May 24, 2012

Takeaways From Day Two of #mmccon12

The learning continued today at ASAE's Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference in Washington, DC, and so did the sharing of that knowledge on Twitter via the #MMCCon12 hashtag. Here are some highlights:


Listen to Members. Now Listen to Them More.

Chris Brogan, the General Session speaker on the second day of ASAE's Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference, is a social media expert who cracks a lot of jokes at social media's expense. QR codes are like a "very frustrating crossword." He knows you tend to keep your smartphone by your bedside "as if you were a brain surgeon or a superhero." Pinterest enthusiasts are, as a general rule, interested in "Ryan Gosling's abs, recipes, and updos."

This is the part where I'd usually step back and point out that it wasn't all comedy during Brogan's session. He knows his stuff, and he had useful messages to deliver about online member engagement. For instance: Keep messages short, he said; make them mobile-ready. But you already know all that. I think it's more correct to say that the comedy wasn't a sideshow to his message but the message itself, because the place where associations tend to struggle when it comes to member engagement involves cultivating emotional bonds. And if more associations concentrated on strengthening those bonds, they'd spend less time wondering why their "Please RT!" strategy isn't taking off so well.

"Create interesting, organic information that people are going to share with other people," Brogan told the audience. The word "organic" is the essential word in that sentence---associations that work to craft messages intended to excite members don't always speak naturally, in a way that members want to hear. Fixing that problem is simple---listen to members and find out what they care about. But Brogan argues that many organizations skip that step. They focus on the CMS or social media tactics before deciding who will be listening to members, how, and how what gets learned gets shared. That, Brogan said, is like buying a car but not bothering to have a windshield installed.

"Talk more about your members than you ever have," Brogan said. "Bring your attention to them." That's good advice, on two fronts. First, it puts the spotlight on members and makes them feel wanted---and feeling wanted, Brogan pointed out, is humankind's biggest need. The second reason it works is that when you talk about members, they talk back, freeing up a dialogue that can give you a clearer picture of what they'll need in a future.

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Guarding Your Message

I was listening to a communications specialist who was at ASAE's Membership, Marketing, and Communications Conference yesterday, and she was confiding a message-gone-wrong story at her association.

In her case, members had given immediate and highly vocal feedback that they believed a certain call for an advocacy action by the organization and its membership had strayed from or even "betrayed" its core mission, thus alienating and confusing important donors and leaders.

It reminded me of the Komen Foundation controversy regarding pulled funds for Planned Parenthood programs, as well as comments by political strategist James Carville, whom I had interviewed recently about the art of smart messaging. (Carville will be a General Session speaker with Republican strategist Karl Rove in August at ASAE's Annual Meeting & Expo, so look for interviews with him and Rove in an upcoming Associations Now spread.)

"That debacle was an enormous and, as far as I can tell, unanticipated glitch," Carville said as we wondered why organizations still make serious communication mistakes, even with high-priced PR firms advising them. "Their overall messaging and the pink ribbon were brilliant. That became so identifiable that they were about women's health, and ... they had a real positive outfit. But then they came across as if they were some kind of political advocacy group, and that was particularly damaging. That was a glitch where they did something that was inconsistent with their overall messaging."

Carville talked about the need to vehemently "protect your message with everything you do."

"That's why I always add the dynamic of culture," he said, adding that the key elements of your primary message must be deeply embedded across your organization and lived by everyone on staff 24/7. "Where Komen, as a good example, went off track was that women's health wasn't put first; politics or ideology was put first," or at least appeared that way. That clearly had donors and supporters feeling profoundly betrayed, and I personally wonder how long it might take for Komen to recover, if indeed it can rebuild the lost trust through believable messaging and actions.

I'm interested in whether other associations or nonprofits have opinions of why and when associations mess up their messaging and are forced to execute crisis communication interventions. Feel free to share here and to sanitize players as needed for the sake of discussion.


May 23, 2012

Takeaways From Day One of #mmccon12

Popularity has its occasional downside: The original hashtag for ASAE's Membership, Marketing & Communications conference attracted the attention of spammers, but attendees quickly moved their online conversations to #mmccon12. Below are just some of the insights and provocative questions they shared today on Twitter.


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:


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?


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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