much of it is?" How do you pick the right times and situations in which to collaborate, and how do you make sure you're doing it right?

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October 7, 2010

Brian Solis on association member engagement

This month's issue of Associations Now asks "5 Questions for the Next 5 Years," with answers from a bunch of smart people in the association industry. Here on Acronym, we've reached out to a few smart people outside the association industry to offer a short answer to some of the same questions.

Answering a question today about community and member engagement is new-media expert and futurist Brian Solis, author of Engage, a guide for businesses to build, measure, and cultivate success in the social web.

Acronym: Today, association members are easily able to engage and build community with their professional peers outside of associations. How should associations be rethinking their membership engagement and recruitment strategies?

Solis: "It's actually quite the opposite. Today association members are not easily able to engage and build communities with their professional peers outside of associations. The easy part is signing up for accounts on social networks and finding people with whom to connect. The hard part is creating a presence online that's not only worthy of connection, but also one that establishes the foundation for leadership and inspiration.

"More importantly, it's fundamentally required to understand that communities don't cultivate because of focusing on the growth of the three F's (friends, fans, followers). Communities are cultivated through investment: the continued introduction of value, meaningful responses, and the creation and curation of useful content. Essentially we earn our relationships and grow the size and shape of our communities as a result of our actions and our words. We earn what we deserve and are measured by intensity of our social graph."

Great food for thought. Please offer your thoughts on this question or Brian's response in the comments.

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September 9, 2010

Does 9/11 Still Resonate as a Community Service Draw for Members?

Yes, based on the number of press releases and website announcements popping up this week. The 9/11 National Day of Service appears to still rally members at a wide range of associations and nonprofits that have been strengthening their volunteer programs in general, not just during observance of the anniversary of those terrible attacks.

Among the most visible are AARP, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civil Leadership Council, United Way and DoSomething.org, the largest teen volunteer organization--all partners with MyGoodDeed Inc. The latter is the official organizer of 9/11 memorial activities along with the Corporation for National and Community Service.

AARP, for instance, announced today that its Create The Good arm is launching a new campaign "aimed at raising awareness about social responsibility and community service." The campaign focuses on sharing stories about members' volunteer experiences in hope of inspiring others to offer their own talents and time to the less fortunate. Members can share these stories via an easy online form at AARP's Create the Good website and tap into tools to help them find other places and ways they might volunteer.

I think that finding ways to publicly share and promote the positive experiences of member volunteers is a great idea. It's a shame that so many volunteer match-up programs or association-sponsored give-back events don't allow people to talk afterwards about what the experience meant to them or the impact they saw their efforts have on others.

And using such a painful day in our history to create positive change does more than just generate warm fuzzies about your association as coordinator of such efforts. It also boosts engagement with your organization, connects people to others with similar values, and helps meet the changing expectations of members (especially young members) about the need for business to be doing something bigger than just focusing on their own industry or profession.

I hope you'll consider joining the 9/11 tribute efforts, many of which have already started and continue through early next week. Please consider posting in the comment area on this blog, if you'd like to share your own experience. We'd love to hear about it!


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August 31, 2010

Three Cool Takeaways from the LA Community Legacy Projects

Wow, we just finished tallying up the total Annual Meeting attendee participation and results from our Community Connections projects, and the numbers blasted previous "legacy project" metrics to smithereens!

The projects--ranging from a 5K fun run to local tours to bike-building and toiletry-kit/school supply stuffing--brought together 487 volunteers and resulted in 125 bikes, several massive boxes of stuffed school backpacks, and more than $17,000--all for the nonprofit Midnight Mission! In previous years, ASAE averaged about 15 volunteers, who would all arrive to donate time on the Saturday before the conference started. Obviously, we've finally found the right formula that will make giving back to the host community fun, accessible, and high-impact.

Here are three cool takeaways that seem to be making the difference:

1. We added far more options. Indeed, the 5K run early on the second day of the meeting hit its limit of 100 sign-ups weeks before folks started landing at LAX airport. Eager tradeshow participants turned a wrench, steadied some screws, and did whatever else was needed to help build the first 100 bikes in the Milwaukee, Travel Portland, and Pittsburgh booths at the Expo. The remaining 25 bikes and all of the backpacks and toiletry kits were completed on Tuesday, the final day of the event. Offering multiple opportunities, pricing, and time commitments ensured that almost all attendees could do at least something to give back....

2. Which led to a happy meet-up between volunteers and the actual recipients of our efforts--the families served by Midnight Mission! Boy, if you could have seen those kids' smiles, and the energy with which they zoomed around the room on their sparkling bikes--well, that will be a strong and positive memory for everyone there. Think those folks will volunteer again? Oh, yeah. They know first-hand that they made a difference in a child's life--and plenty of parents were there to add their warm thanks as well. The same was true on the Saturday when more than 400 people were fed by our attendees at Midnight Mission. Lesson: Try to ensure face-to-face exchanges with the constituency your legacy projects are serving. And lose the polish--focus the exchange on the homeless, the hungry, or the other vulnerable people being helped by your attendees.

3. We learned that our business partners could be real leaders when it comes to good citizenship, and they can teach us a few things in this regard. The Industry Partners group of ASAE was a driving force behind several of the legacy events, such as the bike-building, and others on the tradeshow floor--such as Virginia Beach CVB with its book collection for Midnight Mission, and Rosen Hotels with its continuing donation drive for Haiti earthquake relief--came up with their own ways to help others. Thank you all!

One final point: Chris Wood, director of social responsibility and coordinator of so many of these legacy projects, and the director of Midnight Mission were so inspired by the impact of our attendees that they are working on a case study guide that will 1) help standardize the process of ASAE-charity legacy projects, 2) develop a sample case study that Midnight Mission can use to guide other associations meeting in Los Angeles, and 3) capture the lessons learned by our 2010 experience.

Again, thank you to each of the 487 people who ran, walked, gave time and money, got their hands dirty with bike grease, brought shampoo and soap, and more!

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July 27, 2010

A Passion for Business

Did anyone else happen to enjoy two articles in this week's Bloomberg Businessweek about associations? The first one is a three-page piece that uses the Romance Writers of America conference as entry into discussion of the rise of the entire "bodice rippers" book industry. I especially liked learning about how rapidly this section of the bookselling industry was being fractured into micro niches that change in a heartbeat to mimic social changes.

Uniting those splinters, though, is a larger theme noted by one of the profession's leading authors, Marie Bostwick: "There is a tremendous desire for community. Somehow in this world, where everyone is constantly communicating, people have lost real friendships."

Maybe that is why the Romance Writers of America and its conferences continue to grow as well--that desire to get together over endless cups of coffee and a common passion for, well, passion. How might the rest of us better identify and leverage the rising and falling (dare I write, heaving) of membership micro-niches that fulfill emotionally driven needs and interests of our members, rather than more reserved connections related to professional function or title?

The other Businessweek article looks not at an association so much as its leader, the new and increasingly influential association executive director, Rose Ann DeMoro. DeMoro rose to power from a supermarket cashier position in Missouri to lead the rapidly growing California Nurses Association (CNA) and--since December 2009--its evolution and merger into a 155,000-member nursing organization. This new player--called the National Nurses United--is composed of CAN CNA, United American Nurses, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and the dynamic DeMoro is fully in charge at the top.

Whether you agree or not with DeMoro's rather flamboyant style, you can't deny the heart of the article: passion. One woman's focused, determined battle to ensure that "nurses should win every battle."

That a publication dedicated to business coverage should devote six pages in its feature well to address (however indirectly) the influence of passion and community-building on the workplace was as refreshing as a dewy rose. No? Okay, strike that last phrase. I'll keep it simple: The articles are good reading for folks in every field in our sector.

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July 14, 2010

Nonprofits/Associations Helping Gulf Oil Spill Victims

While associations and nonprofits were regularly featured in the news for their efforts to help industries, professionals, and other victims after the Haiti earthquake in January, the same cannot be said for their efforts to assist those harmed by the BP (formerly British Petroleum) oil spill in the Gulf region. That doesn't mean groups aren't busy, though.

Here are a few examples of what your colleagues are doing:

Creating partnerships: The Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations hopes to "foster strategic collaboration," boost accountability, help volunteers, and "provide a unified voice for the nonprofit sector" by maintaining an online list of spill-related resources. Customers of Ratner Companies, which owns The Hair Cuttery chain, donated more than 6,000 pounds of shorn hair by Federal Express to its new partner, Matter of Trust, a nonprofit that prepares hair booms and mats to soak up oil in the Gulf region.

Providing expertise: The New Orleans Bar Association created a web page for disaster legal resources related to the Gulf Oil Spill (e.g., insurance claims, loans, health hazards, and emergency services). The American Lung Association, concerned about the respiratory impact of oil fumes and toxins on clean-up workers, sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis urging close monitoring of air pollution levels to assure that "workers near and at the spill site are properly trained, equipped with appropriate respirators and protected from dangerous air pollutants and toxics they may inhale." The American Association of Poison Control Centers developed a tipsheet for people exposed to oil, chemical dispersants, or other spill-related toxins to help protect their health. The American Veterinary Medical Association held a disaster preparedness webinar related to the Gulf for members in July.

Raising money through cause marketing: One of the most visible fundraising campaigns has been executed by Dawn dishwashing liquid, which is donating $1 up to $500,000 to the International Bird Rescue Research Center and the Marine Mammal Center from the sale of each marked bottle for wildlife cleanup. Sustainable flower company Organic Bouquet has developed a cause marketing campaign with The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation and Ocean Conservancy whereby $10 of each online purchase of flowers and gifts from a new Gulf Relief Collection goes to the charities for oil cleanup.

Offering emotional support: The American Psychological Association has released advice about how to "Manage Distress Caused by the Oil Disaster in the Gulf." Myriad groups have issued supportive press releases directed at their Gulf-area chapters and components, as well as the affected industries and professions within the region.

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May 3, 2010

3 Community Building Tips from "Lost"

I've been faithfully watching ABC's Lost for six years, wondering what is really going on. The show will wrap next month, probably leaving some unanswered questions. I've watched the plane-crash survivors and others they've encountered interact and grow, make enemies and allies, work together, and bury too many of their own.

If you're not a fan, don't stop reading - because the characters of Lost are a community just like our chapters, committees, sections and interest groups. In honor of this final season of Lost, here are three lessons to help you make the most of your communities.

1. Have some fun.

You have a chapter meeting this week. And you're dreading it. Tension lingers from some issue that took place three weeks ago. New leaders are intimidated by the former leadership, who seem to be throwing daggers. What can be done?

In season one's "Solitary," tension is high on the island, with Sawyer and Jack competing for Kate's attention and Locke practicing knife throwing. Amidst all the drama, Hurley surprises the rest of the group with a new creation: A golf course. He felt it was time for everyone to have some fun, a place to relax and enjoy themselves and a respite from the mystery of the island. Characters were laughing and reminiscing about past golf experiences in this and four more episodes.

How can you build a golf course at your chapter meeting? No need for a group outing to the green. Try getting people to talk about why and how they got involved, share stories of greatest memories or accomplishments that occurred because of their involvement. This will unite your members (plus you'll get some great testimonials).

2. Problems will strike hard and blow over quietly.

A member fails to read an email saying a meeting location has been changed. He goes to the original location and only then finds out that the meeting is another 35 minutes away. He calls you and leaves a nasty message about how irresponsible you were to not communicate the switch. He hangs up abruptly. You're left shocked.

Sounds like Lost's Smoke Monster, first seen in "Pilot, Part 1." It seemed relatively harmless at first, making noises and knocking over trees. But then it started to rack up a body count. During each encounter, islanders are frightened, confused and don't know what to expect. Then the smoke dissipates, just like, well, smoke (or Icelandic volcanic ash).

Back to your aggravated member: You wait a short while and give him a call. You apologize for his inconvenience, assure him a message was sent and confirm his email address. You vow to consider you procedures for changing meeting locations. You direct him to the website, where meeting handouts and minutes will be posted soon. He's cooled off and even appreciative. The incident came out of nowhere but ended calmly.

3. Some people will flourish in another community.

You've seen this member in multiple interest groups. She lurks on listserves, texts during meetings, and rarely interacts with others. She seems bored. Something doesn't fit.

Rose and Bernard Nadler married in the face of Rose's recent terminal cancer diagnosis. Their honeymoon trip to Australia brought them to Flight 815. Over three seasons, Rose and Bernard are separated, reunited, and build a life on the island together. By Season Four, they are quite happy as residents of the island (which has mysteriously cured Rose's cancer) and refuse to join other survivors in their attempts to leave. The island is undoubtedly the best place for Rose and Bernard.

So what about your member who is clearly Lost? (I couldn't resist.) You invite her to lunch where you get to know her better. Then it hits you: The groups she's part of don't offer the experience she's really looking for. You direct her to another community. In a short amount of time she's offering valuable ideas and making a difference. In time, she becomes a leader and a role model to others.

I started with five lessons, but cut it short. Anyone care to add a few more?

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April 16, 2010

Cooperation: Catch the fever!

Came across an interesting article about social "contagions" last week on Slate. It points to recent studies that have indicated that behaviors or qualities like smoking and drinking habits, obesity, and even loneliness can spread from one person to others (not via physical "infections," but psychologically).

They mention some positive behaviors that are contagious as well, one of them being cooperation. One study says "cooperation and 'paying it forward' by one person can infect dozens if not hundreds of people" and reach "others as far as three degrees of separation."

Some obvious implications for associations here, of course. We're in the business of moving large groups of people to action, fostering volunteering and collaboration, and so on. If cooperative behavior is indeed measurably contagious, it would behoove us all to be doctors and treat the condition in the reverse: facilitate the actions and environmental qualities that would allow cooperation to "infect" as many people as possible.

Those articles are a good read, so check them out. Here's hoping this area of study yields further conclusions that could help associations drive engagement and foster collaboration. Those of you who regularly work directly with members and volunteers, any ideas or thoughts about what methods can help the collaborative spirit go viral?

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November 4, 2009

Free attendance for first-year members?

What would happen if your association allowed first-year members to attend any and all meetings and events during their first year of membership for free?

"Bankruptcy," might come to mind, but I actually think this could be a good idea.

Last week I pointed out an article about the positive effects on communities that result from citizen involvement in government, and I drew some rather obvious parallels to member engagement and volunteerism in associations. The bottom line: social interaction leads to increased engagement in a community.

As association professionals, we all know this—feel it, even—because we've experienced so many meetings and made so many great connections and friends in our respective communities. But even so, it's hard to sell the value of that experience to anyone who isn't familiar with it. You just have to experience it yourself to understand.

So if that's the case, what's the best way to get people to try one of your meetings? Tell them it's free.

Once you get people in the door, then you let the community you've built do the work. Let first-year members experience the education sessions you offer, meet with the industry experts that you bring in, and network with all of the fellow members that are there. Chances are they'll be more likely to come to another meeting, and another. And a lot of them will be more likely to come to a meeting in their second year, even though there's a price tag, because they'll feel the intrinsic value of your community so much more clearly.

Yes, you will lose some money up front. For every new member who would have paid to attend a meeting anyway, you've lost registration fees for a year. But for every new member who wouldn't have paid to attend a meeting but does attend one for free, you haven't lost anything other than the marginal cost associated with serving an additional attendee (cost of lunch, tote bag, etc.).

However, you could stand to gain in:

  • New-member dues: Because of your "first-year free attendance" policy, you attract more new members than you would have otherwise.
  • Renewal dues: With a higher retention rate as a result of increased engagement and a larger initial base (see above point), you have more second-year members a year later.
  • Continued attendance: For each member who would have never come to a meeting but tries one out because it's free and then pays to attend one the next year, you've gained a registration fee.
  • Exhibitors: More attendees at meetings with tradeshows means a better draw for exhibitors to buy booths.
  • More non-meeting purchases: Increasingly engaged members are thirstier for knowledge, meaning they're more inclined to pay for collateral products (books, certification courses, etc.).

And these are just potential dollar gains. Any increase in member engagement also adds to the richness of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and the diversity of ideas in the community. These are harder to put dollar values on, but they're just as important.

Anyway, the free sample idea isn't revolutionary, so I'm interested to know if any association has ever tried this or anything like it. You could make any number of variations to this model (e.g. first three meetings free, first six months free, 50 percent off all registrations, etc.), though the first year free has a certain boldness to it that I like.

I'm just an editor, so there are probably a lot of gaps in this idea that I'm missing. Please let me know what they are. Tell me why this is too crazy to work.

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August 17, 2009

“Social is a way of being”

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I attended Jeff De Cagna’s session, Associations Next: Serious Questions for 2010 and Beyond this afternoon. Whenever I have the opportunity, I make it a point of attending Jeff’s presentations, which are always insightful and thought-provoking. I find that the questions he raises linger with me long after the conference is over and typically prompt rich discussions with my colleagues. This afternoon’s session was no exception.

After stepping us through a series of 6 questions that get at the heart of what it means to associate, govern, and innovate in the web-enabled 21st century, he asked us to spend 10 minutes brainstorming radically different approaches to our association work. What would make the biggest potential impact, even if it meant making our CEOs, boards, and even ourselves very uncomfortable?

Several of the suggestions that came back were so intriguing, I thought I’d share a few of them here:

- One table suggested making membership completely free (we don’t control the network any longer, so why try to make it into a commodity?). Charge a fair-market price for the professional content that is currently packaged with membership and remove the barriers to the conversation. Then the members of our networks who are truly engaged and truly do contribute to the conversation will be able to join without barriers, making the conversation richer for all. (Any association that has opted for open, publicly accessible social media groups understands the value of this free association and not trying so hard to control the message or limit the participants.)

- Another table suggested crowdsourcing our next annual meetings. Empower the community to make the best decisions on its own behalf and deliver a meeting that is exactly what our attendees want. (NTEN, an association I’ve long admired, successfully structures its annual meeting this way, and their conference is consistently an audience favorite.)

- Another group suggested making board service based not on fixed terms, but on best ideas. Decide who remains on the board based upon record of service, innovation, and follow through. Those who aren’t contributing to the conversation could be voted off the island, a la Survivor. (I happened to be sitting in this session with the president of our board, and this suggestion was major fodder for conversation back at the hotel tonight!)

My brain is still buzzing with these ideas and Jeff’s many good questions, and I can’t wait to get back to my own association to continue this conversation with the rest of my team. How could a radically different ISTE better support and shape the conversation for our members and other educators?

What radical idea will you bring back to your organization at the end of this week? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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July 24, 2009

Are you making it easy for your members to volunteer?

It’s safe to say that many (if not most) associations are struggling with two realities these days: attracting younger members and engaging members as volunteers. The old understandings about joining an association and serving in a committee or leadership structure aren’t foregone conclusions the way they once were. This is particularly true for younger workers who want flexibility, recognition, and interesting work from the get go, and may not instantly “get” the value proposition that a professional association brings.

We know that volunteers are more likely to renew, attend annual meetings, and engage more deeply with our organizations, so we have a vested interest in structuring successful volunteer programs. But what are we doing to respond to these new realities? Though many associations have made concerted efforts to attract younger, more diverse volunteers through outreach and marketing campaigns, the single thing that could make the biggest impact may be thinking differently about the volunteer opportunities we offer.

ASAE’s Decision to Volunteer describes typical barriers to volunteering, among them: inconvenient location, not offering short-term assignments, the volunteer opportunity costing the volunteer money (due to travel or other unreimbursed expenses), and not offering virtual opportunities.

Think about your own association’s typical volunteer roles, and answer the following questions:

• Are most of our volunteer opportunities within multiyear committee or officer structures?
• Do we require face-to-face travel or engagement for the majority of our roles?
• How many project-based or short-term assignments are available?
• Do we offer virtual, asynchronous ways to volunteer?

A solution that addresses many of these barriers may lie in your association’s social media strategy. There are numerous ways that short-term, virtual, convenient assignments can be crafted within the tools you’re already using to build community or communicate. Here are a few options that have worked well for us:

• Leading month-long book club discussions on our wiki or Ning
• Serving as organizational “docents” in Second Life
• Greeting new members of our Ning every few days for a month
• Short-term guest blogging
• Offering an informal “UStream” live event about a particular topic

All of these options allowed us to tap into our members’ expertise and provided opportunities that were exciting and rewarding. In some cases, these short-term assignments have been the gateway for a particular volunteer to serve in longer term volunteer assignments (such as a Special Interest Group officer or board committee member). In all cases, it brought the member closer to our organization, fulfilled an identified need, and diversified our volunteer pool.

What are some ways that you are creating opportunities that make it easy for your members to volunteer?

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May 28, 2009

Community at ISTE, part II

(This is the second part of a two-part interview with Jennifer Ragan-Fore, director of new media and member communities at ISTE. Part I of our interview is here.)

Have you had any situations where an early, prominent volunteer who was instrumental in bringing a community together is now transitioning out of that community?

Interestingly enough, we’re in the middle of doing that right now. It’s someone who’s been instrumental, both in helping us set up our volunteer programs and also in some of our professional development sessions that we’ve offered in our Second Life community. He’s an early adopter, and he’s ready to move on to some other technologies—which doesn’t mean that he won’t continue to be involved with ISTE, but he’s just ready to move on to other opportunities.

I think that’s one of those things that sometimes makes people very nervous, but you just have to be cognizant going in that part of the opportunity in being able to offer these kinds of informal volunteer roles means that people are going to drop in and drop out. It’s not as tidy as, say, being in a professional interest section, where we say, “Your term is a year and then you can re-up at the end of that year.” You may have a volunteer say (at a very unfortunate time), “You know, I need to step back from this, because this is going on in my life.” You have to be aware of that and have some plans in place for it.

That’s part of the beauty of being able to offer these opportunities, though: People understand that they can sign on for a short period of time and then go do something else that interests them, and they don’t feel like they’re letting anyone down. It’s much easier to get a potential volunteer involved these days if they don’t feel like they’re signing over the next three years of their lives in order to commit.

Are you doing anything with the early adopters as they move out?

We try to give them different and new opportunities, not always with the same tool or community. We’ve had a strong group within Second Life, and it’s opened up so many opportunities there that we could juggle [early adopters] around if they were still interested in Second Life as a tool. This is the first time we’re coming to the point where people are saying “OK, what else is out there?” So we’re trying to find different ways to engage these volunteers.

One of the things we’ve just done internally is to form a social media steering committee that has representation from all the different departments within our organization, and then a larger stakeholder group that meets a little bit less regularly but is even more broadly based. We’re going to be adding members into those groups, to give us some added perspective, and it will be some of these first-mover, early adopters who can help us really strategize. What are the tools our members are using? What are the things we should be adopting? I think there are many leadership roles they can play.

Is there anything we haven’t discussed that has been critical to ISTE’s success with building member communities?

I think the biggest thing has been the volunteer piece. If you’re successful in using any of these Web 2.0, social media tools, you have to have a base of members who are actively engaged and feel ownership—people who can be your evangelists and who can put in the hours that are going to be required to jump-start the community. You have to create engagement opportunities. You can’t just set up a tool and hope that the community is going to know what to do with that tool. You have to have some people who are willing to put some skin in the game.

Any success we’ve had with this has really been about the core group of volunteers who have been willing to not just help us staff it and improve it and think about what else we should be doing, but also who will go out there and talk about it and be very authentic about why it’s a good thing. I think if you have the organization saying “This is a cool tool you should be using,” and you don’t have that group of really delighted members who are out there saying it themselves, it’s hard to gain traction and momentum.

I think that’s the biggest thing: Start with the members, continue with the members, finish with the members. It starts with having that core group of people who are so excited about it that you don’t even have to do marketing for it. It’s them out there getting their networks excited about it. And then you can pick those threads up when it becomes a little bit more mainstream and your marketing message already has really great results built in.

(If you’re interested in more of Jennifer’s thoughts on building member communities, she has a great slide deck available on Slideshare. She'll also be speaking at the ASAE & The Center Annual Meeting this August on volunteerism and Web 2.0.)

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Community at ISTE (part I)

Our final interview in this month’s “community” series on Acronym is with Jennifer Ragan-Fore, director of new media and member communities for ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education. Jennifer has spent several years working with volunteers and other ISTE staff to develop member communities in Second Life and elsewhere online. I had the opportunity to talk to her about that experience and what she’s learned from it—and she gave me so many good answers I’m splitting it into two posts.

What were some of your goals when you first set out to build up ISTE’s member communities?

Initially, one of our big goals was to reach out to a younger demographic. I think this is generally a goal for most associations right now, but it’s especially true for our association—our core base of members are the first-mover technologists from the late 1970s and early 1980s who are now starting to retire. We have a big directive to infuse the association with younger generations of members as more and more of our members retire.

We thought, as we were starting these initiatives, that we would be reaching the under-35 crowd. We were sort of surprised to find that we weren’t necessarily doing that. The people who were embracing tools like Second Life and Facebook were a little bit younger than our general demographic, but not significantly younger—people in their 40s and 50s. We were a little surprised by that, but we ran with it, and it’s been a great value-add to our existing member benefits. And we continue to use other strategies to reach out to that younger demographic now.

Were there other things that surprised you as you started and continued the effort to build member communities at ISTE?

So much of our activity, like a lot of associations, is centered around the single face-to-face opportunity at our annual meeting. We were pleasantly surprised that there really was an interest and a need out there in the membership to contribute throughout the year—not just show up and help with events, but actually to be able to engage in a deep way and do it on a regular basis throughout the year.

Are there any new challenges that you’re facing now that these communities are maturing?

I think a challenge with any virtual community like these is that once you get to a certain point, the community becomes a lot more mainstream. And with an influx of new members, the initial core group of people can feel a little lost in the shuffle, where once they were a small, cohesive group.

When you start out with a smaller group—maybe a few dozen growing into a few hundred—it’s a very insular kind of community. And it’s really desirable to that group, I think, to know everyone there. As it grows, it’s not necessarily the same faces every time. There’s sort of a rebalancing at that point, and you try to figure out how to gain equilibrium as a community, because not everyone is known in the same way. It also means that you have to set up more structure with community rules, and you may not know every single personality at play. It does take it out of the grassroots level. You just have to make it a little more structured, but at the same time, also figure out how to retain the grassroots feel even while you’re setting up these structures.

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May 21, 2009

New thinking about community

We continue our theme of exploring ideas around the concept of community with a brief email interview with one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Seth Godin. If you have missed it (and believe me, you’ve missed something if you have) do yourself a favor and become a religious reader of his blog. He will help you think about things in new ways, I guarantee it.

Me: Let’s say I work at a nonprofit and am charge of a community of specialists within a profession. Once highly active and engaging, this group has stagnated, it still has a number of participants, but it lacks the energy it once had. How do I know if I’m in a dip or if I need to bail?

Godin: It lacks the energy because you're not going anywhere. Is there a mission? A status quo worth fighting? Are there leaders with something at stake, or connections that matter?

In my experience, there are too many associations that exist to pay the staff.

(Scott here – ouch! But think about that statement some. I think there’s probably more truth to it than we’d ever like to admit.)

Me: A typical association: My program is a cul de sac (going around in circles), problem is, there’s a few important people who think it’s critical for my organization. I’ve tried to quit the program before, but am told its political. How do I navigate these politics and keep my job?

Godin: What makes it political? If you shut it down, who would suffer? What would you invent to take its place? It's probably political because there isn't a better alternative. Invent that first, and then see what happens.

Me: There are tons of ways for an organization to muck things up and kill community, but in what ways can organizations act as catalysts for community creation and involvement?

Godin: As I mentioned earlier, the juicier your goal, the more imminent it feels, the easier it is to build community.

Me: If you think of the communities you’ve engaged in – what, besides the topic, attracted you to participate?

Godin: Way more than the topic, the two things are: the people and the velocity of movement.

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May 14, 2009

Building and sustaining community

Last week, we took a look at some of Clay Shirky's thoughts on community. This week, we're continuing our exploration of the "community" theme with a conversation with Maddie Grant and Lindy Dreyer of SocialFish.

Maddie and Lindy have demonstrated their community-building talents in a number of ways--through YAP, their contributions to the Association Social Media Wiki, and through their own blogs and their active and enthusiastic participation in the association blogging community. They're also currently writing a book on building community, so I wanted to take this opportunity to pick their brains about that very topic.

How do you define “community”?

Lindy: When people bond together over a shared interest, they form community. Community is a complex matrix of adjacent and overlapping relationships. Community has gravity. The more massive the group, the bigger the pull. The closer the relationships, the tighter the bond.

Can a community be built from the ground up, or does community develop organically?

Maddie: Yes and yes! You need both forces at work. The key driver to building community is passion. When you hear about a community that develops organically, you're actually hearing about a community that was built from the ground up by a group of passionate people. In our work with clients who are building community online, every successful community has at its core a small group of tireless champions--usually a mix of members, staff, and even stakeholders from outside the organization.

In building or growing a new community, what are the roles of the community builders, versus community members?

Maddie: New communities need people in three important roles--builders/managers, members, and champions.

The first role you mentioned--the community builders or community managers--are the people who are defining the space, setting the tone, and hosting the party, so to speak. In the association context, this is likely a staff role. A great community builder knows when to get involved to settle a dispute or stoke a conversation, and when to get out of the way and let others in the community take center stage.

The second role you mentioned--the community members--really define their own role. Their engagement levels will ebb and flow, where they will dip in and out of the space as they choose. Some will become champions, others will only participate temporarily, and that's OK. This is their space to do with as they please, so long as they adhere to the community's core values and culture.

The third role--community champions--are the community members who are so passionate they take the lead. The community champions have an important bridging role between the community builders and the community members.

What do you think are the secrets to building a sustainable community—one that will last for the long haul? (On a related note, do you feel sustainability is always an important goal for community builders to have?)

Maddie: Many communities form to tackle a specific task or issue. Once solved, the community happily dissolves. So no, sustainability is not always an important goal. That said, for an association to be sustainable, its community must be sustainable

Lindy: One secret: All community forms in small groups. This is something that Peter Block covers well in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging. Large communities have a large number of small, tightly bonded groups. And within those groups, there are connectors who bond the small groups to other small groups. I think it's easy, as association executives, to gloss over the needs of the small groups in favor of the big picture, and the big picture is very important, so I get it. But when it comes to building community, the small group IS the big picture.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think is important to think about when you’re thinking about building community?

Maddie: Many associations are actually quite accomplished at building community, at least in real life. But we're way behind in establishing ourselves as community builders online. (Which is actually related to another secret to success--reinforce online connections through offline events and vice versa.) There's a difference between having an "online community," versus having a community online. You can buy the tool, but not the relationships.

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May 7, 2009

Shirky: Associations must be the broker of connections

Community is one of those words that an old journalism professor of mine told me to never use because it doesn't mean anything. Or, more to the point, it can mean about 100 different things depending on context, so you should always find a more specific word to use.

Well, Acronym is going to focus on community this month anyway, and we'll embrace it for all its different meanings.

First up is some keen insight from Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and a Thought Leader at the 2009 Annual Meeting & Expo this August. He spoke at the Digital Now conference in April, and I had the good fortune to pick his brain for about 30 minutes. He offered some great thoughts on how community is evolving for associations.

On gathering people around knowledge:

"With this forwarding and forwarding and forwarding possibility, the ability of organizations to use what they have and know as kind of bright, shiny objects to attract the population they'd like to be serving or addressing—whether it's their own members or potential members, or even just the sort of penumbra of interested people—means that anyplace you can get sharing to happen at low enough cost and high enough redistribution value, there's a model available now that didn't used to be available." 

On the survival of conferences and meetings:

"If I want information about a Cisco product, I'm so much better off getting it from Cisco's [web]site than I am going to a conference and hearing about it. The reason to go to a conference is to be around the other people. ... The conference business that struggled ... were the ones that assumed that a conference business was basically a way of broadcasting information to a passive audience. And the conference businesses that have done well are the ones that say, 'You're going to be in a room of people you'll be glad to be in a room with, and in the design of the conference we're going to respect that by carving out some space for you all to create value for each other.'"

On connecting your audience members to each other:

"When an association can broker introductions or can create a way that people can have conversations around shared interests ... you [the association] can benefit from that, but not if you imagine that you can control it or that you can decide whether or not [the converstation] is going to happen."

On member engagement:

"It's not clear that getting more of those mailbox members in should be a first-order goal. ... Wikipedia's ability to deliver value to people who have never and will never participate is a big part of the success of Wikipedia. ... So, the question isn't about 'How do we get everybody to participate?' You can, but what a nightmare that would be. The question is, 'How do we get enough people participating so that it ... raises the value of the organization for the whole group?'" 

With those wise words to set the stage, what does community mean to your association, and what will it mean in five, 10, or 20 years? Keep an eye out here on Acronym throughout the month of May for more thoughts on community.

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