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September 26, 2012

Two associations go with tiered memberships

In the last two months, two national associations have unveiled new membership models that rely on a range of options as a core selling point.

  • On August 1, AIGA (once the American Institute of Graphic Arts) announced a new membership structure with five levels ranging in price from $50 to $2,500 per year.
  • On September 5, the American Alliance of Museums announced a new structure with three membership levels and six staff-size sub-levels ranging from "pay what you can" to $5,000 per year. (The change also coincided with a name change from "Association" to "Alliance.")

The rule of thumb is that two is a coincidence and three is a trend, so these might not reflect any major trends in associations. (Though now I'm curious if ASAE or anyone else has any benchmarking data on membership structures with tiers; I'll have to dig and perhaps follow up in a later post.) Nonetheless, there are some interesting common themes between these two recent revamps.

Broader inclusion. Both organizations cite the need to cast a wider net in diversifying industries, to expand beyond the traditional professionals to allow engagement among a wider variety of interested stakeholders.

  • AIGA CEO Richard Grefé writes, "The expectations of designers have broadened in recent decades, as have the range of design disciplines and practices. … AIGA has always adapted to the interests of the profession, and is now shifting to a model that makes membership more accessible, increasing participation while providing opportunities for those who value AIGA's role in the advancement of design to make a stronger financial contribution. A larger and more diverse membership makes AIGA's collective voice stronger and more compelling."
  • AAM explains, "… we came to believe that 'association' did not represent what we wanted to be as an organization, nor did it represent what the museum field needed us to be—an inclusive, collaborative organization prepared to work with museum professionals and volunteers, with those who do business with museums, and with those who just love museums. We wanted to be a good partner with other museum-related organizations and to help unify the field on behalf of the cause of museums. 'Alliance' describes the ideal role for this organization to play."

More choices. From those motivating factors, it's easy to see why they chose tiered memberships. Greater diversity in your industry means a broader mix of involvement and interest levels and thus demands a wider variety of membership choices to meet it. Conveniently, both AIGA and AAM provide a handy table of membership levels and benefits for potential members to examine their options.

Two weeks ago here on Acronym I asked whether associations should focus on smaller niches, welcome the masses, or try to serve both with tiered memberships. The answer might be different for every association, but these two are clearly hoping to broaden their bases while continuing to serve their most highly engaged members.

If you know of other associations that have recently adopted tiered membership structures, please share.

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September 11, 2012

Big and niche

A few weeks ago, I watched the first 45 minutes or so of the movie 2012. My only takeaway from that experience is that it was really important to not ask questions about the science. The world was ending, and it didn't matter why. People just needed to run like hell.

Sometimes I feel the same way about the imminent doom of associations. The world is changing! Associations are doomed! Run!

I don't doubt the need to change. The world is indeed changing fast, and associations must follow suit. I feel that in my gut. But a lot of times I don't know exactly why or which way we should be running.

The threats to the traditional association model that we should be running away from (or toward) seem to be coming from multiple directions. Consider these two recent blog posts:

  • In early August, Maggie McGary highlighted the niche community at socialmedia.org for big-brand social media pros. The concierge-level group costs $10,000 a year to join and promises a vendor-free environment, an exclusive online community, and VIP service for members. Maggie rightly suggests that this type of highly focused, premium-service community in any field could be a threat to traditional associations or at least an alternative model to consider.
  • Last week, Joshua Paul pointed out that associations are losing their claim to representing whole industries (if they ever really had it), citing a case of political talking heads dismissing the American Medical Association as not representing the whole physician community. Josh suggests that associations could broaden their membership base (and thus their lobbying clout) through virtual memberships that would appeal to rank-and-file industry members.

On their own, each of these posts makes a compelling argument for action, but taken together they raise a tough dilemma: Is the future of the association model more niche or more broad? Deeper or wider? Customized solutions for a few or scalable solutions for the masses? This is a case when I'm glad I'm just a guy who writes about this stuff rather than the executive who has to make the decision.

There are a lot of options. Associations could go big or go niche, they could aim for a happy medium, or they could try to encompass both ends of the spectrum with tiered levels of membership and service.

You might have strong opinions on which of these models would be most viable (which you should share in the comments below), but for any particular association, the decision likely depends on its own mission, strategic priorities, and market conditions. So, the most important steps may just be to get clarity on those before charting a course forward—to ask a lot of questions about the science that drives change for your association. That process might not make for a good movie, but it could be a good way to ward off impending doom.

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August 14, 2012

What if you had at least one member in every staff meeting?

danpinkasae12.jpg

Author Dan Pink closed ASAE's 2012 Annual Meeting & Expo with advice for association executives now that we're all in sales.

He called sales a natural human endeavor and "something we can do better by being more human." His message was a preview of his forthcoming book, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, and he emphasized a new set of skills for "non-sales selling," most notably attunement to the perspectives of the people you're trying to influence.

Pink recommended association executives follow the lead of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who pulls an empty chair into staff meetings to represent the customer. The "pull up a chair" exercise provides a visual reminder for staff and helps them be better attuned to the needs of the customer in any given project.

That's a great idea that associations could adopt, but there's no reason the chair has to be empty. Instead of having an imaginary member in every staff meeting at your association, why not have a real member in every meeting?

At some small-staff associations that are largely volunteer driven, this might already be the case, but for any association with enough staff to have staff-only meetings, adding one member would shift the dynamic in the room toward better serving member needs.

Pink said the new era of sales is one in which information asymmetry has given way to information parity: the buyer has just as much information as the seller, and it's the seller's job to understand how he or she can serve the buyer.

Maybe the logistics of getting a member into every staff meeting at your association would be prohibitive, but if you can make a habit of bringing members in more often, at least, you'll better reflect the dynamic of information parity, and you'll be better attuned to what members need.

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August 13, 2012

The board doesn't understand

Yesterday, Rick Johnston asked why associations aren't digging deeper into business intelligence, and he suggested that uninterested boards might be part of the problem.

That sentiment was echoed during conversations in Sunday's "Under the Membership Tent: Executive Session" Learning Lab at ASAE's 2012 Annual Meeting & Expo. One participant said her biggest challenge in managing member data is getting funding approval from her board for upgrading the association management system. In short, boards don't understand data management.

I have two reactions to this:

  1. "No doubt." I'm sure every membership professional can relate. It's hard enough to understand all the intricacies and capabilities of an AMS as a staffer who works in it every day. Trying to explain it to volunteers is a chore. But …
  2. Whose fault is it if the board can't see the value of an enhanced AMS? That responsibility has to fall back to the staff. It's not the board's job to already understand data management. It's their job to hire people who do.

Fortunately, one of the session content leaders, Laurie Kulikosky, CAE, director, strategic development, at the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, offered her experience: She said she spent close to a year interviewing staff about what they'd like to see in a potential new AMS. Then she presented that info to her board. She told them, "Here are all the amazing things we'd like to do, and here's why we can't do it."

Data management and business intelligence are, unfortunately, just not very shiny. They're complicated. Numbers scare people. The power of data is enormous, but it doesn't get the glory that other technological endeavors get these days. So find a way to make it shine.

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August 6, 2012

Why membership is not killing associations

The following is a guest post from Rob Pitzer, founder and president of Pitzer Research & Analysis. Rob has 15 years experience in membership- and subscription-based organizations and is making his first foray into the association blogging community with a response to a recent series of blog posts from Jeff De Cagna.

I read Jeff De Cagna's three-part series, "Five reasons membership is killing association business models" (here, here, and here), with great interest. As always, Jeff is provocative, and thinking about the issues he raised forced me to drill down and examine some basic assumptions. Before I address his arguments, let's look at those assumptions:

In virtually every association, the membership has a strong say in the direction of the organization, and it exists primarily to serve the personal or professional needs of the membership. These are essentially the defining criteria of a membership organization.

Somewhat confusingly, virtually all associations also have membership programs, through which members are acquired, serviced, satisfied, and renewed. The expenses associated with those programs must be offset by the revenue they produce, or they might be subsidized by other activities within the organization.

Importantly, having a membership program does not make you a membership organization! In fact, at its core, an association's membership program is not fundamentally different than a magazine subscription, a Friends of the Arts program, or membership at a golf club—they all rely on acquiring, servicing, satisfying, and renewing the member within the constraining economics of the parent organization. Where they differ is in the motivation of the member, the goals of the organization, marketing messages, and the benefits they provide.

Turning to Jeff's specific arguments (summarized here for space):

1. Membership-centric business models organize all value around the membership relationship. NEW DESIGN APPROACH: 21st century association business models must focus on creating radical new value instead of on membership.

2. Membership-centric business models tend to focus on association outputs instead of stakeholder outcomes. NEW DESIGN APPROACH: In designing 21st century business models, association leaders must pay much closer attention to the kind of people their current and future stakeholders wish to become, and the things they wish to achieve in their lives.

These are valid concerns and are related to the difference between offerings and benefits. Over time, association outputs take on lives of their own and their original intent—satisfying the needs of members and providing value to attract new members—becomes obscured. It is critical to periodically review offerings to judge effectiveness and conduct research with current and prospective members to learn how needs are shifting.

However, there is nothing inherent in either membership organizations or membership programs to prevent this review and research from happening. In fact, to the degree that an association is unable to offer enough value to convince people to join, that association will most likely cease to exist.

3. Membership-centric business models often depend on cross-subsidies that create unintended consequences. NEW DESIGN APPROACH: The priority for associations, then, is to design business models that can generate meaningful revenue streams based on the creation of new value with transformative potential for their future stakeholders.

5. Membership-centric business models require a significant investment of human effort for an insufficient return. NEW DESIGN APPROACH:  The work of business model innovation offers associations an opportunity to reconsider the narrow focus on membership in favor of more open and inclusive approaches to new value creation.

These two items are related. In many associations, donor or industry support does in fact subsidize the membership program rather than the organization itself, and there are associations where the time and money spent on the membership program is not justified by the return. However, these are driven either by a failure to understand the economics of the association's membership program or by policy decisions to operate the membership program at a loss to serve some greater purpose. Unfortunately, in my experience, it's too often the former, with stakeholders focusing on the number of members rather than the financial results of the program over time.

Thus, it's critical that organizations understand how acquisition and servicing expenses interact with membership and other revenue, renewal rates, and the breakeven period so they can determine whether membership is net positive or negative financially. An association can decide in advance what level of return or required subsidy it expects from membership, but doing so does not require killing off or deemphasizing membership.

There's also nothing to prevent associations from offering no- or low-cost memberships and adopting a more inclusive, less formal view of membership in the event they are able to create the radical value Jeff suggests. After all, many associations currently subsidize the membership program as a policy decision.

4. Membership-centric business models ask members to make the most important decisions about new value creation. NEW DESIGN APPROACH: associations need a rapid learning approach to strategy-making, such as crowdsourcing.

Jeff accurately identifies a real problem in associations: Too often strategic decision-making is handled by an unrepresentative slice of the membership. But there's nothing about membership that prevents greater inclusiveness. Rather, crowdsourcing with both members and nonmembers is a great way to engage all stakeholders and can lead to strengthened relationships with both groups.

In summary, while I couldn't agree more with Jeff's diagnosis of some key problems in the association world, I disagree with his prescription that  membership is fundamentally flawed and needs to be re-imagined. It just needs to be done correctly.

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July 31, 2012

The Decision to Kick the Tires Before Joining

Tracie Powell's post yesterday at the journalism website Poynter.org is essential reading for any association executive who wants a better grasp on how potential members---especially younger potential members---decide to join.

Powell's story is a common one. When she started out as a reporter, her employer carried the freight of her dues and convention fees. But the recession whipsawed an already crippled journalism industry, so she had to decide which memberships were worth paying for. Where once she was a member of five organizations, now she's involved with just two. As she and her sources point out, joining an association is "a combination of head and heart"---the organization has to reflect the member's passion for the industry, but it also has to be more capable than ever at providing the tools to advance a member's career.

So far, so familiar. What's less talked about, I think, is Powell's observation that associations in similar industries may have a coordination problem. The variety of journalism associations means that there are lots of journalism-association meetings that risk overlapping. Do association leaders think about how their conference schedule effects members who might also attend a related organization's event? Or is it easier to think that you operate without competition? Powell notes that a couple of associations have joined forces in response, combining their conferences to share knowledge in similar industries, avoid gumming up member schedules, and increase their bargaining power with hotels.

The end of Powell's post includes a bullet list of recommendations for would-be association members, and it's interesting in that it assumes they'll be comparison shopping. Powell recommends members talk to association leaders, check to see how fresh the website content is, compare dues and fees to related organizations, and more. How prepared is your organization for that kind of scrutiny?

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June 29, 2012

Aiming for the wrong goals

Here's a list of words that sound great but are extraneous to your mission: first, most, fastest, tallest, biggest, loudest, easiest.

These words can be distracting. You see them often on trophies and blue ribbons and press releases. But they're superficial, especially for a mission-driven organization.

Thursday around 10 a.m. eastern time, major media outlets were reporting the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act. They all wanted to be first. They wanted it bad. So much so that some of them even got it dead wrong. And they even nitpicked over who was first by mere seconds.

Later in the day, American Journalism Review's Rem Rieder asked the right question: Who cares?

"[T]here's no doubt the scoop is a time-honored tradition in journalism. Breaking a big story is a big deal. … But worrying about being first on reporting something that is handed to you and everyone else? By 24 seconds? To borrow the Gail Collinsism, I think I speak for everyone when I say, it's really not important. Worse than that, it's dangerous."

This is a prime example of forgetting what matters most. Or not noticing when what matters most changes. For media in the age of Twitter, chasing breaking news is a fool's errand; it's harder than ever to do, and the returns for doing it are less than ever. Time does not honor traditions forever.

Associations can heed an important lesson here. Don't get lost in the traditional metrics: more members, more attendees, more web visits, more ads, and so on. These can all be indicators of success, but they're not goals on their own. If your mission is to advance your profession or effect some specific social change, you have to decide first whether more members will help you reach that goal. In some cases, it might not. A relentless focus on more members or more attendees could lead to results that undermine your mission. Do you have the resources to support more members? Do all those new attendees have interests and needs different from what you're able to provide?

Focus first on what matters most: your mission. Then act in alignment with those goals. Most, first, and fastest won't always be what gets you there.

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June 8, 2012

Is Polling Still Worth It?

I feel like I've been buried in poll numbers even more than usual, from Wisconsin governor recall results to public confidence in the economy to American Idol. But are polls really trustworthy anymore, when you have one-third of the public living cell-phone-only and most of the rest using caller ID on land-lines to help them avoid any surveys, even when they support the cause or campaign (guilty as charged!)?

Because so many associations poll members and potential members on everything from dues raises to advocacy positions, I turned to the man who knows more than almost anyone about the veracity and challenges of accurate polling: Bill McInturff, co-founder & partner, Public Opinion Strategies.

Bill, who is speaking today as part of the "Decision 2012" General Session at the ASAE Financial and Business Operations Conference, leads--along with partner Peter D. Hart--the largest polling company in the country, Public Opinion Strategies. The firm handles polling for NBC News/Wall Street Journal and works closely on polling challenges with the two primary industry associations, the Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASR) and American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).

"You can believe poll results but still have dwindling confidence," he told me. "There's no question that with the glut of polling, credibility is a little lower, because people are hearing wider, more diverse results of what different polls are saying. And there's no question that the basic confidence they have in polling is very different than it was 20 to 40 years ago. They're certainly asking more questions about methodology.

Despite those troubles, "if it's done correctly, it's still broadly accurate," Bill says. "It's still the best way to collect customer and other information about public opinion, and people don't tire of needing that information."
It will cost them more, though, to get it. According to Bill, the price of polling has risen for three reasons: (1) "federal laws and mandates dictate that you cannot use auto-dialers for cell phone numbers--you have to call cell phones by hand; (2) cooperation rates are much lower, so you have to call more people to get a completed survey; and (3) you have to collect the data ... using increased labor costs."

To better ensure poll veracity, Bill--who was the lead pollster for John McCain during the latter's 2008 presidential bid--advises associations to "be good consumers and make sure you go through a discussion with the pollster about methodology," asking about compensation rates for cell-phone-only or other respondents, how the "convenience factor" of women answering the phone more than men is handled, and how the data have been weighted and by how much.

I'll be writing a second blog post shortly that shares Bill's responses on whether associations can trust that the viewpoints of respondents reflect those of non-respondents as well, the potential for social media to offer new surveying opportunities, and more. I invite comments about your own association's successes or challenges when polling. And maybe you can snag Bill after the session to get more of his input, too. Thanks, Bill, for sharing your insights so generously at this busy time!

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May 23, 2012

A source of must-have solutions

Sarah Sladek

Day 1 of ASAE's 2012 Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference in Washington, DC, started off with a look at how the membership value proposition is changing (or has already) for associations. In her opening general session, Sarah Sladek, author of The End of Membership As We Know It, told attendees that associations must create a "must-have" membership. "Nice to have is not enough," she said.

Sladek (pictured above) points to the generational shift from a belief in conformity (among baby boomers) to a belief in individuality (among genrations X and Y) as one of the driving forces behind the declining success of traditional membership tactics. Today, new generations of members will only join when they see how an association can solve a problem for them, and they won't renew if they aren't finding solutions.

Connecting members with those solutions came up as a key challenge during the first round of Learning Labs. In "Conversation that Matters: VPs of Marketing," I listened as a group of association marketing professionals discussed how to better connect members (and potential members) with the knowledge from the association and the community that is the most valuable and relevant to them.

In the course of conversation, the eternal question of what knowledge should be open to the public and what should be members-only came up, and it was suggested that an association's marketing department ought to have a keen enough understanding of the association's members and audience to know what knowledge resources are valuable enough to be members-only and what resources are better suited as free, open attention getters.

That role stands out to me as one of the most important roles an association's marketing department can serve today, especially in light of Sladek's emphasis on membership value lying in the ability to solve problems. At one point Sladek asked attendees, "What would happen if your association disappeared tomorrow? Would anyone care?" Obviously, if no one would care, that's a problem for you. But if your association disappeared and suddenly your members had specific problems they could no longer solve on their own, that will point to the value of membership. So, in determining which knowledge resources fall on which side of the membership wall, the question "Does this knowledge solve a problem for our members?" can be a valuable guide. Is it "must-have" knowledge, or is it just nice to have?

Stay tuned here on Acronym for more from MMCC, and follow the conversation on Twitter via the #MMCCon12 hashtag. And for more from Sarah Sladek, see:

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May 8, 2012

Neglecting a Big Slice of Potential Membership

Today we're pleased to welcome Acronym guest poster Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University and author of The End of Membership as We Know It (ASAE Press). Sladek will be the Opening General Session speaker at the ASAE Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference, held May 23-24 in Washington, DC. In this post, Sladek discusses the urgent need to attract members of generations X and Y to associations.

Membership associations are a lot like pizza parlors.

I read somewhere that three-fourths of Americans like pizza. Likewise, most Americans belong to a membership association. (However, if you're among the one-fourth of Americans who don't like pizza, bear with me. I do have a point to make here.)

For a really long time, associations have been serving pizza. In other words, associations have mastered how to deliver products, services, and events that really appeal to one audience in particular.

The baby boomers love the pizza that associations serve up, and in most cases they are the ones frequenting the pizza parlors and eating all the pizza, as well as managing the pizza-making process and restaurant operations, and possibly even making the pizza themselves!

Now you have people coming into your restaurant asking what else is available. Maybe they don't like pizza. Maybe they're hoping your association will offer something else in addition to pizza.

These new consumers tend to be younger. Their unique interests, needs, wants, and expectations have left some boomers thinking these consumers are self-centered, demanding, and foolish for wanting something other than the fantastic pizza they've made.

Suddenly, as the owner of the pizza parlor, your association has a mess on its hands. Your new customers are storming off in frustration while management complains that new customers are needed but they certainly aren't serving anything other than pizza.

So what does your association do? Do you stop serving pizza altogether? Or do you continue to serve only pizza?

Neither.

Your pizza parlor should continue producing its great pizza and recruit these new consumers to come in and help your association master making some new foods, too.

If your association expects to grow membership, it can't abandon its traditions. But it also can't ignore the opportunity to introduce new members to new members benefits and marketing strategies.

The U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics both predict that by 2015 baby boomers will cede the majority of the workforce to generation Y. It will be the largest shift in human capital in history.

Yet most membership associations remain almost entirely governed and supported by the baby boom generation. If we take an honest look at membership we can see that most associations are still struggling to engage generation X (currently ages 30-46), much less generation Y (ages 16-29)!

Can you fathom the world being dominated by people in their 20s and early 30s? The baby boom generation has been in power for so long, it's difficult to imagine our corporations, government, schools, nonprofits, and just about every industry out there being influenced by other generations.

And if gen Ys aren't already highly engaged in your association, do you have a plan for engaging them within the next four years? You can't keep your pizza parlor intact and expect to miraculously build a membership monopoly that engages younger generations. It won't happen.

So take off your apron, roll up your sleeves, and let's get started on building a highly successful, multigenerational membership monopoly.

Step 1: Understand Generational Differences

Many association executives make the mistake of thinking that younger generations just aren't joining their association because they haven't grown into it yet. "Just give it time," they say. "Soon they'll have more interest in their community/more money/more responsibility/more something and they will want to join."

And to these associations I say, "Don't hold your breath."

Think about it. We're all a little more footloose and fancy-free in our twenties. As we age, we gain more wisdom and responsibility, get tired more easily, and approach life very differently. The behavioral differences between a 20-year-old and 60-year-old are age differences.

However, the decision to join an association (or not to join) isn't an age difference. It's a generational difference.

Just take a look at generation X---its oldest members are 46 and associations are still struggling to engage them. This generation is nearing middle-age and they still aren't "joiners"!

The decision to join an association isn't something you grow into alongside mortgage payments and diaper changing. The decision to join isn't the result of wisdom or maturity; it's rooted in our most basic needs and wants.

If younger generations aren't joining your association, there's a reason. It has absolutely nothing to do with their immaturity and everything to do with your association's inability to deliver value to them.

As I mentioned above in the pizza parlor example, your association is likely managed, supported, and frequented by baby boomers. That would mean baby boomers are your association's target market.

This is all fine and good, but if you want your association to grow and sustain, your target market needs to shift to generations X and Y---and these generations want their memberships to provide them with ample opportunities to learn, lead, and make a difference.

Step 2: Create a Place to Belong

Even more basic than that, all members, regardless of age, needs to feel like they belong. Your association doesn't see much turnover within the boomer membership because you are satisfying their need to belong.

But what about the other generations? Do they feel like they belong in your association?

Belonging by definition means two things. It means that you have a secure relationship and it also means that you have ownership in something.

For generations X and Y to feel like they belong, they are looking to your association to listen---and act upon---their points of view, generate new ideas and create alternatives , provide a positive and motivating membership experience, and include them in leadership and decision-making processes.

Generations X and Y need to feel a secure relationship and a sense of ownership in your association before they join. In contrast, most baby boomers will join an association because they feel it's the right thing to do and they work at the belonging piece of it after the fact.

However, your association will struggle to recruit and retain younger members if they don't feel like they belong in your association. As soon as you understand the significance of that need, your association can begin to make progress towards meeting it.

Menu Diversification

I've made a strong case here in favor of recruiting and retaining younger generations. It's not because I think you should fold up your prosperous pizza-making business and start up a spaghetti factory.

What I do want you to do is to start thinking of your association like a buffet.

It's 2012 and your most loyal customer base has started to shrink. You may not even notice anything happening yet, but it will. With each passing year, it will get a little smaller and 20 years from now, it won't even exist.

The question is: Will your association still exist?

Younger generations have different needs and wants. Their appetite is different. Ignore them, and they will find somewhere else to eat.

And I'm not talking about feeding a little goldfish here. At 120 million people, generations X and Y are the equivalent of a herd of elephants! They have the power to make or break your association.

Start thinking about all the needs within your membership and cater to them all.
It's the only way to keep your pizza parlor from going bankrupt.

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April 27, 2012

Curation, retail style

Do you need any further convincing that serving as the curator of knowledge for an industry is a valid and vital role for an association?

Would it help to know that one of the most successful retailers in the United States plays that role for its customers?

CNBC profiled bulk retailer Costco in a documentary that aired last night. If you missed it, check out this segment from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams (or read the transcript):

The point that caught my attention:

"Despite the idea that customers like more, Costco stocks surprisingly few items, only around 4,000. The lack of selection is deliberate. 'There's only one variety of ketchup,' [marketing consultant Pam] Danziger explains. 'You don't have to choose from a variety. They've edited it down for you. You've paid them to do it.'"

A big-box store that hasn't been performing so well lately is Best Buy. Slate tech writer Farhad Manjoo suggests that Best Buy's overwhelming selection is dragging it down, and he suggests an opposite approach to save the company:

"If Best Buy wants to survive, it's got to replace its hulking, teeming stores with smaller, less crowded, more intimate spaces. When you walk in to buy a 32-inch TV, the guy in the blue shirt shouldn't make you choose between a dozen nearly identical models. Instead, he should show you a single set, a TV that Best Buy's experts have determined offers the best features at the best price. The firm could do the same across its inventory, culling the tech universe down to a few essential, can't-beat products. In this way, Best Buy would transform itself from a supermarket into a boutique—a place with fewer things for sale and lots of friendly, sophisticated, helpful experts who'll save you the hassle of researching your next TV or PC purchase. They'll do all the work for you."

There it is again: curation. Note the similar language: "They've edited it down for you," and "They'll do all the work for you." Capturing, analyzing, evaluating, and organizing the overwhelming volume of choices in the world and presenting it to customers in a useful, manageable way. Making sense of the madness. Finding order from chaos. However you want to put it—in any context, both physical and online, both object and information—consumers derive value from and prove loyal to great curators.

I've written about curation before, and so have many others. I'll leave it here for a Friday afternoon, but I think I'll be revisiting this again soon, so stay tuned.

[Also, on a separate but still association-related note: Costco has 64 million members. At the end of the segment above, reporter Carl Quintanilla notes that "most of their profit is from the [membership] fees themselves" and that 90 percent of Costco members renew every year. Chalk one up for the membership model.]

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April 20, 2012

Professional comfort

Is there something wrong with all of us?

Harvard Business Review's resident nonprofit provocateur, Dan Pallotta, asks this question about the profession in his latest blog post, "Nonprofit Pathology." I urge you to read the whole post, but here's an excerpt:

"Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they're more compassionate than others but because they're codependent. […] I see people who wear the debilitating lack of resources in their organization like a badge of honor, despite the fact that the deficiency undermines their ability to impact the community problem they are working on. I see people moving from one nonprofit to another, from one cause to another, seemingly more addicted to 'the struggle' than passionate about solving any particular social ill. […] And while they lament it, they have no commitment to doing anything about it. There's a sense of pathological contentment."

Ouch. That's a harsh diagnosis, but it rings true. When good intentions run aground time after time, frustration bleeds into martyrdom, and you can recognize it from a mile away. After hearing "we have to do more with less" enough, it begins to sound more like an excuse than a call to action. I don't think Pallotta means to indict an entire sector of professionals (well, maybe he does), but rather I think he means to point out that too many nonprofit professionals take the easy way out, lamenting the system rather than trying to fix it.

Philanthropic nonprofit work and association management have their similarities, of course, but the two attract a fundamentally different kind of worker that leads to a different strain of "pathology" in associations. Philanthropic organizations draw the bleeding hearts, workers who are stirred by the challenge of direct social or environmental change. Association work is more indirect; associations make the world a better place, too, but they do it by helping other people (doctors, builders, scientists, whoever) be better at what they do. And so association management is often less a profession that is sought out than one that people "fall into."

Meanwhile, associations have a steady pool of customers (members) to a degree that far exceeds any other type of business, for-profit or nonprofit. When you can rest easy in knowing that 80 percent of your customers will give you money every year, that's a comfortable, built-in audience.

What do you get when you put that together with a large pool of professionals who arrived in their jobs by chance? Instead of a workforce driven by a core purpose or an innate will to change the world, you get a workforce that discovers, likes, and comes to depend on the comfort of the status quo. And it goes without saying that comfort breeds complacency. That's the association pathology. We're codependent, too. We need members so we can feel needed.

I've read arguments that the struggle to change is magnified or somehow unique to associations, and generally I chalk that up more to overall human nature. We all hate change. But I can see how the nature of associations makes change an uphill battle. The chips are stacked against us by the inherent structure of the membership model, which is only reinforced by the workforce it engenders.

At the Great Ideas Conference last month, I listened to Shelly Alcorn's summary of her lengthy study of association executives' visions of the future. Her handout listed a series of "provocative proposals," phrased as "what if" questions, that emerged consistently in her study. More than one of them focused on transforming association management into a profession that is sought after rather than fallen into. If we're ever going to break our dependency on membership as we know it, that's going to be a key step.

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November 21, 2011

Analyze Social to Tell a More Compelling Story

The following is a guest post from David Nour, managing partner of The Nour Group, Inc., author of the forthcoming Return on Impact—Leadership Strategies for the Age of Connected Relationships (ASAE, 2012), and general-session speaker at ASAE's 2011 Technology Conference & Expo.

Does your association leadership get the bigger sense of social? Not just social networking or media—"doing" social such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube—but becoming a social organization?

There is a Persian story that goes something like this: A group of villagers is weaving a basket together. A wise man walks by and asks them what they are doing. The first says, "I am pushing one straw against another." The second says, "I am making a basket." The third answers, "I'm helping a man carry food to feed his family."

Though they were all three working on the same project, they each saw their jobs very differently. How do your staff, members, or volunteer leaders see their role in social? Is it as the same mundane pushing of one woven strip against another, or do they see a little bigger than that—which is the basket itself—or do they see a purpose for why they are doing what they are doing?

The difference is that the last villager was engaged. Social analytics allow astute organizations to listen more intently to capture and share amazing stories of those who are engaged in the mission of the organization and the impact they create daily.

According to Forrester Research, every year more than 500 billion consumer opinions are shared online. The secret of monetizing these highly connected relationships for any organization is finding the right individuals and engaging them to talk about the right things in the right places. Those opinions, often internalized through stories, are affecting talent acquisition, revenue growth, and emotional loyalty and are making the advocates who write them highly influential, since they have the ability to shape thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors.

If a brand can be defined as a vision delivered, social analytics is the barometer of how well that vision is, in fact, being delivered, implemented, and applied to solving business challenges or taking advantage of market opportunities.

Metrics should measure against agreed-upon objectives and values and help to correct your course along the way--more like a dial you turn up or down than a switch you turn on or off. Here is the problem: The overemphasis on social media tools—propagated by a cottage industry of vendors and platforms, once-a-week conferences, and fly-by-night consultants and their glorified blogs—is the tail wagging the dog. Too often organizations allow the tools to dictate rather than define what to measure.

So how does an organization tell more compelling and interesting stories from its social-analytics capabilities?

Social analytics should help organizations begin to humanize business operations and tear down silos between internal teams. By designing and implementing listening platforms, the organization can uncover insights and create more meaningful and influential relationships. The narrative from online interactions fuels connected relationships. Great storytelling by organizations about the benefits they've been able to create for a broad range of stakeholders—from highly empowered employees to engaged members and loyal customers, to supportive investors and media advocates—consistently sets them apart.

Word of mouth is the gift that keeps on giving and when it comes to connected relationships; advocates attract and influence other advocates. Beyond promoting products or services, conversations between individuals about an organization can be incredibly insightful, but only if the organization is savvy enough to listen and not interrupt, interject, defend, position, or posture. You must simply listen, learn, and translate experiences into compelling narratives. Connected people who become advocates talk about the organization, even when the organization isn't listening. Connected relationships are trusted amongst their peers and within their microcommunities, as they aid and influence others down their individual decision journeys. Although the reach of one connected relationship may be minimal, as an aggregate, the total reach can have a strong business impact on any organization.

Social analytics can help an organization emphasize authenticity. In our current low-trust environment, true passion is contagious and genuine connections create influential cause and effect. Results of generosity are not just communicated; with social analytics, they're amplified.

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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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August 17, 2011

What makes an association and its members happy with loyalty programs?

This is a guest post from Vince Duobinis, champion of the association experience with the Affinity Center International.

At ASAE's 2011 Annual Meeting, our team set out on one mission: to find out what would make associations and their members happy. In terms of loyalty programs, responses most commonly referenced member benefits, value, and simplicity for the association staff.

Most associations are interested in loyalty programs, but get bombarded by offers from companies unrelated to the association's mission.

Association executives told us programs must be offered with specific member benefits that are of real value and relevancy to the association. Products and services available through the loyalty program must relate to the member's business needs and also entice interest on a personal level, as members can make purchases for both.

"If members prefer blue pens, it's not particularly helpful to have only red pens in the online store," said one association executive at the meeting. It's more than just the overnight delivery, rental car, and insurance products typically found in discount programs, it's having a variety of options your members can redeem points for.

Once options are decided, make it easy for members to purchase through the program and obtain points, which are used in most loyalty programs. Simplicity is key when selecting a loyalty program. If you have to read a thick instruction manual every time you try to redeem points, run. Not only will this cause frustration for your members, it will drive your staff crazy. Loyalty programs don't need to be complicated.

Loyalty programs can be very beneficial to associations by providing additional nondues revenue. However, it is critical for associations to do their homework in finding a loyalty program that can offer products and services that are relevant to members and don't add a burden on staff. Loyalty programs also require a thorough understanding of member's desires. One cardinal rule we have all pretty much dealt with is never assume, and this goes for loyalty programs, too. Don't think you know what your members want, be sure by asking them. A couple questions and listening ears go a long way in your members' happiness and the happiness of your association's finances.

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August 12, 2011

Do Your Actions Match Your Words? A YAE Challenge

This is a guest post from Brandon Robinson, projects manager at the Propane Education & Research Council.

Over the course of my four days at my first ASAE Annual Meeting, there was one theme that I seemed to hear again and again. The current model of doing business is not sustainable and to reach the emerging young association executives and potential young members, associations will have to rethink much of the way they have operated in the past. I heard this loud and clear during the opening general session. I also heard this repeatedly in hallway conversations, at social events, and in other sessions.

The last session I attended was a reflection on what I'd learned and what I was taking back to my office. Jon Hockman facilitated a small group discussion about our takeaways, and naturally one of the discussion points was implementation of what we had learned. It's very easy to go back and quickly fall back into the same traps. The energy, excitement and new way of thinking you had at the meeting quietly fades into the background. The change about which you were so fired up at the meeting gives way to the day-to-day necessity of moving the small rocks.

My hope and the impetus behind this blog post is that we won't lose that excitement. More specifically I hope our actions will match our words about engaging younger colleagues and potential members in our important work. Just like it's easy to go back to our offices and slip back into our old habits, it's just as easy to continue doing things the way we always have to the detriment of those who weren't around during the good old days.

The younger generation is different. We think differently, we process information differently, and most importantly we engage differently. I feel like a challenge was issued in St. Louis to really think about how we engage younger folks like me. Will our actions match our words? Will we lead by example? That's my plan. I hope it's yours too.

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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 12, 2011

What can your members do for 1000 days?

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

This week the sign says 1507 days. WOW!

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

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

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

The whole experience made me wonder a few things:

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

  • What member accomplishments should be celebrated publicly?

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

  • Do members want us to tell the world?

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

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

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April 8, 2011

Membership is a complex decision

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

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

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

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

On the a la carte model:

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

On membership packaging:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 7, 2011

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

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

"How can we make your life easier?"

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

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

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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 28, 2011

Does charging for membership hurt diversity and inclusion?

Time for another wrinkle in the debate over the sustainability of the membership model. Associations Now has featured two associations in the past few months that have moved to a freemium membership model:

In both of these articles, the word "open" comes up in significant ways. For ADEA, the marketing campaign for the new model was titled "Open Wide," and internally they call the model "open membership." For AWM, Fuller makes a strong conclusion: "We believe this change makes us as open and inclusive as possible ... ."

In each case, an increase in perspectives, ideas, and knowledge sharing was a major goal the association sought to achieve by lowering the barrier to access to its community. By becoming more open, they've aimed to become more inclusive.

The underlying statement here is that the opposite—maintaining barriers to access—hurts an organization's level of diversity and inclusion, which suggests that the answer to the question in the title of this post would be "yes."

For whatever reason, I don't often see membership models and diversity and inclusion discussed at the same time, even though they're clearly intertwined in real life. We tend to have discussions about them in separate buckets. With membership models, we focus on hard results, namely revenue. With diversity and inclusion, we talk about soft results such as engagement, community, and leadership development.

Of course, generating revenue and increasing diversity are both positive goals with positive results, but the traditional behavior of associations would put them at odds: Preserving membership revenue hampers inclusion by limiting access; advancing inclusion by expanding access puts membership revenue at risk. That's a genuine dilemma, one that requires creative solutions.

The two associations highlighted above may have found a way to solve this problem, but a freemium model likely isn't feasible for every association. I'm curious about other potential solutions. Associations couldn't succeed if revenue and D&I were mutually exclusive, could they?

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March 15, 2011

Members ≠ Members

In Monday's Idea Lab "Managing Resistance to Change," Chris Clarke-Epstein, CSP, said "mostly, people are people" in response to a question on the need for cultural awareness when managing change in international organizations.

Meanwhile, attendees identified stakeholders critical to change and evaluated and planned approaches based upon the Support for Change questionnaire (which I highly recommend downloading.) Other Great Ideas sessions on Monday included discussions on:

  • Recruit young professionals to the boards of directors;
  • Whether associations should enhance programming for the top one percent of contributors in order to keep high-value members;
  • Going beyond personalized member outreach;
  • Building relationships with unofficial leaders in your organization.

These sessions point to the perspective that members ≠ members. In other words, not every member is the same. We customize marketing campaigns, target nominations toward experienced leaders, support special interest groups, and so on. We constantly tweak our approach to target the ideal member.

What I've mulled over the past day is whether associations do this too much. At what point does customization become detrimental to our organizations?

Past work with database experts prompted this idea, as the bane of their existence during an upgrade was all of the unique customizations they were asked to make. They agreed some were necessary but often disagreed with the amount of customization. Come time to change governance structure in our associations, don't we feel this same angst? That concession made to a specific group or support of a specific area suddenly feels like a burden as opposed to a strategic priority.

Could we learn from our database experts' approach of envisioning the upgrade to reduce future angst? Is this possible with the people-focused side of the business? After all, it's common knowledge that it's best to keep to "off the shelf" functionality for the inevitable future upgrade. The people-side is more difficult, as I'm unsure if "off the shelf" exists or if we understand what the next upgrade will be.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, as I haven't found a satisfactory conclusion myself. Do you think we over-customize? Should we move more toward a "members = members" approach?

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March 3, 2011

Four Secrets to Connecting with Student Members

Enhance your communication and engagement with your association's student members (and future professional members) with these four secrets. 

  • School is a student's first priority. Students will always put their education first. But no need to worry, that's what students should be doing. Therefore, it is the role of the association to be the go-to resource in furthering a student's education and understanding the profession.
  • Using technology on a daily basis does not make students tech savvy. Students use Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis; however, a Twitter-addict may not understand, for instance, how to use a fillable PDF document for an awards application. In developing member benefits or making processes more efficient, it is important to recognize the possible technological boundaries of your student members.
  • Students are younger than you. Although it may seem logical, it is important to recognize that the typical student member is younger than most of your staff members. In creating marketing materials or designing programming, it is important to make sure you are communicating with students at their level.
  • Associations should be the professional link outside the student bubble. Member faculty are a great resource in demonstrating to students the bond between their profession and the association. If shown the association's impact in professional lives, students will continue their membership as they enter the "real world."

Student members present a unique membership group, and with these four secrets, your association will enhance its student membership experience.

Lilliane Smothers is assistant for student relations at American Dental Hygienists' Association in Chicago.

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February 1, 2011

Prepare in advance, clean up afterwards

Acronym friend Bob Van Hook shared an idea on the Executive Management listserver about replacing a board dinner with a cooking class, where the board breaks into teams and cooks its own gourmet dinner. (If the idea interests you, you should be able to log into the ASAE website, go to the EMS listserver and search for "cooking.") It's a fun idea I'd urge you to consider, but it's not what I want to write about.

Bob added, as a joke I'm pretty sure, "We also learned... how great it is to have things prepared in advance and someone to clean up after you're done." It might have been whimsy, but that's an interesting statement. I take two points away from it.

First, if you want to build value for your members, what are things that you could do to prepare things in advance for them or clean up after them - literally or figuratively? Believe me, I know what's it like when too often, your members want you to do their job for them, or have that exact right answer for them. In a rare case, maybe you'll have that for them, but most of the time, it's about getting them prepared for it, or helping them figure out how to assess it afterward. So what could you be doing in these spaces?

A second thing I take from that is completely different. I don't want to give the idea that the CEO is on a pedestal to be served by staff, because that's not right. However, in a significant way, our job as staff is to ensure that things are prepared in advance and that things are cleaned up afterward. Our job is to make the CEO successful. Now if there's an ethical or moral issue, that takes precedence. But outside that, the staff's job is to serve the mission of the organization as directed by the CEO. It's to ensure that things are prepared and cleaned up - and yes, to participate too.

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January 5, 2011

On member value

I'm sure many Acronym readers have seen Joe Flowers' post on his blog, "Why I won't renew with ASAE in 2011." If not, you should read it, and the fascinating discussion that follows. The discussion also continues on the SocialFish blog, again, worth a look. (If others have posted on the conversation, my apologies for the oversight - let us know in the comments.)

As I've said many times, Acronym is not the place to give an official ASAE position on things or to deliver messages ASAE wants delivered. It's point is to foster discussion and debate about leading and managing associations. I think the points that Joe and the commentators make are much larger than ASAE; I think they're talking about a wide swath of associations. So first, I want to give my definition of what we're talking about.

Associations have many different primary reasons for existence. For some, the primary reason is government relations. For others, it might be a certification or an exclusive product offering or even a golden handcuff, affinity-style benefit. I'm on record saying that the social web is transforming all associations, no matter their primary reasons for existence, and that is most acutely true for organizations with the primary reason of fostering peer interaction, or networking, and information exchange. ASAE is such an organization, as are thousands of other associations.

So putting it another way, if the primary value your organization provides is networking and information, the social web has changed the rules of the game you're in. It's obvious, right: by definition the social web makes information sharing and building connections easy and free. Here's a dirty little secret: ASAE hasn't figured out what associations should do about this. Neither has anybody else. Some of the models are intriguing. There are several associations who have dropped the whole dues-paying part of membership. Another model is the exclusive model; the Third Tribe as a possible association model is fascinating to me. The comments to Joe's post are rich with ideas for ASAE and all associations--these exchanges, whether through ASAE channels or other means, enrich us all.

I think where we are now is that each organization has to look at its attributes, its possibilities, its limitations, and figure out its own approach. I don't think it will be a simple, cookie-cutter operation. It didn't feel like it, but believe it or not, it used to be easy: provide really good information and a means for smart, interesting people to talk to each other and you would be successful. That's not enough anymore. The social web has transformed that from a scarce resource into an abundant one. As I said, I don't know what's next. But here are some thoughts as we think about it.

1. It's ok for the Joe's of the world to question their involvement with an organization. Just because they can publicly proclaim their thoughts doesn't mean organizations should change and accommodate them. To be sure, we should listen, debate, and try to learn from such experiences--they truly are gifts to an organization--but should the organization make a change based on it? Maybe, maybe not.

2. It may not be better for the bottom line (at least in the short run), but all associations would be stronger if each and every member that received a renewal notice carefully considered the value they received--or could receive-- and then decide whether or not to pay it.

3. When I read the comments of Joe's post, there are clearly ASAE supporters and those that are less supportive. As organizations, we need to have a better understanding than we do of how people become engaged and involved in what we do. All organizations have the pathways to engagement, but we tend to focus on the people who find those pathways attractive (or find them at all) and dismiss those who do not as if they didn't want to be involved. That's a mistake - clearly associations will not be successful with such an attitude. If somebody paid dues to your organization, it's likely that they want one of those pathways to entice them. We need to have a better understanding of why and how these things happen in our organizations.

So that's three things to think about. What would you add to this list?

UPDATE:

Some additional blog posts on this topic, I'll keep updating as I see them (or you let me know of them)
Just What Am I Joining from Get Me Jamie Notter
The Scarlet F of Freeloading from Jeffrey Cufaude, Idea Architects
Why Being Anti-Indispensability Is Pro-Membership from Shelly Alcorn
To Be or Not to Be a Member from SmartBlog Insights
Paying the Price for the Failure to Innovate from Jeff De Cagna
Why I renewed with ASAE in 2011 from Moving Through the Association World

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December 17, 2010

Birthday Greetings

Yesterday was my birthday. Of course I was looking forward to it. Hugs, kisses, presents and phone calls from my family. Fattening treats at the office along with cards from my co-workers. My staff presented me with a wonderful present after serenading me with the birthday song. And there were tons of "Happy Birthdays" from my Facebook friends (my birthday is hidden, so these people really know me). What a great day!

So here's what bugged me and I'm trying to figure out why.

  • I came home from work and on my answering machine is: "Hello, this is Roger from Toyota. I noticed it was your birthday and I wanted to be among the first to wish you a 'Happy Birthday.'" Among the first? Really?
  • Then I checked email and there was a birthday email from my dermatologist.
  • I checked the mailbox and there was a post card from my optometrist.

I remember getting each of these in prior years and not really thinking anything of it. But this year, it seemed weird. Maybe even a little creepy. I was glad I didn't get one from the doctor who did my colonoscopy.

I think it's because this kind of personalization from huge databases is now as impersonal as the "Dear Customer" letters we used to get. After all, anyone with a merge program can do it. It's not like Roger or my doctors even know it was my birthday - it was just some kind of automated computer workflow sending me warm greetings.

How many of us are doing this every day with our association members? Not just birthday greetings. Thank you letters, "personal" invitations to get involved and make a difference, requests for charitable contributions and renewals. What are we doing to maintain the "special" feeling we want members to feel when they get our communications?

Somehow, I'm still thankful when the local restaurant sends us coupons because we're in the birthday club. And I still think it's cool when I get postcards with a purl on it or a brochure or newsletter that has my name or interests imbedded somewhere in the content - not just in the greeting. But how long will it be until I'm creeped out by those? We'll see what happens next December.

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December 16, 2010

Making Thank-you's Meaningful

'Tis the season of "thank you," the time of year when our organizations not only receive the greatest number of donations but also express our gratitude for members' support and money. We read a lot about the importance of thanking people in ways that are meaningful to them, and I'm hearing some positive stories from organizations that have been trying to experiment with ways to do that.

Meals on Wheels, for instance, just launched an online radio station whose inaugural program, "Wheels in Motion," featured President and CEO Enid Borden and one of her affiliate leaders talking specifically about what they were most grateful for as they continue their fight to end hunger among senior citizens. They know that many elderly people--both their clients and volunteers--still listen regularly to their radios for news and entertainment, while younger people listen online and will be comfortable setting up RSS feeds and downloading the ongoing program from iTunes.

Another organization called my house the other night to thank me and celebrate my "five-year anniversary as a donor." The donation is a no brainer for me--the group works hard to stretch my money and doesn't inundate us with excessive appeals. Still, it was nice to have someone call to let me know that they appreciated my loyalty as much as my money. I'll be aiming to celebrate 10 years with that organization, for sure.

And here's one of those great stories you wish would happen to every one of your favorite charities: A member had given a nonprofit a $1,000 donation recently. Although they don't usually call donors, a staffer gave a ring and thanked him personally, developing such a rapport (and not making another ask) that the man immediately sent a check for $10,000 more! If we could all be so fortunate....

And finally, this is my own chance to say thank you to the many ASAE members and other association/nonprofit and business professionals who willingly give up their time and wisdom to me so that I can share their experiences, advice, and ideas with others for the greater good. You are what make this blog, our magazine and other publications, our website, and our education sessions and events relevant and helpful to thousands of your peers and partners.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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October 29, 2010

Transformation Providers

On two separate occasions I recently encountered the phrase "transformation not information." The first time I heard it. I remembered a seminar where associations were positioned as information providers. I can picture my notes in the margin of the handouts - that this was our role - to provide a one-stop resource of the best information our professionals needed to do their jobs better. Of course this was in the pre-Google-you-can-find-out-anything-on-Wikipedia days.

As I was wondering how associations can become transformation providers instead of information providers, I found myself thinking about Kafka and put together a few thoughts about member metamorphosis.

- Transformation is personal. It happens because someone sees a quality in themselves they want to change or are unsatisfied with and probably one in someone else they want to obtain. We can't tell our members, "Here's what it means to be a leader. Now go be one." Members need to be inspired by superior qualities in their peers, feel a connection to their cause and commit to making a change.

- Transformation requires support. Did you ever watch Iron Chef? The chef transforms a slab of wild boar into Carpaccio with Grilled Watermelon and a Sweet Potato Polenta. The camera seldom pans to the chef's team that is frantically chopping, steaming, sautéing and making sure it's plated beautifully on time. How often do we provide our members with our secret ingredient "tool kit," send them on their merry way and expect greatness?

- Transformation is active. It happens through experiences - by going and doing, not by reading an article or watching slides at your desk. It's meant to happen and not just be talked about. I don't want to hear another member testimonial that says, "My membership developed me both personally and professionally." I want to hear the before and after story.

- Transformation takes time. We've had some newer members step up and say they were interested in serving on our Board in the next few years. Since our Board is generally comprised of members with certain volunteer experience and knowledge of the association, we're reaching out to those members and offering suggestions on how to build their membership resume. We know it will take time, so we'll check back with those members regularly to see how they're progressing. We'll need to resist the temptation to put them in a position before they are ready just because we can't find anyone else.

In the end, transformation needs information. Information leads transformation, but doesn't guarantee it. You can learn stuff and know it forever and never be changed. Or we can help our members build on a foundation of information, apply it to their strengths, weaknesses, goals and passions and watch them transform into association activists.

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October 18, 2010

If you could measure engagement, what would you do with it?

I was in a meeting last week where we were talking about the possibilities of measuring member engagement. I've written about this before. Here's (1 & 2) two posts on the idea written back in 2007 (never would have guessed that associations would still be doing more talking about it rather than fine-tuning it). Here's one from the 2009 Annual Meeting about Charlene Li's take on it (Li will be speaking again for us at this year's Technology Conference). And here's a couple more from this year: Joe Rominiecki on tying executive compensation to engagement and just last week Brian Solis touches on it.

What I want to talk about today is the next step: let's say you've got your engagement index sorted out, you know what kinds of engagement you can measure, you've assigned point values, and you've been collecting data for a while. What should you do with that information?

I'm going to spitball some ideas here. Some of them are mine, some of them bubbled up in the meeting yesterday, and honestly, I'm not sure I can tell which is which - so let's just call it a team effort, even though brainstorming on this wasn't the sole focus of the meeting.

1. You can publish everyone's engagement index score. Ideally, this will generate some good-natured competition to improve the score.

2. You could give a badge to or recognize in some other way the people in the top 10 percent. It would be a resume builder and status symbol for members.

3. You could have a special event for the top 10 percent. What kind of event? Ideas are boundless: a special invite-only reception; a 45-minute, exclusive Q&A with the speaker after an annual meeting general session; a special planning session on content development for the organization; a 45-minute dialog with the chair and CEO about the organization; and the list could go on.

4. You could, as data accumulates, see if overall scores are climbing or receding based on actions you've taken.

5. You could, if you are an individual membership society that may have multiple members from the same company, see which companies are most engaged.

6. You could, given the same circumstances as above, see what happens when a highly engaged person moves from a company of high engagement to one of lower engagement. (Does the person's engagement go down? Does the company's engagement rise?) You could make that person and that company a prime target, with personal visits from staff to try to jumpstart new engagement.

7. You could throw a pizza party at each of the top 5 engaged companies.

8. You could create triggers that monitor engagement - if someone's engagement has slipped by 25 percent, you could contact him or her to see if the organization has let him or her down. Or if it's increased by 25 percent, you could acknowledge it, let them know that it's appreciated.

9. You could measure how the different types of engagement affect each other or affect membership. For example, are those that are highly engaged in your listservers more or less likely to attend your annual meeting than someone highly engaged in writing for your newsletters? The assumption is that as members are engaged with you, they are finding value, and will want to continue their membership. But is that true for all the different types of engagement, or are some stronger indicators than others?

10. You could use demographic data to see what types of members are most likely to be engaged with you and what types are least likely.

A caveat to this post: I don't want it to be about ASAE. It was a way-preliminary meeting. We may or may not pursue such an index, and we may or may not use such a thing in the ways described here. Just sayin'... rather than talk about what ASAE could or should do, I'd love to hear from execs out there, or folks who work with other organizations, what kinds of things they think an organization could use an engagement index for.

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September 21, 2010

Connect Through Trust

Emmanuel Gobillot, author of The Connected Leader and LeaderShift, was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended this summer. I have two and half pages of notes with little stars next to the ideas that resonated most with me.

One of the stars came under the bullet "Connect Through Trust." It started out just as one of those "common sense" platitudes you hear from high profile speakers when you begin to wonder "how much did they pay this guy?" Then suddenly you find yourself writing furiously as plans to implement this common sense notion pop into your mind with every word that comes from the podium. You're ready to buy his books, become his fan on Twitter and hug each member of the conference planning committee that secured him.

Gobillot said that the question to ask after every interaction with our members, committees, leaders, customers, etc. is "Have I made them feel stronger and more capable?" This is why no one ever forgets a great teacher, Gobillot said.

Mrs. Taylor was my great teacher. I had her for high school English both freshman and sophomore years. She was the first teacher whose passion for her subject came through in every lesson. I can't think of any particular example; but, I remember how I felt in her class. Excited to read literature and identify the theme. Intrigued by actually understanding poetry. Inspired to write papers and be creative. Energized to show her that I understood what she had taught me. Indeed, I felt stronger and more capable. I trusted her to bring me someplace new everyday. And I worked at her direction - at first for her approval (and, yeah, it was school), then for my own pleasure.

And this is just what Gobillot said would happen. "Make them feel stronger and more capable. Then they'll trust you. If they trust you, it means you've connected with their energy. And they'll start working for you."

How can we make members feel stronger and more capable with every interaction? And not just face-to-face interactions. What about web browsing, online forms, emails, phone calls, registrations, renewals and publications? How do we measure how much they trust us and when we've connected with their energy? Are any associations asking these questions in their membership surveys?

I imagine that Mrs. Taylor knew because I was working harder in class, asking more questions, sharing my opinions, completing assignments early, occasionally talking to her outside of class about Siddartha and The Pearl, and later talking to her about my own writing goals for the future.

What did you do today to make a member feel stronger and more capable? Today I'm thanking some of our younger members who wrote book reviews for our young professionals newsletter. I'm sending them their article in a frame and sending a note to their supervisor (with the member's permission) to let them know their employee supports the profession and is developing other skills. Then I'll ask those young members to do something else - write another article, share an opinion, review our website - because I think their opinion is valuable. And I'll track their activity in our system so we can reach out to them for other positions, maybe leadership roles. They'll be working for us regularly in no time.

Well, I guess that Gobillot really knows what he's talking about. I wonder if he knew Mrs. Taylor?

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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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August 5, 2010

Quick Clicks: Sorry There Are So Many Edition

A lot of great stuff out there on the information superhighway this week, IMHO. Enjoy.

  • Innovation: In a guest post on the SocialFish blog, association exec Eric Lanke offers reasons why associations tend to be bad at innovation, based on research he's leading at the Wisconsin SAE.

  • More innovation: Meanwhile, author Vijay Govindarajan argues over at Harvard Business Review that most organizations' real innovation problem is execution, not creativity: "[I]deation is sexy, while execution is long, drawn out, and boring."

  • Diversity: Jamie Notter followed up the discussion on Elizabeth Engel's post about the TEDWomen conference with some ideas about "Why Diversity Issues Are Hard." The bottom line, he says: "The systems that perpetuate the inequality survive precisely because they have managed to convince the people with the upper hand … that the privilege doesn't exist." The post alone is a must-read, but the ensuing comments are enlightening as well.

  • Volunteer management: Jeff Hurt at the Midcourse Corrections blog offers "10 Ways To Ensure Your Nonprofit Volunteers Fail."

  • Tax exemptions in danger: Nonprofits with annual revenue less than $100,000 must file a short version of the IRS Form 990 by October 15 or risk losing tax-exempt status (and that date is an extension, by the way). This explainer on the Lancaster (Pa.) Law Blog makes sense of the new requirements for you.

  • Big questions: Elizabeth Engel, CAE, at the Thanks for Playing blog poses a question—"How do we connect with stakeholders who have public, digital and highly networked relationships?"—and then answers it in regard to her association. This is part one of a series, so I'm looking forward to more big questions from Elizabeth.

  • Websites: Chris Bonney at the Vanguard Blog suggests 11 questions to ask yourself to answer "How In Touch Are You With Your Website?"

  • Online privacy law: In another guest post at the SocialFish blog, Leslie White shares a case that shows employers can run afoul of the law by gaining unauthorized access to employees' private online sites or groups. "If you ask the owner or administrator for access to a private site and they say no, walk away," she writes.

  • Social media and employment law: Meanwhile, David Patt, CAE, at the AEM blog shares a tip he heard at an Association Forum of Chicagoland meeting that offers a way to check a job applicant's social-media presence without putting yourself at risk of breaking anti-discrimination laws.

  • Membership: Funny how, as associations are worried about membership failing as a business model, media organizations are turning to membership as the model that might save them. At the Nieman Journalism Lab, author Ken Doctor examines how membership programs might work for media orgs in "The Newsonomics of membership" and "The Newsonomics of membership, part 2." Reading how another industry views membership is a little like hearing what people are saying about you when you're not in the room.

  • Web content: Also at Nieman, a fascinating look at how Slate has had great success with long-form journalism on the web. This caught my eye at first because Slate is the homepage on my Mac at home (two facts that surely out me as a yuppie liberal), but it's a valuable read for its ideas both on how you might make in-depth content work at your association and how to inspire your employees or members to make that in-depth work happen.

  • Life: Last but not least, a link that has nothing to do with associations but one that will stick with me for a long time, from the mental_floss blog: "He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died."
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July 21, 2010

Relationships vs. Marketing

"Marketing is what happens when relationship fails." When I heard this comment, I wasn't at a board meeting or a marketing conference. I was at church, listening to the sermon, more than a month ago. And I can't get the words out of my head. It wasn't some wacko sermon about marketing. The context was about growing the church community through caring for each other and meeting the needs of the unchurched - making a difference in the lives of others (I'll omit the spiritual component here). It made me long to live in Walnut Grove - the town from Little House on the Prairie.

After my Laura Ingalls flashback, I realized what was conflicting me. How can we form and multiply relationships that matter and inspire members instead of relationships that have a goal of developing and maintaining a membership base in order to generate profit for our organizations? Is it an either/or situation? Is the opposite really true - is marketing obsolete if relationship succeeds? What do you think?

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July 12, 2010

Customer Service Hygiene

Let's be honest. Nobody likes going to the dentist. But, I've been going to my dentist for about 25 years. And it's not too bad. When I got married they provided a free whitening treatment so my teeth would shine in all our pictures. When the phone rang and it was Barbara, I knew my appointment was a few days away. When I showed up for my appointment Maryann the hygienist asked me about things we talked about six months ago at my last appointment. She would set aside my favorite color toothbrush. She must have taken notes.

Then about two years ago the office underwent an extreme makeover. In addition to the new modern décor, and all new staff, the office has all the latest dental technology: digital x-ray machine and that high-fangled thing that measures the space between your gums and your teeth, "1, 1, 1, 3." The new hygienist knows all the latest techniques. I barely feel anything. There's even a new spit bowl vacuum (which I actually find a little scary). And, of course, a ceiling-mounted tv, complete with all my favorite cable channels.

Of course the changes were intended to make the dental appointment experience more pleasing for the patients. Unfortunately, the warmth, the personal touch, Barbara, Maryann, the kid's play area - which I now need - are gone. Sometimes the hygienist uses the remote to put on what she wants and doesn't pass it to me. And they now make us pay up front and get reimbursed by the insurance company.

So, this is more than just a rant about my soon-to-be-former dentist. It's more of a lament. I wish they would have asked someone like me why I went there for 25 years before they got rid of all the good things. And I hope when our associations decide to make sweeping changes to a program, service or experience that member needs, expectations and satisfaction are the priorities and not image, technology and money.

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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 12, 2010

Quick Clicks: Monday morning metaphors

Good morning, and welcome to a Monday edition of Quick Clicks!

- Acronym's Big Ideas Month helped to inspire an unconference aimed at creating an innovative future for the association community, taking place April 22 in Washington, DC. Jeff De Cagna posted more information on the Hacking Associations Unconference here.

- Jamie Notter posted his thoughts about the recent Acronym post that was removed from the blog.

- Jamie also posted an interesting series on leadership skills needed in today's organizations, including truth, courage, and curiosity.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel has a great post on some of the forces that she thinks are shaping associations today.

- Shelly Alcorn recently posted the last post in her five-part series on how Jim Collins' book How the Mighty Fall can apply to associations. (If you haven't read the first four posts, she links to all of them in the first paragraph.)

- A very interesting post on meeting conference attendees' expectations by Amber Naslund (thanks for the link are due to Shannon Otto at the Splash blog). Representative quote: "We have a fundamental disconnect between what people say they want from a conference session, and what can realistically be delivered under existing models."

- Jeffrey Cufaude is thinking about organizational change efforts, using automotive metaphors; he's posted on detours and dead ends, and what it's like in the passenger seat during such change efforts.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog ponders when good leaders make the decision to pull the plug on projects.

- At the LeaderConnect blog, Rebecca Rolfes considers the board-staff dynamic at associations and how it might impact the way associations approach the future.

- Judith Lindenau at the Off Stage blog discusses the collapse of complex societies, Clay Shirky, and how both of those things apply to realtor associations.

- Maddie Grant is also thinking about Clay Shirky and his principle that "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

- Association blogger David Gammel has launched a new blog, Orgpreneur, which will focus on "entrepreneurship in pursuit of goals that matter."

- Andy Sernovitz discusses the importance of leaving a good last impression on your departing customers, with some advice associations could certainly use to help improve relations with departing members.

- Blue Avocado recently published an article by Ellis Robinson on eight strategic mistakes nonprofits can make with memberships.

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April 8, 2010

Examples of "free" in action at associations

A morning panel discussion at Digital Now offered up a bunch of examples of associations using the "free" model in various ways. Panel moderator Mark Golden, CAE, executive director and CEO of the National Court Reporters Association, used Chris Anderson's book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, as a framework for the discussion; you can get the crash course on Free via Anderson's article on the same topic from Wired magazine.

We've debated free here on Acronym before, but often without many association examples. So it was great to hear stories from associations that are trying it. Anyway, on with the examples:

  • At the Association for Information and Image Management, basic membership is free, while premium membership is $125.
  • AIIM also offers six online courses for free to give people a free sample of the quality of its additional courses. AIIM President John Mancini, cautions, however, that even being required to email to request an access code is a "cost" that detracted from the number of people who took up AIIM's offer.
  • The American Library Association and AIIM also offer free webinars that are sponsored by industry partners. Mary Ghikas, CAE, senior associate executive director of ALA and Mancini of AIIM each reported that these sponsorships are significant revenue generators for their associations, and they're also attractive to sponsors because the audience for a specialized webinar is a niche market by default (b/c it signed up for the webinar).
  • The Project Management Institute has greater success with free webinars at its chapter level, because sponsors can gain exposure to a geographically local market, says Mark Langley, PMI executive vice president and COO.
  • The American Counseling Association pays for student liability insurance for its student members. What would be a $25 insurance policy for these students to buy on their own becomes an attractive incentive for them to pay $85 to join ACA, says ACA executive director Richard Yep, CAE.
  • ACA also established a syllabus clearinghouse for its members. Access is free and the content is user generated (in that it's just an exchange of information among members), but the syllabi often list the books that professors assign in their classes. ACA sells those books.

These were just examples from the panelists. Others came up in discussion from the audience:

  • The American Geophysical Union has an "almost free" model. Its basic membership rate is $20 per year. Revenue comes from everything else that AGU sells to that broad membership audience.
  • Another audience member pointed out that the model above is the same as that of AARP.
  • The American Institute of Architects offered portions of its annual meeting for free online in 2009, which attracted more than 2,000 viewers, most of whom were new to the annual meeting. (Coincidentally, this was part of a feature in this month's issue of Associations Now: "Hybrid Meetings That Offer the Best of Both Worlds.")

And another version of free came up in a separate session about membership models:

  • The American Dental Education Association recently changed to an "open membership" model, in which its individual membership fee went from $125 per year to $0 (it also has institutional members). ADEA went from 2,000 individual members to 18,000. That expanded audience can be sold to, of course, but it also has enhanced the level of engagement, community, and educational quality at ADEA.

The moral of the story here from all of these examples? "Free" doesn't have to be completely revolutionary. It doesn't have to completely destroy your business model. Most of these examples above are rather simple and straightforward and could be emulated at other associations rather easily.

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March 30, 2010

The Power of Members

In a recent issue of Associations Now, five CEOs were asked to share their "most powerful member-recruitment tool." Answers ranged from the specific (high tech education) to the broad-based (high visibility.)

These are, of course, important to our organizations. And perhaps, "important" or "successful" better describe these tools. But to me, the most powerful member-recruitment tool is our members--able to leap over tall buildings and recruit members in a single bound.

When I hear a new member say, "I joined because Bob told me about his membership," I picture Bob wearing his Society cape and with our logo emblazoned across his chest. It was probably a 5-10 minute impromptu conversation--no market research, no marketing plan, no brochures, pamphlets, free gifts, no variable data imaging, fancy envelopes or wafer seals. Just one member sharing his experience and concluding with a message that membership is worth it.

Alas, for many of us, members are also our most untapped resource for member recruitment. With all the buzz about word-of-mouth marketing and member evangelism, your membership should be growing quicker than Stephen Colbert's Facebook page--which hit 1,000,000 fans in 8 days. Yes, our members are our most powerful member-recruitment tools. Are you taking advantage of them?

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March 22, 2010

Associations and the pronoun test

When talking with members, volunteers, staff, etc. about your association, pay special attention to what pronoun they use in place of the organization. Do they say "we" or "they"?

I had run across this before, but it was reading Dan Pink's blog that got me thinking about it in this way, so I'll link to him.

Two parts to this post. First, the less interesting part. I'd bet most staff use "we". If I'm the CEO, that's probably what I want to hear, because, as Pink notes, when employees refer to the organization they work for as "they," it's a sign of disconent. But in the case of associations, if it's purposeful use, it could be a good thing. Technically, the association is actually an organization of people with a common interest, so staff referring to the organization as "they" in a purposeful way is a realization that the staff is working on behalf of someone else. The organization is actually the members; the staff administers the needs of that organization.

The more interesting aspect of the pronoun test is what members use to refer to the organization. I would guess the board says "we" all the time. Highly engaged volunteers and members probably say "we" a lot, but in many contexts, when they are talking to people not on staff or the board, will often say "they" unless it is about a particular project, committee, report, etc. that they are working on. I'd guess less engaged members use "they" almost exclusively. To me, this is another rebuke of the dues-paying model of associations. That model suggests people will pay dues to belong to something, and say "I'm going to our annual conference." But if most members use "they," then the members don't actually feel like they belong to anything; they see themselves as consumers. What are the implications for association leaders?

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February 17, 2010

An association (sort of) is born

Here's a little fuel for the fire in the debate around the future of associations and membership organizations.

Some of you might be aware of a very young outfit called Inside the Third Tribe. If you're not, you might be familiar with some of its founders, who are all experts in internet marketing and/or social media.

You should take a few minutes to read the background on Inside the Third Tribe, but here it is in a nutshell: a bunch of bloggers decide they want to share professional expertise, network, and learn from each other, so they start a membership organization that offers educational sessions and webinars, Q&A sessions, and discussion forums. It costs $47/month to join.

Sound familiar? They're not calling it an association, but it's close.

I'm not sure whether the founders are making money from this endeavor (making it a for-profit enterprise) or if they're devoting all the revenue back to generating programs and services (making it more like a nonprofit), but I think this might be a compelling study to follow in the future, for a few reasons:

  • The people. As the story of Inside the Third Tribe explains, this is a network of bloggers who have decided that money is important to them and that information isn't necessarily free. They have actively separated themselves from the widespread philosophy among bloggers who talk about "relationships, community, and value . . . and yet seem to have taken a vow of poverty along the way."
  • The money. This is not a free organization. The fact that the founders, particularly given who they are, have chosen a paid-membership model is evidence that that model still holds weight. It points to the notion that, while the free exchange of ideas is cute for a while, eventually it becomes apparent that staging high-quality education and networking programs costs money and that those who seek them might have to pay for them in one way or another.
  • The timing. The organization is barely a month old. It was born in 2010, not 1910. Not only can we watch it from the start, but we can watch it as it starts among modern societal, technological, and economic conditions. If you've ever wondered whether Association XYZ would survive without its century-old advantage of a wide, firmly established membership base, here's an example to watch. 

Inside the Third Tribe could flame out quickly, or it could last and grow for years. I'm not going to try to make any predictions. And to be fair, it's not the first time social media people have formed an association of sorts (look here, here, and here), and it likely won't be the last. But it is one more example—and a paid-membership example, at that—to keep an eye on.

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February 12, 2010

Engagement tied to executive compensation

I generally loathe reality television, so I didn't watch "Undercover Boss" on CBS this past Sunday, but this week Steve Tobak at BNET's "The Corner Office" blog interviewed Larry O'Donnell, COO of Waste Management, who was the show's first subject.

The interview is generally interesting, but one comment caught my eye. O'Donnell says he was interested in participating in the show as a way to increase employee engagement at the company, which has 45,000 employees. He's a firm believer in employee engagement at all levels, and the company measures it regularly. In fact, he says:

"Not only is it a metric, it's actually in management's bonuses. Engagement is critical, and this is a whole new way to go about it." [emphasis added]

How do you like that? Tying employee engagement to compensation. Associations talk a lot about engagement, but are any of them tying it to staff compensation? If not, I think they could:

  • Member engagement. If you've figured out a reasonable way to measure member engagement over time (volunteer applications, online discussion activity, knowledge contributions, net promoter score, however you want to track it), you can pin these numbers to bonuses for volunteer or membership directors and staff.
  • Employee engagement. This might be even more abstract an intangible, but if you can gauge the mood of your staff in regard to engagment or loyalty over time, you can tie it to bonuses or compensation for the CEO, COO, or other senior staff. Waste Management does a yearly employee survey to measure employee engagement.

I've only been thinking about this as long as it's taken me to type up this post, so this is a fairly rough idea, but I wanted to make sure I passed it along, because I think it's worth considering. Engagement is a sign of a lot of other good practices, so it would be interesting to see it incentivized for staff and management at associations. And incentivizing anything with money works in two ways: it motivates people more directly (say what you will, but money talks), and it also shows your staff and membership that you're serious about engagement if you're willing put money at stake for it.

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February 8, 2010

Quick clicks: Snowy day edition

This is a bit of a catch-up edition of Quick Clicks, so it's a little longer than usual. But if you're in the DC area (or elsewhere) and snowed in, what better time to catch up on your reading?

First, I'd like to welcome to several new association blogs:

- Aaron Wolowiec, a former Acronym blogger, has launched his own blog at AaronWolowiec.com. An early standout post: Exposing the silo effect.

- Karen Tucker Thomas recently began the CEO Solutions blog. Early standout: Board orientation or board development.

- Management Solutions Plus brings us The Common Thread blog, featuring a number of staff, including well-known association blogger Jamie Notter. Early standout: Enquiring minds want to know how and why, by Angela Pike.

- If you follow any of the ASAE & The Center listservers, you're surely familiar with Vinay Kumar; he now has a blog of his own, too. Early standout: The Ferrari, the race, the pit-stop.

- If you have an interest in legal issues related to associations, check out Mark Alcon's new Association Law Blog. An early standout post: top 10 signs of a dysfunctional board.


Several existing blogs and bloggers are putting together interesting new series:

- The Vanguard Technology blog has begun a new "5 Questions" series, where they'll be asking five questions of an association professional doing innovative things with technology. This first interview (presented primarily in podcast form) focuses on why email marketing matters more than ever.

- DelCor has begun a weekly "Social Media Sweet Spot" show on Ustream, hosted by KiKi L'Italien.

- The SocialFish blog is hosting a series of interviews with association social media managers.


Many other association bloggers have had interesting things to say in recent weeks:

- Maddie Grant shared a thought-provoking post from Bruce Butterfield on lessons associations can learn from the struggles of the newspaper industry. Kevin Holland responded with his thoughts on what is missing from that comparison. Both posts inspired very interesting comment discussions.

- Elsewhere, Kevin Holland had a great discussion with Matt Baehr about aggregation as a value proposition for associations.

- Shelly Alcorn shares her take on the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case.

- Joe Gerstandt has a thoughtful post on opportunities he sees for local SHRM chapters to advance the cause of diversity and inclusion. I think his ideas could be applicable to a lot of other associations, too.

- Jeff Hurt shares a meeting planner's perspective on conference housing and attrition.

- Jeff De Cagna shares his five key words for 2010.

- Ellen Behrens argues that many of our current work practices are unhealthy for both ourselves and our organizations.

- Judith Lindenau shares her "A list" advice for association membership recruitment and retention.

- Maggie McGary is starting a list of association and nonprofit community managers.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog shares a first draft of principles of innovation for the association community.

- Sue Pelletier responds to one possible model for the future of work and speculates on how associations might fit in.

- Tony Rossell has a simple method you can use to calculate where your membership numbers are headed.

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January 21, 2010

Is micropricing the answer to your revenue woes?

In the last few days, some association bloggers have made comparisons between associations and the newspaper industry:

The discussion focuses on whether the association business model is doomed to the same fate as newspapers, and it arose from a broader discussion about the association model on ASAE & The Center's Executive Management listserver.

However, another theme that arose in the discussion is "micropricing," which I'll loosely define as "small fees for single-resource access." Think 99 cents per song on iTunes or $9.99 for a book on an Amazon Kindle. Some newspapers are poised to try this method with their online content. The discussion on micropricing in the comments to the SocialFish post has been good (you should go read it), and I want to pull that topic to the forefront here. I think micropricing could work for associations, and here's why:

For a long time, membership strategy for many associations has been to put access to resources behind the member wall, with just a small sample available for free to nonmembers in the hopes that it will entice them to pay to become members. The inherent challenge in this model is that the gap between free and a membership fee is often quite large. It's a big leap to ask people to make.

Associations need to provide some stepping stones in between. This is where I think micropricing comes in. In between the free resources and the all-access, big-fee membership, micropriced content and resources could generate additional revenue among nonmember customers.

But here's the important part: micropricing will only work for associations as one method along a continuum. If you threw away membership and free, it's doubtful that micropriced products would generate sustainable revenue. But, if you offer some resources for free, a lot of resources for small fees, and full access to all of your resources (and the community) via membership, you have a nice three-tiered system that's built to entice people to spend some money.

Think about the three groups of prospects you have:

Group 1: People who are only interested in the products you offer for free.
Group 2: People who pay for some of your products but not for a full membership.
Group 3: People who pay for membership.

With just "free" and "membership," you miss out on Group 2. With micropricing, you can do three things:

  • Generate revenue from Group 2.
  • Push some people in Group 1 toward Group 2.
  • Push some of the people in Group 2 toward Group 3.

These last two are important, because they're a lot easier to do than trying to get people to move all the way from Group 1 to Group 3.

So why aren't many associations trying this? My guess is this: while "free" equals zero dollars and "membership" equals $100 or $500 or $1,000, micropricing is messy. It means you have to do actual trial and error, actual research on your members' and customers' buying habits, and maybe even some actual math. And you have to do it with every individual product or service you offer. The concept of micropricing gets derailed fast when people start asking, "What price is right?" The leader in that situation has to make other people comfortable with, "We won't know for sure until we try."

So to answer the question in the title of the post: no and yes. While micropricing can't be the only method of generating revenue at associations, it could be one method, and it could be one that bridges the gap between the others. If you're familiar of any associations that are trying some form of micropricing, let us know in the comments.

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December 8, 2009

What if associations cold-called members?

Big Idea Month is a fever, and the only cure is more great blog posts. Today, Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, gives us a dose of her usual straightforward honesty in answering the question "What if associations required every staffer to cold-call one member each week just to connect and listen?" on her Thanks for Playing blog.

My favorite line: "We all talk about the idea that we exist to serve members, meet their needs, etc. But most of us have no freakin' clue what those things are."

Remember, Big Idea Month continues through the end of December (or at least until the holidays), and you're encouraged to jump into the mix on your own blog or even here on Acronym (go to the Big Idea Month intro post for the original list of ideas and the lowdown on how to get involved). You could even be really cool and write about more than one "what if" idea, as Elizabeth says she plans to do. Thanks for playing, Elizabeth. And to everyone else, keep the great posts and comments coming!

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What if associations gave member recruitment the old college try?

Already started working on this post when Shannon Otto beat me to it last week on the Splash blog, but I'll follow up with some further thoughts anyway (you should go read her post, too).

I like the idea of associations taking some cues from colleges and universities on how to attract young people to their ranks (an idea submitted for this month's "big ideas" theme), though I'm not sure if it's revolutionary (frankly, if simply looking to an industry other than our own automatically qualifies as a "big idea," associations might be in trouble). But that doesn't mean it's not a really good idea.

Shannon made an important reference to a study showing that college admissions offices, more than any other industry, have embraced blogs and social media tools. No surprise, really; the vast majority of their audience is made up of high-school students, so colleges are meeting prospective students on students' turf.

As any marketing or social media expert will tell you, though, simply starting a blog or a Facebook page is not a "build it and they will come" scenario. I spoke last week with Ryan Munce, vice president of the National Research Center for College & University Admissions, who said the schools that are most successful mix traditional direct marketing with the new methods that the young generation uses.

"The response methods are what are changing," he said. "Historically, one of the most popular offers in a recruitment or marketing communication has been 'for more information, take this action.' The problem is today, 'more information' is no longer an offer, because information is free. Information is readily available. Especially among younger populations, they don't think of more information as something they can't just get instantly on their own online."

Munce mentioned one college that pointed prospects to a web address to download a free ringtone of its fight song, what he called "a real thing that they can't get any other way." From there, Munce said it's wise for colleges to understand and have a social-media presence but that young people are still very guarded about commercial interactions entering those spaces.

An important distinction to make between college and association recruitment, however, is the initial yes-or-no decision. The desire to attend college is almost universal among high-school students; assuming they're eligible, the bigger decision is about which college to attend. An association, however, has to convince students or young professionals that they should join.

Munce addressed this in describing how schools recruit students who may be undecided about going to college at all. "Identify what we would call an 'at-risk' student and, in essence, attack the challenges that they may have. Attack the challenges that would preclude them from attending your school. Of course, those are numerous, but there are certainly some front runners. Cost is obviously one, and location, and academic achievement are all huge issues," he said.

So the first steps toward attracting young members are to communicate with them on their terms and to address their unique concerns. Set down in one sentence like that makes it seem fairly simple, but what might qualify this as a "big idea" is the high level of empathy needed on an association's part to reach young members. Once you graduate from college and get comfortable in a job, it's very easy to forget what it was like to be a student. Taking the time to consider that audience's viewpoint takes a lot of extra effort.

Who might you turn to for help? Your current student or young-professional members, of course (assuming you have at least a few). Again, take a cue from colleges, which do this like no other industry. Take a campus tour at any college, and the tour guide will be a current student. Recruiting everywhere else, colleges tap into their alumni networks for volunteers. So, send your members (young ones, if possible) out to career fairs and campus visits, or at least pick their brains to understand the viewpoints of their fellow young professionals.

Coincidentally, the December issue of Membership Developments features "10 Ways to Embrace Student Membership," by Rebecca S. Gordon, CAE. Check that out, too, for some more ideas.

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December 7, 2009

What if associations did not charge dues?

Big Idea Month continues, with a post from Shelly Alcorn, CAE on her Association Subculture blog. Shelly answers the question: What if associations did not charge dues?

It’s a frequent debate on Acronym, (see this post and long comment thread from October) though I’m not sure I’ve seen anybody see it as quite the threat that Shelly does. It’s an interesting take.

Remember association bloggers -- write up your big idea and we'll point to it from here on Acronym. And if you have a big idea, something that answers the question "What if associations..." but don't blog yourself -- write something up and send it to me (sbriscoe@asaecenter.org), and I'll post it.

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November 13, 2009

Quick clicks: Ideas and excellence

Welcome to this week's round of Quick Clicks. Lots of good ideas:

- To tie into our social media theme for this month, a link to an interesting interview with "digital ethnographer" Michael Wesch (creator of the "Web 2.0: The Machine Is Us/ing Us" video) on the dark side of social media and the future of the web.

- If social media is making you feel overwhelmed (raise your hand!), Rex Hammock has a prayer for you.

- Rosabeth Moss Kanter blogs on the Harvard Business Publishing site about the power of the "15 minute competitive advantage."

- Seth Godin encourages you to remember to ask "why."

- Joe Gerstandt was inspired by Veteran's Day to write about what he learned about leadership from the Marine Corps.

- Are you a manager that cares enough? Rajesh Setty has nine questions to ask yourself to find out. Elsewhere, Bob Sutton lists 21 things great bosses believe and do to encourage innovation.

- More for managers: The Digital Now blog encourages you to lead with the latest brain research in mind.

- At the Associations Live blog, Kathy Johnson warns you not to let unfulfilled or unexpressed expectations ruin your relationship with your board.

- Some good economy-related posts: The SignatureI blog lists eight factors involved in building a results-driven culture in the down economy; the Plexus Consulting Group blog has examples of associtations using the recession to "trim down and muscle up"; and on the Hourglass Blog, Eric Lanke has a fantastic in-depth post on how the different generations may be responding to the current economy.

- The Aptify CEO blog has some musings on how to predict if trial members will convert, renew, and engage.

- On the Association Puzzle blog, Cecilia Sepp and several commenters have advice for new association professionals.

- Short meetings are a good thing, right? Not always, says David Patt.

- Tony Rossell shares some advice on how you can structure your organization around the value you offer.

- I'm linking to this to see if Joe Rominiecki will try to come behind me and delete the link: On the Splash blog, Mark Sedgley uses the Yankees as a model to describe how you can create a environment of excellence.

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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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October 26, 2009

Quick clicks: Risky business

Friday's Quick Clicks is now Monday morning Quick Clicks--my apologies for the delay! Here's some reading to kick off your week:

- Leslie White, who has written some great guest posts for other association bloggers in recent months, has started her own blog, Risky Chronicles. Her first post is all about risk strategy and polar bears.

- Jeff De Cagna has some strong words about what relevance is not.

- Tony Rossell at the Membership Marketing blog suggests a simple exercise to determine the value you offer to your members.

- Jeff Hurt issues a call for next-generation conference and membership revenue models.

- Michael McCurry has some ideas for how to plan for attrition (or attendance growth) in today's economy.

- David Gammel suggests that growth is a trap associations need to watch out for.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel points to an interesting "FutureLab" experiment Independent Sector is currently undertaking.

- Has your professional development budget been cut? Rosetta Thurman summarizes 11 tips for do-it-yourself professional development.

- Erik Schonher at the Experts in Membership Marketing blog has some tips from a "master strategist" whose association has grown its membership despite the economy.

- Maddie Grant at the Socialfish blog shares some draft social media guidelines; at the Bamboo Project blog, Michele Martin shares another example of such guidelines, focused around "admirable use" of social media.

- Joan Eisenstodt wants to know if you know how your audience learns.

- David Patt responds to Acronym blogger Joe Rominiecki's post on "blowing it up and starting over." (On a somewhat related note, Lindy Dreyer has a great post about ending the quest for perfection.)

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October 9, 2009

Quick clicks: Swarmball!

Ready for the long weekend? For that matter, is it a long weekend for you? Either way, here's some reading to reflect on:

- Two more association bloggers replied to the Generation X meme that began last week: Kevin Holland and David Patt.

- The Digital Now conference's blog has collected some classic CEO quotes for you.

- Wes Trochlil drew some important lessons for your association from his daughter's last soccer game (I'll admit, I'm linking to this in part for the opportunity to use the word "swarmball").

- Frank Fortin writes in praise of the forgotten power of email.

- The SocialFish blog recently posted a white paper analyzing white label online community vendors.

- David Patt has 15 tips for meeting planners working with older members or audiences.

- Jakub Nielsen's latest "Alertbox" column has some fascinating information on a user's experience on a website from the first 0.1 second to his or her first year as a customer, and even further out in time than that.

- Erik Casey has an interesting post on the importance of making your member communications relevant, while the IMG Associations blog has a related post on making them applicable.

- Marsha Rhea at the SignatureI blog discusses change leadership from the perspective of those most impacted by the change in question.

- Shelly Alcorn's Association Subculture blog argues that associations need to become experience brokers.

- Jeffrey Cufaude describes various staff members' approaches to innovation using an on-ramp as a metaphor (making me nervous for my commute home tonight!).

- Is it a bad thing to have a superstar community manager on your staff? This post from the Museum 2.0 blog says yes.

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October 2, 2009

Quick clicks: Much ado about X

Happy Friday, everyone!

- The association blogging community has been abuzz about a meme started by Maddie Grant's post "The Xer Meme: Have We Sold Out?" Generation Xers and others have replied to her question in droves, including Maggie McGary, Cynthia D'Amour, Jamie Notter, Lynn Morton, Lindy Dreyer, KiKi L'Italien, Matt Baehr, Shelly Alcorn, Ben Martin, Shannon Otto, Jeffrey Cufaude, Eric Lanke, and Elizabeth Weaver Engel. (Did I miss anybody?)

- Kerry Stackpole has some thoughts on associations as lagging economic indicators and what we should be doing to prepare for 2010.

- On SmartBrief's Insights blog, Deirdre Reid wonders if associations need to shift their focus from our members to members' customers.

- Steve Drake asks if you know what your association's assets really are.

- Lynn Morton has some predictions for the future of technology use in associations.

- Jeff Hurt has seen the "new normal" in the meetings industry and has 12 takeaways (and some predictions) to share.

- Rachel Happe at the Community Roundtable blog talks about membership fees in the "free" era.

- The Idea Center blog is hosting a guest post from risk management expert Leslie White on the intersection between risk management, decision making, and a fast-paced environment.

- David Patt has a great example of how your audience can surprise you.

- At the Hedgehog and Fox blog, Jeff Cobb talks about the difference between making and growing a market.

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September 30, 2009

Purpose-driven membership

If anyone out there thought that membership was no longer that important to associations, this month’s discussions on Acronym certainly disabused them of that idea. It’s been great to see the ongoing discussion and debate around the questions of what membership is and isn’t, and what it should and could be.

One association blogger who’s known for asking such big questions is Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC. Having recently heard him speak at ASAE & The Center’s Annual Meeting (in part) on the question of “What is membership?”, I asked him to share some of his thoughts with us on Acronym.

So, what is membership?

In some ways, that’s kind of an existential question, and I feel like I’m maybe ill-equipped to be too much of a philosopher on that subject. But I think, fundamentally, it’s such an important part of the identity that associations have had over their long history, that they see themselves as membership organizations. That’s a very common phrase that we use all the time in our community. It’s almost impossible to separate out that idea of membership from what an association is.

But at the same time, even though it’s been such an important part of our identity for many years, it’s also one of the primary strategic challenges that associations are grappling with right now—trying to figure out how, in a web-enabled world, membership fits in. The traditional conception of membership fits in with what our organizations do; is there a new kind of concept of membership and new concept of the relationships that associations would have with their stakeholders that is required by the challenges of an environment in which membership feels like it’s increasingly a commodity? How do you enrich the notion of membership in a way where it’s something that associations can continue to offer, but perhaps not the centerpiece of the association experience? … I think we’re at a very interesting reflection point in trying to figure out where membership goes from here.

You mentioned the contrast between the traditional notion of membership and an enriched form of membership. Could you describe what you see as the traditional view of membership and then what you see as this new form it could take?

Let me tackle that question in this way. I think there are really three aspects to the association that you have to take a look at: There’s the association as the endeavor, there’s the association as an enterprise, and then there’s the association as the extended network. Let’s talk about each of those in the context of your question.

Continue reading "Purpose-driven membership" »

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September 24, 2009

How secure is that golden handcuff?

The golden handcuff is a program or product so important to a member that it effectively binds them to the organization. (I’ll mail a shiny new $1 coin to the first person who puts a longer, better definition of “golden handcuff” in Associapedia.) For teachers’ unions in right-to-work states, you could perhaps describe the insurance as a golden handcuff (that’s my understanding, I apologize in advance if I’ve oversimplified). Several certifications also act as golden handcuffs. The fact is, most associations have no such handcuff, which isn’t a particularly friendly term anyway. But for those who do, I have a message: watch out!

I think the broad, popular perception of golden handcuffs is not unlike the perception of a monopoly. In a free market (or mostly free market) natural monopolies are created, and, surprise, surprise, they are not per se illegal. In fact, a monopoly signifies a good, strong company, one that is so valuable that it is able to beat out every single competitor. They’re able to do this because people like the value the company provides. As any good CAE candidate and hopefully any trade or professional society leader knows, anticompetitive practices are illegal. The formerly popular company that built the monopoly is now subject to public scorn because of the abuses, or perceived abuses, to the free market system.

Carrying the analogy forward, organizations with their golden handcuffs are fine as long as they piss anybody off. Fifteen years ago, you anger a few people and, unless you’ve been blatantly illegal, you just stifle their voice. It’s different now obviously. A few disgruntled people can easily find each other and magnify their voice. This is true for any organization, but public sentiment is distrustful of powerful organizations—and an organization with a real golden handcuff is powerful, even if it’s limited to small field or trade. I happen to believe that insurance and certifications and other handcuffs have done a lot of good for society, but I don’t think that argument matters much in a nightmare PR scenario.

The point is this, I think it’s a mistake to take that golden handcuff as a given. Something is granting you the power to have that handcuff. Maybe it’s a government or maybe it’s a hard market niche to enter, but something gives your organization that power. You need to look at that for vulnerabilities. What would it take for whatever is giving you that power to take it away? I would venture a guess that you are less inoculated from that power than you were 10 years ago, and your vulnerability will only increase.

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September 23, 2009

Delivering intangible member value

As promised in a previous post, this is from Jeffrey Cufaude from Idea Architects. I think he does a wonderful job describing a life lesson on how to serve and delight that gives us something to think about in the way we interact with members. What do you think? Is there a treasure trove of missed opportunities to create meaningful membership experiences? How can you spot such opportunities? How can staff be trained to spot and respond accordingly?

Jeffrey's post:

Waiting tables in high school, I consistently made a killing because the person who trained me had instilled in me a key three-word phrase about delivering value: transaction, transition, transformation. I often think of this phrase in relation to membership value.

Similar to the food and shelter base of Maslow’s hierarchy, transaction reminded me that the first priority is to ensure guests get perfect execution on the key components of their transaction: prompt greeting, timely order-taking, good quality food, efficient and unobtrusive follow-up. I prided myself on scanning every table every time I was in my section, always looking for an opportunity to serve before someone had to flag me down. Doing that generally guaranteed a 15 percent tip.

Transition and transformation worked hand-in-hand to move a mere transaction into something of greater value, sometimes value the guests weren’t originally seeking. In the transition stage, I listened carefully and paid close attention to the interactions and conversation at my tables. I looked for an opportunity to connect with the guests on a more personal level they would see as appropriate.

If they responded well to such overtures, I’d then expand my interactions in an effort to transform their meal into more of a dining experience, one that would be enjoyable and memorable beyond just the food. Getting guests to smile and laugh almost always guaranteed a larger gratuity. But even more importantly, it made me feel more pride in our restaurant and my work.

I don’t think serving members is all that different. They come to us in a transaction mindset and expect it to be flawless. But that’s just the minimum threshold, the tangible exchange of value, and it won’t always build loyalty and retention when some of that value can be obtained elsewhere.

Association staff and volunteers need to attend more to the transition and transformation opportunities that deliver the intangible member value that binds an individual to the organization and not just its books and webinars. It means constantly scanning “your section” and always looking for opportunities to serve. It means building relationships with your colleagues that allow for transactions and transformations to occur. As a server I had little control over the kitchen, so it was in my best interests to have good rapport with the cooks and to do everything I could to make their lives easier, not more difficult. The same can be said for many staff and volunteer relationships.

In 2001 the ASAE Foundation released Exploring the Future, an environment scan identifying “Meaning Matters” as one of the seven strategic conversations associations needed to have: “Meaning is the ‘why’ that gives significance to all the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ and helps us make sense of our lives.” More of our attention should address the four elements of meaning the study explored: meaningful purpose, meaningful relationships, meaningful stories, and meaningful contributions.

Instead too much of our conversation is still about the stuff, the traditional benefits we promote as benefits of membership. Important as they are, they aren’t the complete value proposition. A good meal nourishes the body, but a great dining experience nourishes the spirit. We can (and should) be doing the same when serving members.

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September 22, 2009

Member value is the easy answer. Too easy.

How do you know what your members value?

A lot of the membership discussion has centered around this elusive idea. The general thinking is, dues-paying membership as a model isn’t broken, it’s just evolving. The secret sauce for associations is finding and delivering what people value, for which they will be happy to fork over their dues payment.

Which leaves me with the question, how do you know what your members value? Maybe some research – both quantitative and qualitative – can provide some answers. Certainly what people actually purchase is indicative. But this retort in the membership debate smells like people justifying status quo to me, and perhaps even something more dangerous. One association trap is that an organization will realize that a number of people would value “x,” so they add “x” to their list of member benefits, but nothing is taken off. X becomes Y becomes Z and then back around to the top of the alphabet, and all of a sudden, you’re servicing 5 or 10 or 20 niche markets under the umbrella of membership. This is not a sustainable model.

Here is where I agree with the argument: if you are going to expect to receive dues, you are going to have to deliver something that people value. But I augment that with two things: first, you need to be narrow and focused in the definition of what your organization does. I think this has a lot of implications for associations, namely smaller staffs and decentralized control. The chase for ever-growing membership rolls gives way to the chase for ever-deeper engagement with the members attracted to your narrow focus.

Second, if peer networking, information, collective action, or affiliation are significant parts of your value proposition, then you need to take a critical analysis of your situation; it is quite possible the social web is changing people’s expectations and values in these areas.

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September 19, 2009

Quick clicks: Life and death

- It's always great to welcome new association blogs to the community: Plexus Consulting Group (Plexus is led by Steve Worth, a former Acronym blogger); the Association Subculture blog, written by Shelly Alcorn; and a new blog from BoardSource, Board Life Matters, focused on younger board members and their experiences leading nonprofits.

- A recent blog post by Seth Godin arguing that nonprofits are far behind for-profits in terms of risk taking and innovation sparked a number of responses in the nonprofit community. Jeff Hurt has a good rundown, as well as his own response, here; Maggie McGary at the Mizz Innovation blog also posted her take.

- Cecilia Sepp shares 10 things she loves about association management.

- The Signature Insights blog shares some reasons why so many future forecasts are wrong, and thoughts on how to get them right (or at least less wrong).

- Shannon Otto at the Splash blog responds to some of the recent discussions on Acronym about the death (or life) of membership. Judith Lindenau touches on similar themes in the post "RIP, Associations?".

- If you aren't following the Harvard Business Publishing blogs, there's a ton of good stuff there. A couple of posts that recently stood out for me: "The Awesomeness Manifesto" and "Is Work Taking Over Your Life?"

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September 17, 2009

Other angles on the membership discussion

It's been a week since our first post on membership models, and several others in the blogging community have joined in the discussion. Our traditional look at other blogs covering the sector, Quick Clicks, will be posted tomorrow by our own hyper-engaged Lisa Junker, but I wanted to give a quick point to these four posts on membership:

• Tony Russell on the Membership Marketing Blog weighed in with "A Response to Acronym Blog: Membership Recruitment and Retention are Alive and Well," noting that membership is alive and well in associations, and is increasingly becoming a tactic of the for-profit world.

• Maddie Grant from SocialFish writes in "Being interesting – at the heart of the future of membership?" that organizations need to be interesting, and that goes beyond style or creativity. It's about connecting with people in ways they find valuable.

• Jeff De Cagna on Principled Innovation says in his post, "Exploring the new look of associating," that he'll be exploring the themes of trust, contributing, and meaning in future posts.

• David Patt on Association Executive Management is pretty emphatic in "Membership is not dead!" that, well, membership is not a dead model, rather it is one that is being defined differently.

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September 14, 2009

Why should members join?

The discussion on membership has started off well, with lots of good back-and-forth comments from last week’s post.

Jeffrey Cufaude from Idea Architects has been particularly active, so much that I asked him to write a post for later in the month. We also engaged in an exchange in which Jeffrey says that perhaps the question associations should be seeking to answer is not, Why should someone join? Rather, the appropriate question is, Why should someone have to join? (NOTE: updated with emphasis on the right word. Sorry about that!)

The point I think he’s making (and I’d bet he’ll clarify in comments if needed) is similar to the point of my original post last week. I’d guess most associations have an answer to that question. The point is, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that the answer is subject to erosion. That’s particularly true when the answer involves community or information.

A lot of the comments have been about the value an organization offers, and others about the membership being a primary target market. I’ll have some additional thoughts about these things soon, but I’m curious about how Acronym readers would answer Jeffrey’s question: Why should someone have to join your organization? My follow-up questions: What effect does the changing ease of networking and information gathering enabled by the social web? If none, how have you inoculated yourself from these impacts?

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September 9, 2009

RIP: Membership?

Cough.

Wheeze.

Gasp!

Did you hear that?

That’s the membership model that associations have used for the past century and longer. Someone sees a group of people that have a common interest – for the sake of most Acronym readers, that common interest is an industry or a profession – and they affiliate by filling a membership app and writing a check.

I am firmly in the camp that this model is dying. I believe that the nature of the way people affiliate, and what they expect to get out of it, is changing. And this isn’t new—it’s been going on for decades, but I’ll come back to that.

This month in Acronym, we’ll be exploring this question: what is the future of association membership? What factors affect the membership model? How is it affected?

The debate is not about answering the question, “is dues-paying membership changing?” No one would argue with the idea that it is changing. The question is this: is the model evolving or dying?

To me it’s clear. Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, when it was abundantly evident that the trend for associations was away from dues revenue and to other things, I could have entertained the idea that the model was just evolving. But the rise of the social web over the last 5 or 6 years is absolutely changing how people affiliate with those of like mind. The number of people or businesses willing to chuck over a significant dues offering every year is going to shrink.

What does this mean for associations? Well, I have some ideas, and I’ll put them in two or three posts in the next three weeks. We’ll also be talking to others with ideas of what that means, and still others who disagree entirely. We’d like your contributions, too. Any of you with your own blogs, we’d love to see you address these questions – and of course, we love comments on Acronym. Let us know what you think… challenge us, enliven the discussion, enrich our understanding! When it makes sense, we’ll take a comment thread and turn it into a post.

Membership and dues. With the exception of being mission-driven, there’s probably not anything more fundamental to the association model, and it’s in peril… or is it?

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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 29, 2009

Why are we so afraid to change?

I have been talking to more and more membership organizations every day and I continue to be surprised at how many organizations have not reinvigorated their membership marketing. We currently live in a world where membership is no longer a given and where more and more is competing for our piece of our current and prospective members. Since almost all of us know this is true, why are so many organizations following the same membership marketing strategy that they used ten years ago?

Here are some of the key things I have noticed:

1. We continue to focus more time and money on recruitment than we do on retention, even though almost all of us have been told at some point that keeping a member is always cheaper than bringing in a new one.

2. We continue to lack a member communications strategy where we use multiple methods and resources to talk one on one with our members on a regular basis for reasons other than asking them to purchase something, register for something, or renew their membership.

3. We continue to send everyone a generic message and a generic list of benefits that requires any given segment of our audience to sort through the list to find what is applicable to them.

4. We continue to complain about our AMS and our databases and/or know that our systems do not allow us to market optimally, yet we do nothing to change that.

Why do we continue to do these 4 things, and more, when there are relatively easy ways to do things differently and potentially get a lot better response without a lot more effort? Is it lack of knowledge (notice I didn’t say stupidity, because I know that is not it), lack of training, lack of proactivity, lack of money, lack of time? Let me know, because once I find the common denominator, I will work on figuring out a way to blast it out of associations forever so we all have the membership recruitment and retention results we deserve.

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July 28, 2009

One rotten apple ...

You know the saying, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.” I am especially interested in the veteran managers’ opinions on this list. Is this just a quaint saying or is there any wisdom in it?

If so, if and when you do find one “bad member” (if there is such a thing) or one “bad” employee….what do you do about it?

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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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Quick clicks: To the Moon!

Good afternoon! Some reading material for your Friday:

Several association bloggers were inspired by the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. (Was I the only one who got choked up watching the footage from the first moonwalk on all of those 40th anniversary documentaries?) Jeff De Cagna asks if we've lost our ability to imagine impossible goals like putting a man on the moon. Kevin Holland responds with some thoughts on why the competitive spirit is so important to the creation (and accomplishment) of such goals. Mark Bledsoe at the Association Okie blog also has some thoughts on the moon mission and BHAGs.

In case you've missed it, Tony Rossell at the Membership Marketing blog has been doing a series of posts based on a benchmarking study he conducted on association membership marketing practices. You can access all of the posts so far here.

Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog wants to know why we default toward creating formal structures for groups of volunteers, when they might be perfectly happy as a more informal group.

Cecilia Sepp reminds us that volunteering is a commitment to be taken seriously.

At the Mizz Information blog, Maggie McGary wonders if associations are prepared for the way advertising is changing and will continue to change.

Bruce Turkel at the Turkel Talks blog reminds us that learning is only useful if you actually use it.

At the Association Voices blog, Steve Drake has posted part three of his "Reinventing Associations" series.

Michele Martin at the Bamboo Project blog has some important questions your organization should be asking (and you should be asking yourself, too).

Eric Casey at the Association Unbound blog has a few pet peeves he wants to air out. (If you're enjoying the "classic association blunders" conversation here, I bet you'll enjoy Eric's post.)

Stephanie Vance shares some advocacy advice with an acronym. (Say that three times fast!)

Cynthia D'Amour advises team leaders (and chapter leaders) that you can't expect blind faith from others.

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July 17, 2009

Quick clicks: Feeling lucky?

There's lots of great stuff to link to around the association blogging world this week!

Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog says that being an active member of an association can be your lucky charm.

There's been a lot of idea sharing and well, buzz, around last week's Buzz 2009 conference: Maddie Grant has a good roundup here.

A guest post on the Nonprofit University blog has 10 things to love, and 10 things to hate, about nonprofit boards.

The DigitalNow blog suggests trying to see your association through "member tinted glasses."

Matt Baehr at the BlogClump blog writes about the hierarchy of change in associations, and how trying to make start change at the wrong level of the hierarchy can be an exercise in frustration.

Cecilia Sepp at the Association Puzzle blog wants to create a vacation policy for the 21st century. What would you want to see in there?

Web strategy analyst Jeremiah Owyang has an interesting post listing the five organizations allow their employees to participate in the social web, and what they say about the organization in question.

Word-of-mouth guru Andy Sernovitz links to a presentation from PepsiCo on how they're moving into social media, which might be of particular interest to associations that, like PepsiCo, are in the early stages of engagement with the social web.

The Wild Apricot blog explores what to do if your Twitter hashtag and another group's hashtag happen to be the same.

Chris Bonney at the Vanguard Technology blog argues that you can't build a great website by committee.

Ann Oliveri at the Zen of Associations blog muses about how associations can better tap into the brainpower of their past volunteer leaders.

Rebecca Rolfes at the LeaderConnect blog argues that the future of association publishing lies in focusing on the member.

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July 3, 2009

Quick clicks: Virtual fireworks only

For those of you in the United States, have a great holiday weekend! Here's some reading material to take with you:

Jamie Notter challenges associations to try for truth.

Bruce Hammond shares his experience on "the other side"--as a volunteer--and the lessons he sees for associations.

Tony Rossell is hosting an interesting discussion on incentives and membership recruitment. Elsewhere, Ellen Behrens at the aLearning blog is also thinking about incentives and how to make them effective.

Ann Oliveri at the Zen of Associations blog has some ideas about how to better engage association employees.

Rebecca Rolfes at the LeaderConnect blog asks whether trade associations can be truly global.

NTEN's blog lists 10 disruptive technologies your organization should be thinking about.

Michele Martin has a helpful post on making social media and learning more accessible to people with disabilities.

Peggy Hoffman shares an interesting picture of how a for-profit company is interacting with and engaging its customer community.

Harvard Business's Conversation Starter blog has a recent post on three ways to make conferences better. It's interesting to see what someone outside the association field sees as radical suggestions to improve conferences and meetings.

Here's an idea you can easily apply in your work: the Signal vs. Noise blog suggests that changing your writing instrument might help you focus on the big picture.


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June 28, 2009

Member Relations: A Core Association Service?

Last week, I attended a golf outing sponsored by one of my Association’s five regions (chapters/components). Including travel time, the event lasted a majority of the day and prevented me from spending an eight-hour workday in the office.

My duties on-site primarily included networking with members. The question, however, is whether member relations is a core association service or if spending an eight-hour workday in the office would have been a better use of my time?

We have a small staff and I wear many hats, including that of member retention, outreach and engagement. Although to some – including a handful of coworkers that spend less time out and about with members – it may seem that member relations is unnecessary fluff.

I mean, stepping back, it is quite easy to see how one full workday spent out of the office during a beautiful, summer day could be confused with playing hooky; however, I believe that showing an interest in our members, attending regional events, networking with key stakeholders and remaining visible is paramount to active, engaged and happy members.

Like marketing, member relations is sometimes the first service to be trimmed from an association’s budget during tough economic times; however, I believe that staying connected to members allows associations like mine to gather and utilize valuable intelligence.

Attending this golf outing allowed me to network with members, informally question them about satisfaction with a variety of Association products/services, demonstrate progress on current initiatives, identify current member challenges and the list goes on.

So, my question to you is this: Do you believe “member relations” is a core association service? What does member relations look like in your association? In what ways does your association leverage member intelligence?

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June 19, 2009

Quick clicks: No whammies!

Some links for weekend reading:

- David Gammel argues for benevolent dictatorships, at least when it comes to website design.

- Blue Avocado has an interesting article on the portrayal of nonprofits in popular culture, with a number of comments providing additional examples. (Although I can't think of many pop culture references to professional or trade associations. Can anyone else think of some?)

- Tony Rossell imagines what he'd do if he was building an entirely new membership marketing program from the ground up.

- The Nonprofit University blog talks about survival, sustainability, and the differences between the two.

- Frank Fortin was inspired by Jim Collins' new book.

- The Busy Event blog shares what your exhibitors, attendees, and sponsors are thinking--and not telling you.

- The Vanguard Technology blog has four reasons why mobile matters to associations.

- Jeff De Cagna has a podcast interview with Alan Webber, co-founding editor of Fast Company magazine and author of the new book Rules of Thumb: 52 Principles for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.

- Cindy Butts reminds us all to be kind.

- Ken Zielske at the Association Media blog asks if your association has a "whammy bar"--something really cool that sets it apart. (Clearly I don't know guitars, because all I could think about as I read the post was that 1980s game show where the contestants would yell "No whammies!")

- Peggy Hoffman asks, "What's the difference between social networks and communities?"

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June 16, 2009

Growing older…

Unfortunately, we all do it, it can’t be helped! But, if yours is a professional society or an association that has individual people as members (as opposed to organizational membership) and you have noticed that the average age of your members is going up, then this should be a wake up call that your nonprofit has gotten off track.

What is the secret of eternal life for individual membership associations?—relevancy, a simple concept but deceivingly difficult sometimes to achieve. It is difficult because relevancy is a moving target--one can be relevant one year and “old news” the next. Keeping your members is nice but not enough. Instead, your membership year-to-year should reflect the profile of the work force at large for the sector you serve--ideally a bell-shaped curve with a bulge over that age group that is in the prime of their careers. In a free market economy, such a membership profile is the best affirmation that your organization and the programs and services it offers have been judged by the marketplace to be relevant to its needs.

So, how does one achieve and keep relevancy? Anyone care to share?

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June 12, 2009

Quick clicks: You live, you learn

In honor of our "future of learning" theme this month, the first links in this week's list are learning related:

Jeff Cobb shares his own definition of learning in a recent post on the Mission to Learn blog. Do you agree? Disagree?

Cindy Butts of the AE on the Verge blog shares the story of an association educating its members through weekly quizzes on Twitter.

Interested in improving your presentation skills, or helping you association's presenters improve theirs? Jeffrey Cufaude has started a series of posts about "powerful presentations." Here's the first three posts.

The Associationrat blogger describes instituting a code of core values in his/her department.

Judith Lindenau at the Off Stage blog has a great post on transparency in associations.

Does your association want to build an audience or a community? Chris Brogan nails the distinction.

On the Socialfishing blog, Maddie Grant posted a few weeks ago to ask, "How can associations be more like Google?" More recently, two great comments have been posted in response to her question.

Pay very close attention to second-year members who don't renew, advises Marilyn Rutkowski in a recent post on The Forum Effect.

I've wondered in the past why some organizations don't allow telecommuting, and finally, an article answers my question (at least in part); the Dear Association Leader blog has more.

Rebecca Rolfes at the LeaderConnect blog wonders if association publishers might have a leg up on for-profit publishers in the current economy.

Beth Kanter posted an interesting list of nonprofit CEOs who are active on Twitter. (The list is expanded greatly in the comments to her post.)

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June 2, 2009

Tragedy of the Commons

The "tragedy of the commons" is a social phenomenon characteristic of human activity throughout the world. Its thesis is that individuals take care of what personally belongs to them; but they tend to abuse and rush to exploit resources that are shared in common in their haste to get what they can for themselves before these resources run out entirely.

This human tendency to see no further than our own limited interest has always existed of course; but, apart from a few sociologists and environmentalists, it did not attract a great deal of attention until relatively recently. Now with global warming reaching a tipping point, global fisheries in full collapse and every other shared global resource in crisis, even ordinary citizens are starting to realize the impact six billion human souls are having on our planet. Something has to give…..

The tragedy of the commons manifests itself in other ways as well. When given a choice taxpayers everywhere vote to reduce their taxes, even while wondering why the public services they are used to and expect are struggling to make ends meet…. The human brain does not seem to be wired right—or at least wired in a way that can ensure our long term survival.

It seems to me nonprofit organizations could be/should be especially involved in all of the critical issues stemming from these “tragedies of the commons.” Nonprofit organizations are by definition enterprises that are intended to benefit society; in this they are or should be the antithesis of the tragedy of the commons, aren’t they?

Can human behavior be changed in a democratic society that respects individual rights and free enterprise? In this regard, corporate social responsibility (CSR) offers interesting possibilities for nonprofit-for profit collaboration, but does this have staying power and is it enough to make a difference?

Nonprofits that are membership organizations have their own tragedy of the commons of course whenever there is discussion of membership dues. Members don’t like to pay them as a rule…. Are there lessons that can be learned here that might have application in a broader context?

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June 1, 2009

Keeping Membership a Value

When working with members, it’s easy to concentrate on the members that demand the most attention, pay the most dues, or seem to be the best fit for the association. When talking with one of our members recently, one who has remained a faithful member for over thirty years, I realized again how important it is for all the members to feel important, to feel they are a value to the association and that membership is worth more than the dollars they spend each year on dues or the time they volunteer on committees.

At times like this, when the economy is shaky and companies are questioning their expenditures, it is more important than ever to make sure our members feel the value of association membership. It is helpful to know not only why they joined, but why they continue to pay their dues. Some no doubt do it out of an obligation to the industry

that supports them, some do it to make valued connections that could bring additional business their way, and some continue their membership without even thinking about why. “We’ve always belonged,” they say when writing the check. But under what circumstance will they decide they are no longer getting value for their money?

We need to make sure we never stop asking our members what is it that they hope to gain from being a member. Is it the association logo on their cards, serving on committees to make connections, the networking opportunities, or did they simply join on a recommendation and really aren’t sure why they keep their membership active? How can we support them through the good times and the bad? We need to ask, we need to know. We must never fall into the trap of making assumptions about our members. Don’t assume we know why they joined, or we know what we need to do to keep them on board, or how to bring them back when we lose them to hard times. There has never been a better time to become a good listener and invite your members (or potential members) to open up and share. Everyone can win if we ask and then listen.

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May 22, 2009

The return of quick clicks

I have been extremely remiss lately in sharing links to some of the great discussions happening in the association blogging community (and elsewhere). Here are just a few of the interesting posts I've seen this week.

(What did I miss? Feel free to share links to other recent standout posts in comments. Note that links can occasionally trip our spam filter; if your comment goes into quarantine because of the link, I'll release it for you.)

- Totally not association related, but if you'd like to take a few minutes to change your perspective this morning, check out this set of photos on The Big Picture photoblog: Human landscapes as seen from above.

- Cindy Butts at the AE on the Verge blog asks which of your association's programs are your "biggest losers." (A follow-up post describes what you might do once those "losers" are identified.)

- NTEN has posted a roundup of materials related to the recent Nonprofit Technology Conference. I haven't had a chance to review them in detail, but if you're interested in nonprofits and technology, I'm sure there's something in there for you.

- Frank Fortin at the Guilt by Association blog says that associations can learn a lot from Staples on how to operate in a recession.

- Bruce Hammond has some thoughts on personalizing membership: "People like to be treated like they're the only member of your association."

- Lindy Dreyer at the Association Marketing Springboard blog as a provocative question to raise: If having great content on your website is no longer enough to draw people there, what should we do next?

- If you have ever sat through an unsuccessful RFP process (on either side), you may be interested in a post by Rick Johnston on a new trend called "speed sourcing."

- Is your association listening actively? Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog has some ideas on how to open your organizational ears.

- Maddie Grant at the Socialfishing blog has some thoughts on the complicated nature of our organizations' identity in a digital age. Jamie Notter has posted in response.

- A group of association Twitterers have started organizing "association chats" on Tuesday afternoons. Deirdre Reid at the Reid All About It blog has more information and a summary of the first discussion.

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May 18, 2009

Everyone has a story

It's easy to get caught up in life around us, to believe everything we hear and see, but life just isn’t that way. The mantra I've been posting on Twitter recently is quite simple: Don't judge, don't make assumptions, and everyone has a story. I can only imagine what a better place we would all be in if we tried harder to follow these rules. Not just physically, but emotionally as well.

How quick we are to judge others. When a car pulls in front of you and you curse at them, chances are they never thought about how it might affect your day. Their thoughts might be a thousand miles away, on a grumpy boss or a sick child, their financial situation, or even relationship problems at home. But we often judge them as rude, careless, or inconsiderate without stopping to think they have their own story.

What would happen if we just shook it off and went back to our own business? If we just determined not to prejudge them and move on? And perhaps in our desire to be more considerate, more patient even, we would find that others adopt our kinder philosophy, our non-judgmental views, and soon life would change. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe people wake up with the intention of judging others. Of making quick assumptions or reacting harshly to situations they face, I just think it builds. Slowly at first, but soon, without even realizing it, we react. Or perhaps over-react.

Judging others and making assumptions isn't something we just do with strangers. We do the same thing every day with our friends, family, our staff, and association members. We can get disappointed when our members fail to rejoin or choose to drop a sponsorship, but do we ponder on what lead them to that decision? Are they having issues of their own?

The key is communication. Remind yourself every day not to judge others or make assumptions and know that everyone you pass, everyone you judge, has a story of their own and you can't truly know what it is without being in their shoes.

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May 12, 2009

Cherry-picking Relevant Journal Articles Adds Value to Membership

Plenty of conversation is occurring about how to add value to association memberships, with much discussion focusing on delivering more knowledge and further developing members’ skills.

One added benefit I like was announced recently by the Web Analytics Association. Its Research Committee has arranged access to four online peer-reviewed journals that may interest its members. To “bridge the gap between industry research and the research conducted within the academic communities,” a project team of the committee reviews and summarizes selected articles to keep WAA members apprised of the latest research and offers an archive of issues as well. The committee also is recruiting members to write reviews.

This example reflects aspects of chatter I’ve heard lately about the need for associations to “get over” their “territorial attitudes” regarding their publications and instead focus on finding and delivering access to the best range of knowledge for their respective professions or trades—and that may mean outside of the hallowed halls of the association. Indeed, it may mean reaching out to peripheral organizations that aren’t a perfect match to all members but may hold attractive information to members involved or interested in cross-disciplinary knowledge exchanges.

A more open attitude also may prompt more association journal/magazine exchanges and wider tapping of for-profit publications and knowledge products.

Frankly, associations aren’t always good at that type of strategy, but if we want to retain the value of our reputations as comprehensive repositories and leaders in relevant knowledge delivery, then we need to re-examine what types of knowledge our members truly need in this changing economy—and whether we have to be the ones to create it from scratch.

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May 5, 2009

The wrong way to renew

If you read Cynthia D’Amour’s blog you will have seen multiple posts on a series of renewals that she has been receiving from a group she used to belong to. She was nice enough to share her reaction to their efforts, and in a sad way it has been pretty funny. I recently had a similar experience.

I had been a member of a local association on and off for over 15 years and recently decided not to renew. From what I recall their renewal marketing started 3-4 months before my membership lapsed, with a letter telling me to renew my membership. Pretty simple and straightforward, but it obviously did not get me to reconsider my decision. Over the next few months, I got an email or two along with a few more letters. The one that got me to write this is what I will call the “expire” letter.

The letter was all about them and nothing about me. It inferred that if I didn’t renew I would no longer be a member of the cool kids club. It told me about all the great things happening at the organization—events, my subscription to their publication, my complimentary listing in their directory and lots of discounts. Nowhere in the letter did it tell me anything about how membership would solve any of my needs or address any of my challenges yet it told me how I would value my membership all year long. To put icing on the cake there was a sentence in there that I didn’t even understand: “You won’t want to miss from free subscription to any more issues of our publication.” Huh?

The mailing also included a renewal form. The renewal form did have my name lasered in at the top with my member number and my expiration date, which was good. Unfortunately it also included a rehash of all the products and services they told me I would miss from the letter. Again, nothing telling me how I would benefit from my membership. The topper: At the end of the form it told me to keep my benefits flowing. What benefits? They didn’t tell me what they are.

I have 3 points here:

1. Do associations, or any organizations for that matter, no longer understand the difference between features and benefits? Benefits sell. Features don’t. Do members care that you sell a book? Or do members care that the book will help them go further in their career, or do their job better, stay up to date on all of the latest information or even make more money?

2. Are we doing the little things that we need to do to appear professional? Someone should have proofread the letter that I received. If I was on the fence with my membership, as I was, a bad impression can be the last impression.

3. Are we taking advantage of technology? The letter and renewal form I received was not customized to my needs; it was totally generic. They know my purchasing history so they should be able to tailor a piece of their renewal effort to me as an individual. I am not asking for true one to one marketing but something closer would be nice.

I am not writing this to beat up this one organization. I am writing this because I think that with everything else association staff members have to do on a daily basis, renewals sometimes get dumped into the “have to do,” not the “want to do,” category and are not given the attention they deserve. Retaining members is critical for the majority of associations. If we are not doing everything we can with our renewal series to get members to retain their membership, then we are not doing our jobs.

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Be fine with members leaving the room

Was tuned to this Makin' Ads blog post about a captivating local musician from Seth Godin's blog, which I think is a good parable for what I've been preaching of late.

Here's the salient quote from the bottom of the Makin Ads' post:

"3) He got us to participate. He never said it, but there was no choice. You were going to participate, or you were going to leave the bar.

"4) He was fine with people leaving the bar. Didn’t bug him at all. And this is the most important thing. He was polarizing. But it was so much better to have a smaller group of people who were really into the act than a large group of half-interested folks. He just put himself out there. This is me. This is what I do. Jump on or jump out of the way."

Associations need to define what they do, then do it very, very well. You'll lose people by doing this, but that has to be ok. The end result may be an organization that is smaller, but it will most assuredly be better for those who stick around.

The alternative is to continue trying to be all things to all people, or a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people, with the end result of losing everybody. Even the people who remain in the bar would be trying to ignore you.

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April 30, 2009

Getting to the real answer

Any association executive can tell you it's important to know why those members who have left the organization did so.

At her general session at ASAE & The Center's Membership and Marketing Conference, Terri Langhans said there's only two answers to that question:

1. The right answer. And,

2. The one that sounds good.

You know what she means. For a long time, the king of the hill was "no time," perhaps superseded recently by "can't afford it."

It's an answer, it's easy, and it usually closes the topic.

As Langhans would say, don't even bother asking the question if you're going to allow those kinds of answers to close the topic. You have to dig deeper. You may or may not get to the real answer, but without the real answer, you have no new information to help you help your organization.

Langhans' suggestion--follow up with this question: "I hear you, but is that the real reason? What is that you know that I couldn't possibly know that, if you were me doing this job, you'd want to know?"

Not sure how well this will get to the real answer -- I'm curious to know how others think they get the real answer.

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April 15, 2009

Clean tech association creates innovative membership category

You would think that a nonprofit named the Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization would have it made, considering all of the federal attention on these types of businesses in the new stimulus legislation. However, CTSI is hardly sitting around helping members complete bank deposit slips.

Instead, it appears to have recognized a tremendous opportunity for itself that will help members in the short term and the entire industry in the future. Its just-launched program, cleanConnect, aims specifically at helping the thousands of new clean-technology entrepreneurs create small businesses properly and then execute the really hard stuff—e.g., survive for the long-term despite the weak economy. The program has been carefully crafted around the basics: “partnership building, policy advocacy, resources & information, and financial support.”

The nonprofit also has partnered with the Nano Science and Technology Institute to cosponsor 2,700 presentations, industrial workshops, and issue-specific “short courses” at the upcoming TechConnect World conference in May.

In addition, the nonprofit has established a unique style of “in-kind” (free) membership, with benefits focused primarily on CEO professional development/engagement and concerns. In return for the free benefits, cleanConnect membership participants must “contribute to the building of the CTSI clean technology community,” which might run from serving on industry action committees to passing resources to other members to writing articles—anything that “will benefit the community.”

“Whether it takes one year or three, the public markets will come back, credit will become available, and companies will begin thriving again,” the organization writes on its Web site. “By joining forces and working together as a community, clean technology companies will be well positioned to take advantage of the comeback. By building a strong resource network, sharing our collective knowledge, and unifying our political voices, we will continue to drive innovation in energy and environmental technologies forward.”

I love that CTSI is building in value to itself and the wider community as it simultaneously targets valuable resources at what some might consider a niche element of the industry. I'm also curious whether many other associations permit members to "work off" their dues payments. Anyone?

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March 8, 2009

Now how did THAT happen?

I am a CEO and Education Director of a small staff association. For most of my professional life I have been a licensed health care provider and educator; in some ways I am an “accidental” chief staff officer. A couple of years ago the executive committee of the association approached me to help troubleshoot some issues. The organization had recently lost a key staff person and was struggling to stay upright during a very rocky transition. A business manager had been brought in but resigned after only a few months, leaving the association in a worse position. Having served as the board president of the organization four years earlier, the exec committee thought I could provide some insight about the association and help assess its situation. A few weeks as a consultant turned into a year as chief operating officer, and transitioned to the chief staff officer a few months ago.

It’s been amazingly busy and I felt overwhelmed at times, learning the skill set of organizational management. Resources such as ASAE, especially the Diversity in Executive Leadership Program (DELP), and other association professionals have been very helpful (lesson number 1: no one goes at this alone!). I’ve been able to come to place where, while everyday is still daunting in challenges, it becomes a bit easier to see the brass ring - all of the intricacies of fulfilling the organization’s mission from a broader perspective. It’s easy to become lost in the minutiae of day-to-day operations - and sometimes that’s really important to do. Yet staying down in the weeds can be disorienting; the CEO can’t afford to lose the crucial sense of direction.

Membership is a key example. Our association has had a steady number of members for the past 5 years. No contraction yet no growth. The staff and board have had meetings to talk about why this is the case. Many reasons have been cited - not enough advertising; not enough benefits; few outreach efforts, to mention just a couple. In thinking this over, larger questions came to mind: Just who is our membership? Why do they join? Is there a need that we not meeting? Is there a segment that we are not thinking about? As simple as these questions are, we have actually few answers - no surveys, no data crunching. The mechanics of attracting new members becomes easier if the organization is clear about whom it really serves. We’re working on finding the answers to these questions right now, going through our database and asking existing members about why they joined. We hope to also ask those folks who are NOT members why that’s the case.

We’re using low-cost tools to do this, and it’s slower-going than I would like, but I also know this information will help us in the long run, and make us stronger in the process.

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Finding Retention in Unexpected Places

Our staff sat down this week to discuss member retention. We’re just now beginning to feel the affects of this challenging economy. It’s not as though we’re experiencing a mass exodus. To the contrary, only a very few members have dropped membership in the last six months. Although it’s probably a discussion we should have had before now, now’s as good a time as any to ramp up our retention efforts.

Certainly, we offer dozens of products and services that could take center stage in a retention campaign. But how would we narrow these down? As a highly-regulated, government-funded industry, a number of critical issues are important to our members. Luckily, we didn’t have to decide. Our members have told us loud and clear – and, for us, the answer was somewhat unexpected.

What we know is that Michigan health care professionals look to our association for quality education. Among all of the intangible services we offer, it’s one thing that we do very well and is seen as a valuable takeaway. Even though they may be financially strapped and dues may not be in the budget this year, our former members are committed to attending our education programs, even if this means paying the non-member rate.

Knowing this, we are taking steps to feature our education programs in a new member retention campaign. We are pulling articles about upcoming education programs from our biweekly newsletter to launch a separate publication on the off weeks. We’re also creating a buzz with our “Providers Pick the Topics” project, as well as planning a Virtual Open House for the launch of our new web and audio conferencing services.

Additionally, we’re taking this opportunity to say, “thank you.” Our president/CEO will be writing a letter to our members thanking them for their loyalty and commitment to the association despite the present financial hardships they are experiencing. With this letter, we plan to offer a gift certificate inviting our members to participate in an upcoming education program at no charge.

So, my question to you is this: Are you finding retention in unexpected places this year? Of the dozens of products and services your association offers its members, which would they say are the most valuable in a downturn economy? How do you know? Does this correspond with the products and services you’re investing valuable time and money to offer?

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February 25, 2009

Are you taking advantage of the passion of your members?

I am the assistant coach of my son’s 3rd grade basketball team. We are very lucky as we have a good group of boys that take the game seriously. As coaches we try to make sure they have fun, learn and follow the rules while doing so. We hold the boys to a very high standard and have a lot of passion for the game of basketball, the team and working with the boys as individuals.

Recently my passion showed when we were in a tight game and the refs were not exactly calling a good game. I questioned a call from one of the officials and instead of using my passion to their advantage the scorekeeper got an attitude, got up in my face, told me how wrong I was for questioning a call, told me how that the kids were only in 3rd grade so it really doesn’t matter, etc, etc. Instead of telling me calmly how he understood that I had a certain level of passion for the game and expectations for everyone involved and talking to me about ways to use that passion to help everyone involved he confronted an already frustrated and passionate individual and made things worse.

This situation got me thinking—do we, as association professionals, do this to our most passionate members? Do our attitudes and frustrations and processes cause us to want to shut people down because what they are expressing is not exactly what we want to hear or see? Or do we turn things around and use our members’ passion to our advantage?

What would have happened if the scorekeeper had told me that he understood why I was frustrated and suggested that I calmly talk to the refs during a timeout or after the game? What if he calmly told me that if I wanted to address the rules and the referees I could volunteer to serve as a member of some committee that plays that role? Wouldn’t that have been a better use of his energy and lead to better things for me, him and the organization as a whole?

I realize that we all have emotions and some times we do get carried away. Shouldn’t we as association professionals who ultimately succeed or fail based on the way we serve and treat members understand that we do have lots of passionate members that need us to help them focus that passion in a positive way? Are we doing that? Based on my experiences with some organizations and when I was working at an association myself, I am not really sure.

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February 22, 2009

Member Engagement

Today I attended a session on “Building Loyalty: A Life Cycle Engagement Plan”. I got to thinking about my association’s membership………When a member calls to end membership, my first thought is “how engaged were they with the association?” In order to answer that, you need to have a way to measure membership engagement. How do you record this information? At NACUBO, our database maintains a pretty accurate record of purchases and participation. Quarterly, our director of membership and marketing ranks members based on their engagement with the association. There are 5 levels to the ranking. We know that our “gold” members are highly involved with the association and most likely will renew. The “tin” members have not been engaged at all and tend to be business partner members or smaller institutions that have a very limited budget.

At my previous association, we had noticed that members were more likely to let their membership lapse in the first to third year of membership. This point was emphasized by the content leaders today in the session I attended on “Building Loyalty: A Life Cycle Engagement Plan”. The content leaders reiterated the necessity of a 1st year of membership engagement plan. As association professionals, I think that we are each responsible for increasing our member‘s engagement. It isn’t simply the “job” of the membership staff. As a team, we can all effectively communicate the value of association membership and the impact it can have on particular industries as a whole. This session gave me a lot of ideas to bring back to my association, especially as our renewal period quickly approaches.

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February 21, 2009

Member Databases

As an association professional, how do you use your membership data? As the membership manager at NACUBO, I use our member data on a daily basis. This can include updating information, downloading reports or queries, adding a new member, and merging profiles. How well we use our data can determine how effectively we are communicating to our members.

I’d like to highlight one of the programs I attended today called “Get Personal with Your Database to Provide Relevant Messaging”. How are you communicating to your membership using your database and are you effectively using this information to increase renewals and attendance? By using purchases, event attendance and survey data, you may be able to ‘predict’ your renewal rate. At my association, I am currently working to update the data that we use to process dues in April. Because this is my first year in this position and with this database, I am learning as I go. I used to be adverse to data….’how boring’ I used to think, but now I understand the relevance and importance of correct data.

This session gave me some GREAT ideas about innovative ways to retain our members this upcoming year. It also reminded me to revisit our newest members (1-3 years). I think that in the current state of the economy, membership professionals are looking for creative ways to retain members and increase their ROI on membership.

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November 24, 2008

Remote Troubleshooting

We've all experienced technical difficulty with our computers at some point and some of us have had the opportunity to experience remote assistance. In my case, while offsite, I called my company's IT department and requested assistance. They connected to my computer remotely and solved the problem right in front of me - I was thrilled because not only was the problem fixed, I saw how he fixed it and could therefore avoid the issue in the future!

While browsing the web, I came across a download that could revolutionize how we deal with member support. Ammyy Admin allows PC users to connect to other PCs to navigate on their system. This means, if a member can't figure out where conference registration is or has trouble logging in, they could grant you access to navigate it for them in front of them. Not only will this help make members more tech-savvy, it also help members feel more connected to ADA headquarters.

More information on this tool is below. For those of you interested, I found this on lifehacker.com.


Ammyy Admin Shares Screens in Three Steps
Windows only: If you're eager for a simple, non-browser, quick-starting app that will let you get remote desktop access to your mom's desktop, your struggling friend's laptop, or nearly any other machine, Ammyy Admin is just about perfect for your needs. The 128KB, no-install app opens and gives you a dedicated client ID number. To connect as the administrator, you simply enter the client's ID's number, choose a connection speed optimizer (if needed), and hit "Connect," while the client only has to hit "Start." Unless you use its sister private router product, Ammyy Admin will route its screen-sharing traffic over the developer's servers, so work that requires privacy shouldn't rely on Ammyy. Still, for keeping it simple with one-time connections—or even regular hook-ups, through Ammyy's Windows service option—Ammyy is worth checking out. Ammyy Admin is a free download for Windows systems only.
Ammyy Admin [via FreewareGenius.com]

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November 17, 2008

The benefits of free benefits

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the challenging times that may be hitting many associations and how it will impact our membership strategies. In addition to changing our messaging to even more directly point out to our members why the hard times are the worst time for them to let their membership lapse, I have been wondering whether it would make sense for us to provide some free benefits for a period of time to certain segments of members who have not renewed.

My thinking is that if there are certain segments of your membership that you know have a high likelihood of coming back once the economy improves doesn’t it make sense to tell them, and show them, how much you value them as members by providing them a limited amount of their benefits for free for a limited period of time.

I think it is critical that you figure out what benefits you can afford to continue to provide for free (e-newsletters, access to members-only portion of the website, member pricing at conferences or webinars, etc.) and make sure that as you deliver them you remind recently lapsed members that you are doing this for free for a period of time in the hopes that they will eventually return to the organization. You can put subtle, or not so subtle, win-back offers in everything you give them in case they decide they want to renew before the end of the free period. Of course, once the free period is over, you will want to reach out to them and remind them it is over and that you want them to re-join.

I also think it is critical to determine what segments will receive this offer and how you will promote it. Will you offer it to long-term members who you noticed have dropped after extended tenure with the association? New members who you really want to help get through those first few years so you have them hooked long term? Will you promote it widely? Will you do it on a one to one basis? Personally I feel it really needs to be done on a one to one basis based on likelihood to renew which could be determined by past participation, volunteer status, etc. Otherwise you may end up extending the offer to many folks who never really intend to come back but really want the free benefits.

What do you think about this strategy? I think that if it is done right, the staff effort and minimal cost involved in doing it could position an association way ahead of its competition once things turn around.

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October 24, 2008

Quick clicks: Performance reviews, flex schedules, and more

I've been collecting a bunch of links to share with you:

- Did you see the very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on why you should get rid of performance reviews? I don't know if I agree (although Scott might), but it's definitely a thought-provoking read.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel started a good discussion about flexible schedules.

- Kristin Clarke's post on associations and the financial crisis sparked some good posts by other bloggers: Bruce Hammond lists some questions we should be asking right now, Caron Mason suggests ways associations can help members impacted by the economy, and Tony Rossell points out that association membership can be a form of unemployment insurance. In addition, Kerry Stackpole writes on leadership in uncertain times

- Kevin Holland and David Patt respond to Scott Oser's post on whether or not attendees at association meetings are really ready for new meeting formats. Both of them raise important points about the negatives of some more interactive education sessions.

- David Patt also points to an interesting blog post, where the blogger in question and her commenters discuss the pros and cons of joining a professional association. It's an interesting glimpse at a potential member's thought process.

- Wes Trochlil is gathering information on associations that use their AMS successfully.

- Lindy Dreyer suggests that both age and generation are less important than we often think.

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October 9, 2008

Quick clicks: Member service and unspoken truths

Here are some links for your Thursday morning (assuming it's already not Thursday afternoon where you are):

- Please join me in welcoming Kerry Stackpole and the Wired 4 Leadership blog to the association blogging community! Kerry's sessions at the last two Annual Meetings were some of my favorites, and I'm really looking forward to seeing his upcoming blog posts.

- Kevin Holland is sharing a series of "unspoken truths of association management" that pack a lot into a single sentence. My favorite so far is this one, but I highly recommend checking them all out.

- Rosetta Thurman at the Perspectives From the Pipeline blog shares her thoughts on "We ARE Nonprofit Culture, or Diversity Is Everyone's Business."

- Lindy Dreyer has an interesting breakdown of the lifecycle of an online community member, to help associations with social networks support their members as they move from being "lonely explorers" to active participants in the community. (The Find and Convert blog has a related post from an online marketer's perspective.)

- Renato Sogueco shares his association's experience with using the book Wikinomics to change their approach to member engagement.

- David Patt has a challenging post on excuses your members should never hear. On a related note, Matt Baehr says that your member service should never be reminiscent of the DMV.

- Jeff Cobb has posted a three-part series on the keys to selling more e-learning on the Hedgehog & Fox blog.

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September 30, 2008

Quick clicks: Crisis communications

Here's a quick roundup of interesting blog posts for your Tuesday morning:

- Tom Peters has some timely advice for communicating during a crisis.

- Dana Theus at the Member-to-Member blog has two detailed posts about lessons in social media from the association sector.

- Speaking of social media, Caron Mason started an interesting discussion with a post about helping her association's volunteer bloggers (and the blog as a whole) to succeed. Ben Martin responded with some advice from his own experience.

- Tony Rossell delves into the differences between member satisfaction and member loyalty.

- Bruce Hammond saw the new Microsoft "I'm a PC" ads and thought about associations.

- Feeling overloaded? Chris Bonney is doing a series of posts on how to better manage your e-mail. The most recent post tackles the question of how much your inbox reflects you.

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September 22, 2008

Do we let go too easily?

I recently accepted an offer for a free 2-cup coffee maker when I subscribed to BocaJava coffee service and paid for the shipping of the coffee maker. My wife and I drink a bunch of coffee so it seemed like a great idea. They sent us 4 things of coffee and the coffee maker for like $10. The idea was to get us hooked and send us a shipment of coffee every month and zap our credit card which I had to provide.

It turns out that we did not use enough coffee this month to make it worth our while so I just cancelled our subscription (they may have even called it membership but if they did I didn’t notice) on their website. It was simple and easy to do, and the reason I am writing this post is to tell you what happened when I tried to cancel. I had to log in and go to a cancel button which was really easy to find. Once I hit cancel the system asked me why I was canceling and gave me 3 or 4 options. I selected “we can’t drink that much coffee in a month.” Based on that selection the system reloaded the page and asked me if I knew I could change my delivery date so that I didn’t get my coffee so quickly and offered me the opportunity to switch to less frequent shipments or to continue with my cancellation. I continued on the cancellation path and the next thing that loaded was an offer to get free shipping on my next order, again with the option to continue cancellation or to stay a subscriber. Again I clicked on continue cancellation and when it reloaded this time it asked me if I wanted to save 50% on my next shipment with the option to continue cancellation or to stay a subscriber. Again I clicked on continue cancellation and got a confirmation number of my cancellation.

In just 90 seconds they made 3 attempts to keep me as a subscriber. It was not intrusive and it was quick and easy. Do we, as associations, let go of our members too easily? Could we implement something like this to target members based on their needs so that members stay instead of leave?

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September 17, 2008

Quick clicks: Chapters of the future

I feel very behind on my "Quick Click" posts! Here's a roundup of some of the interesting conversations going on around the association blogging world:

- Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog has some interesting thoughts on the "chapter of the future."

- David Patt shared some interesting things he heard at an Association Forum of Chicagoland event for small-staff CEOs focused on creating employee engagement. Jamie Notter was inspired by David's post to ask some questions of his own.

- Kevin Holland at the Association Inc. blog has some really interesting quick-hit thoughts on several topics, all in one post: time shifting, leadership legacies, "we bees," staff ownership in associations, and more.

- Stuart Meyer at the Association 2020 blog talks about how associations can help innovative ideas to succeed (despite the forces that might push against them).

- Mickie Rops and some great guest bloggers captured a lot of good information during the NOCA Credentialing Leadership Forum. If you have an interest in credentialing and certification trends, definitely check it out; the first post is here and the last is here.

- Bruce Hammond has a great post about how policies can be perceived by members who run afoul of them.

- Jeffrey Cufaude has a thoughtful post on evaluating past experience, asking "What experience most matters?"

- If this election season is inspiring you to advocate, you should definitely read Stephanie Vance's series on "Forming an Advocacy Habit."

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September 16, 2008

How helpful are Member Needs Assessment Surveys?

While developing tools to help our chapters determine their members’ needs, I started to question the effectiveness of member needs assessment surveys. Our national association distributes one relating to national programming. Already lengthy, it would be difficult to include chapter specific questions.

If the chapters distribute another survey on the chapter level, will the members feel frustrated or inundated? Chapters typically don’t have the resources to pay for a market research firm to develop and distribute the survey and volunteer lack of market research experience could lead to leading or unclear questions. Plus, wouldn’t two surveys reduce overall survey participation by the membership, rendering both less valid?

Perhaps it is more beneficial to promote focus groups, informal discussions at meetings or discussion thread analysis to determine what members needs on the local level. I haven’t pursued this option and am unsure if best practices exist related to volunteer implementation of these practices.

How do your chapters determine member needs?

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September 6, 2008

Common sense and member service

I purchase my family’s health and dental insurance through Carefirst BlueCross BlueShield. As I am sure most of us have experienced very few doctors and dentists file claim’s on the patient’s behalf and then bill you for whatever you owe after the get compensated by the insurance company. I recently sent in a claim for a dentist visit by my wife. I filled out all the proper forms, attached the bill from the dentist and mailed it in as instructed. The forms came back about a week later with another form attached that stated that had a checklist of what I assume are common errors. It was a list of about 10 things that could have possibly been wrong with the forms that were submitted and the box was checked next to “date of service not included.” I know my dentist always includes the date of service so I immediately went to the form and say that in one place the date was illegible but down at the bottom of the form it stated the date in clear handwriting. Apparently the member service representative who got that form was told that if they run into issues where something is wrong they are to follow the procedure book and fill out the appropriate form, stick it in an envelope and mail it back to the customer. Is it only me or does this seem kind of crazy? The member service rep could have simply looked more closely at the form and if there was still a doubt as to when the date of service was they could have picked up the phone and called me or the dentist to confirm. The call would have taken 2 minutes which is probably as much time as it took this person to get the form, fill it out, stick it in an envelope and mail it. It also would have saved the company the cost of postage as well as helped save some trees because they would not have had to use additional envelopes or forms to send the stuff back to me. Finally, they would have avoided aggravating a paying “member” (yes, they call me a member and I have a member card and contact member services when I have issues) since I now have to correct the tiny mistake, find a new stamp and envelope and mail it again.

I bring this up because I really hope that member service at associations is not like this. I understand the need to have processes and procedures and feel they are very important. I also know that using some common sense, taking a little bit of initiative and doing things slightly differently to make your members happy is always something we need to take into consideration.

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August 31, 2008

Associations Responding to Hurricane Gustav Threat

As always, I am proud to report that many associations have already sprung into action in response to the serious threat of Hurricane Gustav, now a Category 4 hurricane heading toward New Orleans, and the potential threat of Tropical Storm Hannah coming toward the Florida coast. Here are some of the actions associations are already taking:

· The Air Transit Association of America (ATA) has released a statement explaining evacuation processes for residents in the New Orleans area. You can read it here.

· The Humane Association, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, local and national food banks, and numerous faith-based community organizations have partnered in Nashville, Tennessee, to open shelters, distribute meals, and support evacuees from the hurricane.

· The American Red Cross is urging people in the potentially affected areas to register themselves its new Safe and Well Web site at www.redcross.org, or call a loved one and ask them to register you. This online tool helps families and individuals notify loved ones that they are safe during an emergency. You also can read and link to the organization’s advice to evacuating families by going here.

· The Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants is urging people in the affected areas to “financially prepare” for the hurricane, using its tip list, which includes the need for having plentiful cash on hand, documenting household goods and valuables, and gathering important documents.

· The National Association for Amateur Radio (ham radio folks) has developed guidelines for potential volunteers interested in responding to the hurricane emergency, warning them not to “self-deploy” and noting that the International Radio Emergency Support Coalition has been relaying reports online since Friday.

· The Texas Hotel & Lodging Association sent an alert to members last Thursday, repeating a local government estimate that 45,000 evacuees could arrive if Gustav hits Louisiana. Local restaurant associations and members have been stocking up as well.

· Social media also is coming into significant play in terms of sharing storm information, relaying community/government emergency operations, organizing nonprofit relief and assistance responses, checking on association members, monitoring local chapters/components, and rallying volunteers on standby.

· Bossier City Firefighters Association is working with the International Association of Fire Fighters to find housing for IAFF members evacuating the area. Like the response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago, many local associations have turned to their national associations and leaders for help—and emergency housing is just one such request. Others I’ve seen relate to transportation advice, pet care in the region, and reinforcing communication strategies.

· The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) is actively tracking the storms on the Hurricane Preparedness section of its web site and has the latest NOAA and other weather updates, the status of various airports, an emergency preparedness checklist, and many more resources available to help members and the public stay abreast of rapidly changing weather conditions.

· Various electrical power associations are urging the public and businesses in the potential hurricane zones to review their virtual brochures on preparing for power outages and surges as a result of poor weather. Here’s one example from Coast Electric Power Association.

· A number of associations also are encouraging members to access the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) Hurricane Preparedness page, which contains emergency plans for businesses and families, emergency supply lists, and background on hurricanes in general.

Thanks, y’all, for once again stepping up to make a real difference in the lives of both your members and the larger public. Please know that ASAE & The Center stand ready to assist you in your efforts!

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August 1, 2008

Vodcast: The need for a new management system

In this installment, ASAE & The Center's Chief Technology Officer Reggie Henry talks about the current state of association management systems and says its time for associations to look at systems that are based on building relationships, not tracking transactions.

Want to challenge Reggie? Ask him a question?

Drop a comment, and Reggie will respond with a post next week.

Update: Due to a vendor's player change, the video cannot be embedded directly. To access the video in this post, please choose it from the playlist in the video player below.

Next installment, which will be released in mid-August features an association executive who says her association management system is just fine, Reggie, and it will continue to evolve as association needs evolve. Plus, it has the added trust factor because it was built for associations by people with a knowledge of what associations do.

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July 14, 2008

Quick clicks: Sharing Slideshare

- Several association bloggers shared Slideshare presentations this week, including Tony Rossell's presentation on the levels of membership engagement; Ben Martin highlighted a presentation by Marta Z. Kagan on Generation Y and social media.

- The Association Social Media Wiki is back--and completely redesigned. If you're ever interested in seeing what other associations are doing with blogs, podcasts, mashups, wikis, Facebook, and in many other social media categories, visit the wiki to quickly find examples. (And if your association is active in any form of social media, you can share a link to your site(s) there, too.)

- I found a few new (or at least new to me) association bloggers recently: The Mind of a Generation Y Association Executive, by Ryan Tucholski; Thanks for Playing, by Elizabeth Weaver Engel; and the Challenge Management blog.

- Do you ever have a great idea that withers on the vine, waiting for buy-in from all appropriate parties? Jeffrey Cufaude has some thoughts on improving the idea approval process in your organization.

- FOLIO has an interesting case study about the relaunch of a 116-year-old association magazine.

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July 9, 2008

Free Association

There's an emerging trend in the video game industry called "free-to-play". In short, this is a business model whereby people can play a game for free (instead of going to the store to buy a $60 disc), generally via the web. Revenue is generated by other means, usually from advertising dollars or by selling premium items in the game (eg, fancy sword, access to a special level, etc).

This model was pioneered in Korea as a means to get over the piracy/blackmarket hump. As Korea had/has no retail market for games, companies had to find other means to generate revenue. And, for the most part, this approach is bringing great success. Some of the more successful games have player bases in the 15-million range, generating millions of dollars in monthly ad and item sale revenue.

Could such a model work for a large scale professional society? Membership dues are zero, and revenue is generated purely via "premium items" (ie, conference reg, book sales, DVD content, etc). Some of that discussion has come up as part of the whole "unbundling" trend, sure, but I've not seen it ever taken to the extreme of coupling it with a no-cost membership.

What issues would be solved or benefits accrue with a free-to-join model? Some thoughts:

  • potentially much greater membership base
  • broader reach into given industry/profession
  • better leveraging of network effects
  • more attractive to advertisers/sponsors
  • never have to debate/question "value proposition"
  • association output becomes more directly "market driven"
  • likely easier to deliver on mission (since you don't ever have to exclude non-members)

Possible side effects or negatives:

  • need to replace funds gap!
  • likely a more pronounced level of participation inequality
  • free = worthless perception
  • huge reliance on web/tech tools
  • likely more chaos and loss of control by staff

Admittedly, this is also very much inspired by Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations", as well as Chris Anderson's preliminary writings on "free" as the business model of the future.

Anyway, guess I'm getting bored with the yearly dues status quo... Hmm...

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May 1, 2008

Ego versus Idea

One suggestion in the "dream and design" phase of the Global Summit's Thursday session is for associations to look around them and see if it might be worth....disappearing. Seriously. Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists (and--full disclosure--my husband), suggested that association leaders examine where overlapping associations exist and needlessly compete when they could simply merge and "create half the number of associations with twice the memberships and eight times the influence."

It's an interesting thought. Certainly I've been part of organizational coalitions in which external stakeholders such as corporations or government agencies have complained that they could hardly keep track of which organizations may be the best partners in, say, the environmental sector because so many have similar agendas, duplicate programs with different names, and murky leadership within their field.

Call me cynical, but I think ego would be the biggest barrier to even a discussion of what widescale association mergers might mean to society and the earth. In the fascinating book Egonomics: What Makes Ego Our Greatest Asset (or Most Expensive Liability), authors David Marcum and Steven Smith look at business success and performance from the standpoint of ego. Their extensive research concludes that unbalanced ego "becomes the ultimate blind spot," with more than one-third of all decisions in failed organizations driven by ego. they note that unbalanced ego slows change and innovation, and "there is a clear difference in the power of knowing versus the discipline of becoming."

However, nearly two-thirds of executives "never explore alternatives once they make up their mind," and "81% of managers push their decisions through by persuasion or edict, not by the value of their idea." A surprising 63% of surveyed businesspeople report that ego harms "work performance on an hourly or daily basis, while an additional 31% say it happens weekly." That's a lot of poor productivity and decision making, as well as lost opportunity.

Might the research differ among association employees? What would you think if your boss walked into a staff meeting and said, "For the sake of the planet, let's do a competitive analysis in our industry with an eye toward potential mergers?" Would you think, "Oh, my gosh, my job's in trouble." "Has he lost his mind?" "Finally!" "Whoopie!"

I remember one small trade association whose CEO actually requested that the board let him shut down the organization because the programmatic and mission overlap with industry competitors had led to unsustainable financial hardship. The board was appalled at the idea. He suggested merging with another group instead. Still they balked, citing the organization's long history and criticizing all possible merger candidates.

I don't recall what happened to the association in the end, but I do know that the CEO eventually left, and at some point, I stopped receiving press releases from the organization. Perhaps if leaders--whether volunteer or paid--move their egos more to the side of humility, they will find that exploring potential mergers would indeed lead ultimately to accomplishment of their broader mission.


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April 30, 2008

Stories as Influencers for Socially Responsible Behavior

Compelling stories have emerged as potent tools in forwarding discussions about what values members gain when their associations are involved in socially responsible practices, programs, and goals. At both my morning and afternoon tables at the Global Summit on Social Responsibility, association professionals barely took a breath between sharing and commenting on each other’s stories, whether they had to do with an organization’s actions or an individual’s choices. Frankly, it’s a challenge to capture every anecdote for later thought or follow up, but one colleague told me that he had taken almost 25 pages of notes in less than six hours!

I’m feeling especially attuned to the power of storytelling today because I’m halfway through the excellent book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, which I thought would be good prep for the summit. Also, co-author Joseph Grenny—whose last best-seller, Crucial Conversations, was referenced several times at my table today-- is speaking August 19 at ASAE & The Center’s Annual Meeting and Expo.

According to Influencer, “people will attempt to change their behavior if (1) they believe it will be worth it, and (2) they can do what is required.” Stories that guide people to those conclusions must contain both “a clear link between the current behaviors and existing (or possibly future) negative results” and “positive replacement behaviors that yield new and better results.”

Those of us at the summit today heard such “high-point stories” recounted on the stage, in the coffee line, and from attendees at some of the 14 connected sites across America. I liked the examples given by CEO Scott Steen of the American Ceramic Society. First, Scott described the rapid membership growth achieved by the National Association of Counties after it cleverly arranged a deal with a corporation that allowed the association to provide prescription discount cards to members for free distribution in every county in America.

Second, he cited the National Academy of Engineers’ inspiring work with members to identify 14 “grand challenges” such as making solar energy affordable and reverse-engineering the brain. The organization then spotlights research and grant money focused on those topics. “They’re saying to their members, ‘Here is where to go to make a difference as an engineer,” explained Scott, adding that the organization is using the initiative to “define their mission in the world and show how engineers and their industry are making huge differences.” I can’t wait to hear what comes out of Thursday’s “dream” process….


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April 24, 2008

There is no average member

So says Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail. In his opening speech at the 2008 Digital Now conference Thursday, Anderson said associations must let go of the notion that members all share common wants and needs.

(The Long Tail was published a few years ago, so no need to go into detailed explanation of it here. If you're unfamiliar, check out the Wikipedia entry for it or Anderson's blog, titled (what else?) The Long Tail.)

Anderson cited a variety of media and corporate examples, but he related the principles of the long tail to associations with one key idea: an association’s core constituency is the vertical portion of the curve, and the long tail represents everyone else (read: mailbox members and/or nonmembers). Seems obvious, but here’s what he said about “everyone else”: they might be interested in what your association has to offer, but they just don’t have enough reasons to join or become overly engaged.

These are people who might be only partially related to your profession or who might not have the financial resources to pay for a membership or who may just not be the “joiner” types. But there’s opportunity in appealing to them. They may, in fact, never join, but maybe they’ll buy a book, or maybe they’ll download an education session recording, or maybe they’ll lurk on an open listserv or virtual community and connect with a member with similar interests.

Is your association ignoring these people? The dilemma here, of course, is that the measurable return to your association of one person finding a useful article in your web archives is next to nil, and these types of long-tail interactions will never explode into blockbuster returns. But with new technology, providing these options also costs next to nothing, and if they spread out over 1,000 or 100,000 interactions, the returns gradually add up. You just have to be patient.

The associations that are finding success in appealing to the long tails of their markets are finding creative and cost-effective ways to broaden their products and services or to broaden the audience those products are available to.

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March 27, 2008

Industry Message Boards as a Recruitment Vehicle

When we (the Marble Institute of America) redesigned our website 4 years ago, one of the applications that was added was a member message board. At this time, message boards were just starting to take off and we felt that this might be a nice forum for our members to communicate with each other. At the time, our staff was 4 and did not include anyone who was familiar with (or a user of) message boards. Questions and topics would sit on the board for months at a time, with only the occasional answer being posted. Our members did not embrace this technology, nor did the staff.

Enter www.stoneadvice.com. About two years ago a group of stone fabricators recognized the need for a communications vehicle where consumers could ask questions of stone experts and where stone experts could bounce ideas off of each other. Although we have never viewed this group as a threat (all of their principals are MIA supporters and members), they have been able to attract many of the smaller businesses in our industry that we were never able convert into members.

By simply and responsibly posting what we are doing (with regards to issues that affect all in the stone industry), we have turned www.stoneadvice.com into a membership recruitment tool. In the past several months we have signed up several new members who never considered joining the MIA prior to our informational posting on their site. The moderators of the forum have even added an "MIA Message Board" where we can post a bit more boldly about what we are up to.

I would highly suggest visiting the industry message boards that I imagine exist for nearly every industry and profession. In addition to staying on top of the buzz in the industry, you may be able to realize some unexpected returns.

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March 17, 2008

Next Traditions Discussion Thread

cover2-1.jpg

It is a great honor to be the author of this month's cover story for Associations Now. In the print version of the magazine, the article is called, "Beyond Today," but you can find it online under its original title, "The Next Traditions of Association 3.0." I hope you will take the opportunity to read it, and share your ratings and reviews. (The rate and review area appears at the end the article on the website.)

This week, my hope is that we can engage in some dialogue around the article and the implications of the argument I make for your association. To get the conversation started, please take the oppportunity to reflect on the following questions:

+What role does tradition play in your association?

+How does/can your organization use tradition as a platform for innovation?

+Among the six "next traditions" discussed in the article, which of them does your association embrace? Which does your association find it difficult to embrace?

I look forward to our discussion. Please share your insights, as well as any questions, in the comment box below!

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March 15, 2008

Avoiding Maslow's Basement

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath is a great book chock full of aha moments and tangible take-aways (and the simulated duct tape cover is brilliant). Rather than rehashing their SUCCESs model or discussing the book more generally, I'd like to highlight the concept of Maslow's Basement that is introduced in the book.

Most are familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, where people tend to focus on satisfying baser needs (like food, shelter, etc) before moving on to fulfilling higher order needs (like love, self-esteem, respect, etc). The Heaths lump/label those initial lower-oder needs into the "basement", and suggest that our ideas/communications/products/etc are overly focused on this basement - to our detriment, of course.

They point to research that uncovers a paradox in human reasoning: we generally refer to a high-order need as the motivation for doing something (eg, sense of achievement), while we assume that a lower-order need (eg, money) is what motivates someone else to do the same thing. Think of all the possible areas this thinking can permeate the association world!

I see this kind of thinking first hand within my board. Of course, they are all part of the association because it is the "right thing to do", while everyone else really just wants free stuff and discounts and access to new job opportunities. The board's motivation is purely altruistic/intangible while the motivation of the membership at large is purely tangible - and much of the board's thinking is spent on how we can just provide more and more tangible value to members.

Given this common logic, is it any surprise that most association leaders seemed stunned by the Decision to Join research showing a slightly higher weighting towards intangible "good for the order" benefits over more tangible personal benefits?

No doubt, folks like tangible stuff, but let's not assume that everyone is stuck in Maslow's Basement. What would happen to our products/services, and our associations more generally, if we realized that members were motivated by the same things we were?

PS: While we're on psychology, the Heaths reference the "availability bias" (aka availability heuristic) as a cognitive bias in guessing probability. This concept states that we estimate what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples (and often overrides the credibility of statistics). I see this one all the time in how one special case example (eg, a member complains about something truly exceptional at the annual conference) ratholes the entire org as they view the one vivid example as the rule as opposed to the exception.

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February 29, 2008

Cult of Crap

I read a decent amount of books each year, and look to colleagues, magazines and various other sources for recommendations/referrals. I was lured into picking up Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture based on the Associations Now cover story back in November.

The magazine article by the book's author, Andrew Keen, provided a somewhat pragmatic look at the dangers of Web 2.0. The opening pull quote read:

"Welcome to the dark side of Web 2.0, where focused expertise is replaced by rampant amateurism; opinion is mistaken for knowledge; and credentials, degrees, and years of experience mean virtually nothing."

Despite the sensationalism, there was some brief discussion on how social media can be leveraged by associations, and I figured that the book would delve more into how we can bridge the gap between expert and amateur.

Wow, was I wrong. In my opinion, The Cult of the Amateur is stinking pile of worthlessness beyond imagination! Every single page I read prompted me to think of counter arguments against literally every sentence written. I kept thinking Keen would turn things around after unloading his vitriol, alas, the turn around never came. The only good thing I can say about the book is that it was short.

Ironically, the book itself is an amateur effort (ie, it is Keen's first book (which he only tells the reader at the end of the book, after totally destroying amateurs)). For one, he rambled on about online gambling addiction, which had absolutely nothing to do with the premise of the book. And, a reference he made regarding video games (ie, that Myst was a form of MUD) was patently incorrect. Never mind a bunch of other misrepresentations, especially regarding the concept of the long tail. So much for his army of fact-checking experts.

While I can certainly agree that social media presents new challenges, building a bunker around the "experts" is certainly not the way forward. Not once did Keen even explore the idea of how an expert becomes an expert, and how all experts were once amateurs. Better, understanding that evolution and helping members along the path is what I am most interested in as an association leader. Sadly, Keen's amateur effort fell way, way, way, off the mark.

PS: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is a new book by web/community pioneer Clay Shirky that I just noticed. While my guess is that the title will freak out most association execs, I'm gonna predict it is the one we should all be reading and gaining insight from. I'll let y'all know once I read it...

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January 21, 2008

Quick clicks: Alternative membership models and more

A few interesting posts I thought I'd share with you all:

- Tony Rossell's Membership Marketing blog always features thoughtful posts (and often equally thoughtful comments from his readers). I found his recent discussion of alternative membership models to be particularly interesting.

- If your association offers webinars or something similar, you should definitely check out Michele Martin's post on what she learned from her experience as a webinar presenter at the Bamboo Project blog.

- Cindy Butts at AE on the Verge posted some really interesting feedback from some new members on what they'd like to see change at their association. I bet a lot of what her members said could resonate with your new members, too.

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December 13, 2007

The Power of a Dog-gone Good Story

Wells Jones, CEO of the much-lauded Guide Dog Foundation, is a great storyteller. That's not a label many nonprofit leaders work hard for, but Wells has found that stories can get you places that appeals letters and political allies cannot: into people's wallet, mind and heart.

I was interviewing him recently after our Key Philanthropic Organizations Committee (KPOC) meeting, having already talked to him once before about his foundation's successful revision of its governance practices. We had spent a good chunk of the KPOC meeting talking about leadership, organizational excellence and the differences and synergies between our Seven Measures of Success book and a new publication, Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant.

We were all intrigued by the differences in data about leadership between these two books and even Good to Great's Jim Collins, who had been involved with both publications. One thing none of these books did, though, was explore in any real depth the types of communication techniques that great organizatonal leaders routinely find most effective: compelling storytelling.

So I asked Wells how he created the storytelling culture that is so apparent on his Web site and how his staff and volunteers collect and use those powerful anecdotes to show the real impact of the organization. You can read his responses in the profile department of ASAE & The Center's new philanthropic Web section, but in the meantime I wanted to share what he said was his favorite program-related story.

"This story relates to a Marine who lost both of his arms in Iraq above the elbow, so he wears two prosthetic arms," Wells said. "And he also has some balance issues. We trained one of our dogs to work with him to help provide balance, fetch items and do various tasks that the Marine needs to get done.

"So he’s outdoors with his dog one day, and they are having down time--he’s playing Frisbee with his dog--and when he throws the Frisbee, the dog brings it back, like all of our dogs do. But then one time when he throws the Frisbee, one of his arms goes with it. The dog goes over and looks at the Frisbee and then looks at the arm, looks at the Frisbee and looks at the arm. Finally, he makes up his mind and grabs the arm, which he takes back to the Marine. And the Marine is laughing really hard about this, thinking, 'What fun!' but then he realizes what the dog just did: The dog made a decision that his owner had to have the arm first before he could bring the Frisbee back. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story."

Now ask him to tell you the one about the two old-time war vets who have raised half a million bucks in just a few months....

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November 29, 2007

“The Membership” Doesn’t Exist and Other Thoughts

Recently, Scott Briscoe wrote a thought-provoking membership article “Should you be serving or leading your members?” As we think about the future of associations, the wants and needs of membership deserve critical consideration. Hopefully some of our respected marketing and membership folks will weigh in, since they have important insights. Here are some thoughts which I hope will further discussion:

Thought 1: “The membership” is a myth. We can’t generalize about membership. If “the membership” means a homogenous, unified, like-minded body, then it doesn’t exist anymore than “the electorate” or “the consumer” exists. What exist are various member, electorate and consumer segments. Each segment has its own common or shared interests or aspirations. For example, there are association members whose primary interest is expanded knowledge. Among the electorate are red-dog Republicans. And there are consumers for whom “green” is more than a color. Point is, while these are important segments, they hardly represent the entire spectrum. Success in membership and marketing depends on identifying and understanding your markets and the voices of the customer. Membership success, like the success in any market, is seldom achieved by thinking and treating everyone like they are a size 6.

Thought 2: Volunteer vision frequently is a 12-month window. Our active volunteer members often see things in short term, annual perspectives, particularly if they have a one year leadership position. Governing boards, even with 3-year terms, often have difficulty focusing attention beyond one year at a time. The “project oriented” Millennials may have an even shorter attention span. So this leaves the staff to see and deal with the longer term strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the association—if is to be done at all. Since volunteers often define success as 12 months of smooth sailing (no problems please), is it any wonder that the natural tendency is for volunteers to focus on (this year’s) wants rather than (longer term) needs? Beyond membership, how do you suppose the 12-month window influences successful strategy, operational execution over time and other cross-enterprise and intra-enterprise performance?

Thought 3: Traditional models may not match emerging membership challenge. My association model will hardly surprise long-time observers of associations. Many older associations, like mine, were founded for “higher purposes” (ASME was founded in 1880 for public safety, property protection and growth/access to the engineering body of knowledge). We tend to be about engineering, not engineers. Our thinking for 127 years has generally been that what is good for engineering is good for engineers and others with technology interests.

We have a culture where volunteers “mature” their leadership by volunteering for increasingly more responsible roles, over extended time periods. Our members self organize into common interest groups, often working together for many years, to build and share knowledge, community and advocacy. I regularly give out 15, 20 and 30 year pins to staff. We are a fine organization with great traditions.

As a global association, in a rapidly changing world, we are increasingly required to be an agile, innovative and performance-oriented enterprise. Here’s the emerging challenge: Members and volunteers who may: 1) be primarily motivated by their individual, personal interests; 2) have less disposable time, resources and patience for “leadership ladders” and extended, time-consuming volunteer commitments; and 3) identify with their peer interest group rather than the enterprise. Can the challenge be successfully resolved in the old, traditional membership models? What’s the definition of insanity: doing what you’ve always done, the way you always have, and thinking you’ll get new and different results?

Where are the new membership markets, voices and models? How do we reconcile wants and needs?

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October 25, 2007

The shocking truth behind exit surveys

When you survey members who have left your association, do you often hear, “I’m leaving because I can’t afford to maintain my membership anymore?” (Or, for that matter, do you ever hear "I'm not attending this year's meeting because it's too expensive"?) If you do, Seth Godin has a great reponse: What they’re really saying is “It’s not worth it.”

I’d recommend reading his entire post on this subject—it’s short, and a great reality check.

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October 24, 2007

Associations Pitch in to Help Southern California Fire Victims

We have learned of many associations that have stepped up to offer expertise, volunteers, donations and even temporary housing to the hundreds of thousands of displaced wildlife victims in Southern California. As in past catastrophes, associations are finding creative ways to apply their skills, imagination and members to addressing this crisis. You’ll find a growing list of examples on the ASAE & The Center site, and we encourage you to let us know of others. Thank you all!

Let me mention two partnering associations in particular: the San Diego Education Association (SDEA) and California Teachers Association (CTA). Despite limited operations, SDEA staff and members has "overwhelmed" the group with offers of help when it called for volunteer tutors, donations, childcare and coordination help for families sheltering at Qualcomm Stadium and a local high school. The association also is housing numerous displaced educators at its offices, auditorium and meeting spaces.

CTA, meanwhile, is helping coordinate and is urging displaced members to tap into its “CTA Disaster Fund." Established years ago, the fund offers emergency grants of up to $1,500, with an additional $1,500 grant possible. Monies come from voluntary contributions by CTA members and periodic fundraising drives. The FACT Foundation provides administrative services.

For a model disaster assistance resource for members, visit CTA’s disaster resources page

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October 4, 2007

Narrowing the membership focus

I encourage folks to read Noel Capon's article in the October issue of Associations Now: "Picking Markets That Matter." (And while you're there, please give it a rating and/or review -- we'd love to know what you think.)

Here's a small quote about one of the things he says membership organizations have a tendency to do wrong:

They stretch themselves too thin. The organization tries to satisfy too many diverse needs but has insufficient competencies to do so. As a result, rather than serving some defined set of needs very well and having satisfied customers, it gives the same lousy service to all and no one is satisfied.

I think it's similar to my growth post from a few weeks back, I get concerned when associations pursue increased membership roles by defining their audiences more broadly. I'm sure it's been done in the past with great success, and can still be done. But I see a serious danger of diluting your message by broadening your audience. I like the idea of being absolutely the best in a niche. It may not lead to astronomical member numbers, but I bet you'd find a highly engaged membership that truly values what you do.

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August 24, 2007

Choose your own association adventure

In a post on her blog today, Ann Oliveri says, “Our members invent their own ULI, picking up the bright shiny pieces that are relevant at the moment, creating their own learning opportunities.”

What a great turn of phrase—and I think it’s true at every association, to a greater or lesser extent. Our members are constantly creating their own membership experiences. Two members can go to the same conference or read the same magazine, and by choosing different sessions or articles (or, heck, by skipping breakfast and having low blood sugar) experience the same thing in completely different ways.

Maybe the lesson to learn here is to avoid making assumptions and listen carefully when you speak or correspond with members. Watch out for warning signs that an individual member has concerns and respond to him or her as an individual. And if nothing else, remember that your interaction with that member can have a powerful effect on how they will see their personal membership experience—so try to make the interaction as positive as you can.

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August 12, 2007

"Customer experience" in associations

"Customer experience" is clearly a catchword at this year's conference. Author Joseph Michelli used the analogy of Starbucks as an example of a company that has used customer experience as the way to differentiate itself from other companies selling coffee as a commodity. While the presentation offered some points of value, Michelli's delivery leaned more toward the slick and less on the actual information. As far as I could tell, the points were:
- You can't survive on commoditized products or services
- The experience is what turns something from a commodity to something exceptional
- People make decisions based on emotions, so use that to your advantage
- We think our products and services are much better than our customers/members do
- In order to figure out what kind of experience to offer your customers/members, ask them what they want. Make them feel like co-owners of the association
- Understand how your members experience your association, at all touchpoints

(I attended this session because I figured that there would be many bloggers attending the "Creating Member Evangelists" session led by the fabulous Jackie Huba. Can't wait to see some posts about that session!)

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August 10, 2007

Why join?

So on my flight to Chicago for ASAE & The Center's annual meeting, I'm reading the new publication The Decision to Join (yes, I am just that dorky) as it will be featured in several ways at the meeting. Here are my observations:

- I'm a big believer in engagement being the most important measure (maybe the only really meaningful measure) for associations. Chapter 4, which is summarized in a preview Associations Now article from August is as important a chapter as any in the book.

- I'm not a believer in how the book summarizes the findings in Generations and the Future of Association Participation, the research of Arthur C. Brooks, Ph.D., and The William E. Smith Institute for Association Research. The generational research is interesting, but I'm not sold on the conclusion that as Gens X & Y get older, they will join continue to join associations. I think the nature of jobs, careers, networking, joining, dues, and volunteering are all changing rapidly, and more than ever, the same-old, same-old is a sure path to quick obsolescence.

- There's a general info table in the Appendix (Exhibit B.5) that I like and think would have done well to be included in the main report. It asks respondents to select the top challenges that affect their profession and then rate how well associations do them. Some results:

-- Inadequate recognition of of the value of the profession to the larger society was selected by the most respondents, and they rated associations only a 3.16 on average on a 5-point scale.

-- Linked to this, on "lack of public awareness of the field," respondents were on the not-so-good side, with the average rating for associations addressing this a 2.81.

-- The things associations are doing well include "keeping up with new information in the field" (3.87), and "keeping pace with technology" (3.68).

- One very interesting finding was the results to the question "Do you think there will be a greater or lesser need for associations five years from now?" Half of respondents who had never been a member of any association said the need would be greater, compared to 38 percent and 37 percent respectively from current members and former members.

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August 8, 2007

Working with true believers

In a guest post on the “How to Change the World” blog, Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, talks about the difficult aspects of establishing a successful startup company. One of his points struck me as equally applicable to the association sector:

True believers go nuts at the slightest provocation. The best people at a start-up care too much. They stay up late writing Jerry Maguire memos, eavesdropping on support calls, snapping at bureaucracy, citing Joel Spolsky on Aerons, and Paul Graham on cubes. They are your heart and bones, so you have to give them what they need, which is a lot. The only way to get them on your side is to put them in charge.

In the associations where I’ve worked, not all members have been true believers—but those that were were either our biggest asset or our biggest headache (or both simultaneously).

I wonder if association professionals sometimes have a disconnect with true believers among the membership, because we can move from association to association without necessarily being true believers about any. It’s not that we don’t think that our members are doing great and important things; but we don’t always have the same personal connection that a true believer would have.

I also wonder if using this idea as a lens can help us better understand and work with those true believers among our members. If you find yourself working with folks who are “writing Jerry Maguire memos” and “snapping at bureaucracy,” remember that you’re dealing with true believers. Emphasize your understanding of the importance of the association’s mission and the profession/industry it represents. Look at how you can reduce that red tape that’s frustrating them (always a good idea, in any event). Remember that they are the heart of your association. And give them an opportunity to be in charge of something so they can run with that passion and channel it.

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July 27, 2007

Great membership conversation

There’s a great conversation going on over at Tony Rossell’s Membership Marketing blog, around issues of membership, generations, social media, and participation.

If Tony’s post interests you, be sure to read the comments—and drop a comment of your own if you have thoughts to add to the discussion.

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March 24, 2007

Membership is Everyone's Job

That’s one of the maxims of association management. How have you experienced it?

In my time as an association executive, I’ve seen it played out a number of ways. I worked for a CEO who flatly disagreed with the notion that membership is everyone’s job. I have worked for another who assigned each staff person a letter or two of the alphabet, and each staff person was responsible for servicing members whose last names began with their assigned letter. You might not be able to find two leaders with such opposing viewpoints on the matter.

I participated in a recent ASAE & The Center Membership Section Council meeting as an interesting discussion about this concept arose. One of the participants asserted that the phrase “membership is everyone’s job” has hindered the association community’s membership professionals. The theory goes that if “membership is everyone’s job” then everyone can “do membership.” How do you feel about that? Does that de-value the work done by the membership department?

On the other hand, I keep hearing (anecdotally) that there is a shortage of qualified membership professionals in the association market. What should I make of that? Does this information somehow oppose the conclusion above?

Over my eight years as a membership professional, I’ve often struggled with what my true expertise is. Is it customer service, member experience, marketing, sales, relationship management, or engager? Is it all of the above? If so, I’m okay with it. CEOs: What do you look to your membership staff to do that you would only entrust to them?

The membership function is unique in today’s business environment. With the exception of Component Relations and Membership, each of the sections offered to its members by ASAE & The Center has at least one parallel association serving the niche. There is no association for people who manage chapters, SIGs or other types of components, nor is there one for membership professionals (someone please correct me if I’m wrong about this).

Unfortunately for the membership professional, there are very few bodies of knowledge that are directly transferable from other sectors. And even more troubling, there is little in the way of academic research and new concepts bubbling up for membership professionals, perhaps because there is no association dedicated exclusively to advancing the membership profession. Are associations falling short of their potential because of this academic vacuum?

What do you see as the membership professional’s expertise? Can everyone “do membership?” Is being a jack of all trades an expertise in and of itself? How can we raise the discourse among membership professionals to help them help our associations grow?

These aren’t rhetorical questions – I hope you will comment.

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January 27, 2007

TED

Do you dream of an annual event that sells out the following year before staging the current year’s program? Impossible? Not if that conference is TED.

Hatched by Ricky Saul Wurman in 1984, the architect who morphed into the first information architect, TED was an event that embodied the merger of technology, entertainment, design into a high tech, high touch experience—an idea we now take for granted.

And now, that unique cultural experience and gold standard of meetings, TED, is morphing into a membership organization. Rather than charge a $4,000 registration fee, participants will pay 50% more for a year-round experience. Owned by the 501( c)(3) Sapling Foundation, Donor Members paying $100,000 will qualify for an extraordinary collection of privileges. The membership options are tiered by the level of access to the people who are attached to TED.

Over the years, this extraordinary event expanded to include: “…scientists, philosophers, musicians, religious leaders, environmentalists and many others. Those who have spoken at TED include Bill Gates, Frank Gehry, Jane Goodall, Billy Graham, Herbie Hancock, Murray Gell-Mann, Larry Ellison. Yet often the real stars have been the unexpected: Li Lu, a key organizer of the Tiananmen Square student protest, Aimee Mullins, a Paralympics competitor who tried out a new pair of artificial legs on-stage, or Nathan Myrrhvold speaking not about Microsoft platforms, but about dinosaur sex.”

So, is your organization an association with an annual event or are you really an event with a year-round membership?

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January 16, 2007

Day 6 of idea a day: Engagement index

Today I was clearly in a vulnerable state. I didn't really like my post yesterday, so I sheepishly asked one of the magazine editors for an opinion.

An awkward pause.

"It was a good MLK post." Pause. "I didn't really see much of an idea."

That's not a staff person who knows how to get the biggest bonus is it? (Anybody who knows me, knows that's very much a joke — as if I controlled such things anyway.)

I think I have something better for day six. It's a topic that I've been talking about with whoever would listen to me for the last two years.

Here's the setup: I don't like two measurements of association health that are near ubiquitous in the association sector: number of members and member retention. Don't get me wrong, I don't think you completely ignore those numbers. But I think associations need to get over the notion that they are anywhere near effective measures of how well an association is doing on its mission. I haven't seen a mission yet that has increasing membership in it. As a mission measurement, it's a shadow of a shadow of effectiveness. Once upon a time, maybe that was about the best we could do. But not anymore.

I propose that associations establish an engagement index. Take a look at all the information you collect on your members and rate and sort it and score it. And I do mean all the information — volunteering, board service, book purchases, education attendance, leading education sessions, articles authored, listserver participation, use of a call center, grassroots participation, and on, and on, and on. Cast as wide a net as you can bear to track. Assign points or ratings so maybe board service counts as 100 whereas attending a conference is 5, purchasing a book is 3, etc. This where you'll find out how many people actually care about your association. Now instead of using the bottom line as the primary driving force, with membership a close second, behind your planning, make the primary driving force increasing your engagement index, with the bottom line a close second.

The engagement index still only measures a shadow of your mission, but it's a step closer than membership. When number of members is a proxy for measuring mission, you are assuming that all members (or most members?) are finding something valuable in your organization. The engagement index makes a safer assumption. It assumes that time and effort is a scarce commodity, and that if someone engages with your organization on a number of different levels, then they are finding something of value. It's still a leap to assume that the value is making them better at what they do — which is the heart of most missions — but you're closer.

A final point: Even if you don't have the means to measure much in the way of engagement, this idea is not lost. If you buy the notion that such an index, if you had the means to track it, would be a good measure for you, you can still use the notion in your planning. How does a publication change if your primary goal is to increase engagement? How does your annual meeting change? Your website? And on, and on.

(Full disclosure: Last year, the ASAE & The Center boards and planning, led on staff at the time by Scott Steen and Sarah Varner, had developed some really forward-thinking ideas of measurements that go beyond the typical number of members and butts in seats. I'm sure what I've described here is somewhere in those still-developing planning activities, but I don't recall it being as explicit as what I've laid out here. If I've missed giving credit where it's due, let me know.)

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January 10, 2007

What does it take to create community?

I recently completed my third year of study in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute of Organization Management program. (One year to go!) One thing that’s really struck me during my time at Institute is how rapidly a sense of community and connection can spring up within a class.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Institute program, attendees spend one week a year for four years at a variety of sites around the country, learning how to run an association or chamber. In theory, you attend at the same site each year and begin and end the program with the same group of classmates. (In practice, some folks “fast-track” by attending multiple sites in a year, and others change sites for various reasons.) As you go through the program with this group of fellow professionals, you get to know them, you learn with them, and you become committed to helping each other succeed.

For me, it was returning for the second year that really sold me on the program. Coming back, seeing these folks again, feeling welcomed by them—that was when I felt our little community of classmates really solidified.

Online communities are in the spotlight right now. And they certainly have their place. But there is something special and important about an in-person, face-to-face connection.

Imagine a mini-Institute for your members: Recruit groups of 10-15 people that plan to attend your next annual meeting. Set up those groups with a series of things to do together during the event—sitting together at general sessions, attending one or two education sessions together each day, eating brown-bag lunches in an extra meeting room, going out to dinner one night. The meeting itself will serve as a common topic of conversation in the beginning, and then things will branch out from there.

Have those members commit to attending the next two annual meetings together in the same way. (This might work particularly well for associations with very large meetings where members can feel lost in the crowd.) Between meetings, a listserver or other method of communication can help keep ties fresh, but the face-to-face element would renew their connections each year.

I bet those folks would build a community—at no (or minimal) extra cost to them or the association. Would that be something your members would appreciate?

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December 19, 2006

Members: They're a lot like us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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December 18, 2006

Joining the (association) Marines

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

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

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

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

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November 27, 2006

Too many choices

I recently picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink again to refresh my memory about a certain topic. (If you haven’t read Blink yet, I highly recommend it.) Leafing though the pages, I noticed a story about researcher Sheena Iyengar, who conducted an experiment to see how customers would react to having more choices.

Iyengar set up a tasting booth in a grocery store with a variety of gourmet jams. Sometimes the booth had six jams, and other times it had 24. As Gladwell says, “Conventional economic wisdom, of course, says that the more choices consumers have, the more likely they are to buy, because it is easier for consumers to find the jam that perfectly fits their needs. But Iyengar found the opposite to be true. Thirty percent of those who stopped by the six-choice booth ended up buying some jam, while only three percent of those who stopped by the bigger booth bought anything.”

As Gladwell concludes, too many choices can actually hinder the decision to buy.

How does this bit of information fit in with the trend toward unbundling association services? Are people more likely to make a decision when offered one choice (“Join now and be a member of our association!”) or many (“Join now and choose among these 30 association benefits!”). People want personalized service, but can things get too personalized, too fragmented, so that potential members feel overwhelmed rather than welcomed?

I would argue that the best way to square this circle is to look at your menu of benefits and pare it down. If you’re offering so many choices that people could feel overwhelmed, I bet some of those options aren’t directly related to your core purpose. Being all things to all people is not only impossible—it could even prevent new members from coming on board.

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November 22, 2006

Crowdsourcing

The latest issue of Wired magazine features an article on Chevy’s experimentation with consumer-generated ad campaigns, a technique known as crowdsourcing.

Combined with an episode of The Apprentice, the results were astounding, but at a price. “On its own Web site, the Tahoe now stood accused of everything but running down the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

“At first, everyone assumed it was just another case of a big corporation not "getting it" about the Internet. Then, when the ads weren't yanked down immediately, they figured Chevy was too clueless even to notice what was happening on its own site. Only gradually did it dawn on people that Chevy had no intention of removing the attack ads.”

Chevy’s ad agency exec Ed Dilworth said, "You can either stay in the bunker, or you can jump out there and try to participate."

Instead of the usual member-get-a-member campaign, what if you sponsored a contest asking visitors to create their own membership ad on your website?

Odds are you would tell the next generation they are welcome and you would get some powerful messages about belonging, replacing those tedious lists of benefits.

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November 21, 2006

One to say yes

I’m going to share an advance tidbit from the 2007 Leadership Issue of Associations Now with you: In a feature story, William C. Taylor, co-author of Mavericks at Work, shares an anecdote about Commerce Bank. Apparently Commerce has a number of idiosyncratic terms and sayings—to the extent that they provide new employees with a specialized “Commerce Lingo” dictionary.

One term that struck me as particularly powerful is “One to Say Yes, Two to Say No.” In other words, every employee is empowered to say yes to a customer, but to say no, the employee must first check with his or her supervisor.

This slogan was still in my mind when I came upon this interesting story in Seth Godin’s blog, about an airline crew’s efforts to reduce their passengers’ misery while waiting for an extended flight delay to end. The crew decided to order pizza for the whole plane (and since delivery isn’t available on a runway, one crew member volunteered to go pick up the pizzas). Once the food arrived, everyone from the captain to the flight attendants came out to serve the passengers. I'd be willing to bet that this extra effort on the part of the crew was a very pleasant surprise for everyone on board.

Many association staff members may have ideas that could turn a member’s whole day around. But if they don’t feel empowered to act on their inspirations—if you have a “two to say yes” culture, or worse, a “committee to say yes” culture—those ideas will never get off the ground.

And I’d bet the staff member who does get to act on his or her idea, and sees the positive reaction, will be that much more motivated to act again to improve members’ experiences in the future.

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November 20, 2006

My answers to three questions

Jeff De Cagna asks three questions in a recent blog post. Here are my answers:

1. What are you learning about the future that excites you?

Though I hate the term, I'd have to say it's Web 2.0 and all that is emerging in social online connectivity. This is as profound a shift as having a world of reference information at your fingertips.

2. What are you learning about the future that concerns you?

I am concerned about the membership model of associations. Let's consider the 80/20 rule. While the percentages may not be right for your organization, I'd guess most associations have some kind of 80/20 split happening, where 20 percent of members make up 80 percent of the participation (it wouldn't surprise me a bit if many associations had a 90/10 rule; 10 percent of members make up 90 percent of participation). It used to be that the 80 percent not participating very much were still association joiners. I think the era of instant information has begun to change that. And the rise of Web 2.0 social connectivity lets people drift in and out of participation more easily than association membership does. I am also concerned that Web 2.0 social connectivity will peel off chunks of the 20 percent that do participate, as they can create their own environments when they formerly needed the association's logistical support.

3. Are you motivated more by the excitement or the concern?

Jeff makes this point about the last question: "If you’re motivated more by the concern, you probably prefer to play it safe. If you’re motivated by the excitement, you probably want to innovate."

My two answers seem to be intertwined quite a bit, but if I had to choose one, I'd guess it's my motivation around the concern that is fueling the excitement. Almost no one would rather be described as "safe" rather than "innovative," so I'm hoping that I'm an exception to his last statement. Many of my thoughts on the matter seem anything but safe—up to and including my own job security.

For example, I think one possible good and successful outcome to all of this might be forgetting the current notion of membership. I propose that the two traditional metrics we use to measure the success of membership are flawed. The two are number of members and retention rate. The metrics I care about have to include member participation. I don't care about the 80 percent. I'll take their dues dollars, but I'm much more interested in 20 percent of participators. The metrics that matter to me are the number of members participating and the retention of those participating. By casting my net narrowly on this 20 percent I think I lose a lot of the 80 percent. Obviously I'd expect this approach to transform some of the 80 percent into the engaged 20 percent, but I could only hope for a little of such growth.

The upside to this approach is you get more people more involved. I think content and quality improve, and the mission of serving the industry or profession is better served. The downside, of course, is that even though dues as a percent of total income has been declining for most associations for quite some time, dues is a huge chunk of revenue. I don't think the improved content and quality necessarily make up that revenue, either. As a result, a lot of products and services—and the people who manage them—that are developed to attract the 80 percent go away.

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October 25, 2006

Getting to know your members

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

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

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

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

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July 11, 2006

Death of the Anonymous Web?

According to Hitwise, social networking site MySpace.com has laid claim to new bragging rights: Most Visited Site on the Web.

If you're not sure what MySpace is, read this.

Conventional wisdom states that the Internet is, among many other things, an outlet for anonymous communication, even though we all know that our every click and data transmission can be (and is) recorded by the computers that handle our data. Admit it: You’ve typed and sent things that you would never have said in conversation. Internet users want privacy, right?

That's why, on the surface, MySpace seems like such an anomaly. If the Internet is a place where users can be anonymous, then why are millions of people divulging personal, identifiable details about themselves to millions of other people? A plausible explanation is that there are some other factors at play, and this phenomenon cannot be attributed entirely to adolescent carelessness.

Is it possible that anonymity is not all it's cracked up to be? In previous posts to Acronym, on our blogs, and during a session at a recent conference, David Gammel and I have discussed the economics of attention, and how attention can be viewed as currency. If the attention of our peers and people in general is a form of currency, could it be that people are actually trying to attract attention, using blogs, podcasts and other social media outlets to get it? If this is true, what are the implications for associations?

Most associations recognize members in one form or another, bestowing attention on them. We have awards for star volunteers. A profile of a member with an interesting hobby in the magazine. Periodic lists of new members. But if members are truly eager for attention, is this enough?

How can associations give members the attention they crave? This is an interesting new dynamic of member relations that needs to be explored.

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June 27, 2006

Attention Economy Unsession Reports

Ben Martin and I facilitated an unsession today on attention economics at the Marketing & Membership conference in Bethesda, MD. We had about 25 people in the room after lunch, yet it was a lively group! We have created this post as a place for attendees to add their notes and comments on what they took away from the session. Ben and I will also add our thoughts as the comment thread grows.

If you would like to learn more about unconferences (the model we used for the session) or attention economics (what we talked about), follow the links.

Update: Ben has posted some pics from the unsession on Flickr. Also, Jeff De Cagna has added some links in the comments to his notes from the discussion we had. Keep 'em coming folks!

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Customer Servisssss.....

I'm a bit late at running across this tidbit, so apologies to those hipper than I who know about it already.

The New York Times ran an article yesterday about a video making the rounds online. The video is of a Comcast technician who actually fell asleep while at an appointment. (Read the first-person account.)

Sleeping Tech picture

Perhaps to reinforce the notion that you should "treat a customer like you would like to be treated," we could add "pretend like all of your customer service is being videotaped and any negative experience is going to be displayed for half a million people to see."

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Please Speak Like a Human

I'm at the Marketing & Membership conference this week, whose theme is buzz marketing. I heard in each and every session yesterday that you must talk and listen like a human when marketing to your members. Sounds pretty basic but it would not be repeated as much if everyone were already doing it. This all goes back to the Cluetrain Manifesto which posits that markets are conversations. So are associations, in my opinion!

Drop the press release speak and hyperbole and engage in the conversations your members are already having about you.

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