Sunday, July 29, 2012

Engaging Members Beyond the Board

Are you lucky enough to have a Board of Directors who are highly engaged? Does that engagement extend into the general membership? In other words, are your volunteers and your board the same people?

I ask these questions because I have worked at non profits where the Board is highly energized and engaged.  They have a passion, mission and vision for the future of the organization, which can be almost infectious.  A recent conversation I had with a client, they told me how excited and engaged their board was, but it's hard to bottle that enthusiasm and translate it into actionable items for both the board and the staff.  So how do we bridge the gap?

Here are some ideas that I have used in the past, in no particular order:

  1. Provide your Board members with a script to call 5 members a month and ask them to volunteer, attend an event, renew their dues, sponsor a program.  Realizing that the Board often times have full time jobs that don't relate to their duties for your association's board providing them with the tools that they need build the organization will help your association.
  2. Create an agenda for each Board meeting so that they can stay on topic and focused on improving the association.  At the start of each meeting agree that while we are all passionate about the association, in order to move the organization forward and stay relevant we need to focus. 
  3. Create a list of Board/Association priorities.  During your creative brainstorming sessions you may come up with a host of great ideas.  How does this new idea fit into the strategic plan? Is it relevant to your membership, will it provide them a benefit that they cannot get anyplace else?
  4.  Remember the mission.  At the end of the day, associations exist for one thing and one thing alone to serve their members needs.  By keeping this top-of-mind you will only help both your Board and your association. 
Got any ideas of your own that work? Feel free to share them here. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Associations Going Mobile

A few weeks ago I attended the ASAE Super Swap at their headquarters in Washington, DC where they combine 6 idea swaps into one day.  The location allows for many association professionals and their trusted partners to meet up and share ideas about various topics.  While all the idea swaps were beneficial one of them truly stood out.  

Associations Going Mobile: When To Use Mobile Apps to Engage Members/Attendees was hosted by Kevin Taylor, Account Executive, AlphaGraphics; John Mills, Web Content/Analytics/On-line Community Manager, Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute.  I have heard from many articles and other content that I have read via ASAE and others that associations are about 1 year behind the technology trends of the corporate world.  The majority of the session discussed what John's experience was going mobile with their conference and expo app.  With little notice or promotion of their new conference app, they had quick adoption.  This year they expect their results to be even greater, by launching the application earlier and providing people ways to interact before they get to the show.  

After three or so weeks, I am still thinking about this session because the technology is SO cool.  Imagine a world where your conference attendees don't have to carry around a full thick brochure of all the conference sessions, the map of the exhibit floor, and more.  Of course it comes with a cost, but you can offset this cost by selling sponsorship ads to your exhibitors.  This will help you recoup some of your initial investment, drive traffic to your exhibitors booth and provide a useful tool for your members to connect.  

Where is the future of association events? Maybe it's in mobile, but it just might be something that we have never heard of.  Either way, I am excited for the innovation ahead and seeing what other association professionals are up to, today, tomorrow and in the future. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Has Your Membership Done for Me Lately?

This question is something that comes up with nearly ever association or chamber partner we talk with.  Measuring the true value of what you are providing to your members is a difficult and sometimes daunting task.  The key to uncovering the answer to these questions is to:

Understand Your Unique Value Proposition
What do you provide that your competitors don’t? Don’t reach for the standard answers such as networking, education.  Are you sure they can’t get that information someplace else? With the creation of social media, there is a lot of “free” information out there.  You can uncover this via surveying your members and not just going to the usual suspects such as networking, lobbying, etc.  Your hunch might come true, but it’s great to back those hunches up with data.  Electronic surveys are the way to go, they eliminate paper, and survey tabulation.  Does your Association Management Software (AMS) provide you with the opportunity to survey your members? Use the tools you have available to find the data you need to back up those hunches.

Show Your Members The Value Your Organization Brings
Depending upon your AMS provider this can be accomplished by understanding what you should be asking your database.  With the Weblink Solution this can be accomplished at the click of a few buttons with reports on Member Activity, Member Referrals, just to name a few of our standard 230 reports we provide to our association and chamber partners.  Being able to uncover this information can help you prepare for those difficult conversations when it comes time for their dues renewal. 

Listen to Your Members
Listen to your members, because they are the reason that your organization exists.  Sure, it seems basic but listening to a member who has a concern, no matter how big or small will go a long way in retaining them for more than your initial term.  This listening doesn’t just have to happen at conferences, you can uncover what they think about your educational programs, and other services by participating in the various social media such ask:  LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.  By doing a quick search on topics that relate to your organization whether it be a chamber or an association allows you to know what the “chatter” is in these arenas.  It can be accomplished by spending 1 -2 hours per week, or even more if you have an intern or staff member managing this aspect of your chamber or association.  Understanding what’s out there will help you engage members and spark them into action.   

Stay Relevant
In the book, Race for Relevance- 5 Radical Changes for Associations written by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE they point out what has changed about associations.  They talk about targeting your membership so that you can really understand what is important to them, along with fighting the status quo.  It’s a great read, and Sarah Sladek writes more about how membership is changing in her book The End of Membership As We Know It: Building the Fortune-Flipping, Must-Have Association of the Next Century.  She was also a recent keynote speaker at the ASAE’s Marketing Membership & Communications Conference where she talked about the changes that our society as a whole have weathered including but not limited to: the .com bust, the 911 attacks, and the Baby Boomer’s impending daily retirement numbers.   Her presentation was thoughtful and gave the audience a lot to think about.  What is your association or chamber doing to stay relevant?

Make sure that you have the right tools in place for managing the relationship with your members.  If your association didn’t exist what would happen? You might be surprised at the answer.  Keep your finger on the pulse of your members with your Association Management Software (AMS) system.  It can provide numerous ways to measure engagement and help you demonstrate what YOUR association or chamber has done for their members. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I'll Be There For You!

These five words you swear to your members.  When they breathe, you want to be the air for them - or at the very least the one place they go when they need to know about your association's industry.  Did you just head bang? I thought about it when I was writing it, if that makes you feel better. 

Our members are our life blood, but what if we can't be there for them when they need us.  Is this a failure upon our part? As a communications scholar/student we frequently say that it's actually healthy for a couple in a romantic relationship to maintain other relationships outside of that couple.  So where I am going with this? Members are looking for diverse information that may not be your area of expertise.  How can you keep them from going to other places?

Keeping up with the trends for your members is just one part of your day-to-day job duties.   You do this so your members don't have to look elsewhere for this type of information.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Only you and your members can decide. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

The"Perfect: Organization

When talking to potential association clients, I often ask them what do you think would make your organization "perfect?" They often struggle with their answer, as if they haven't had the time to even ponder what "perfect" would be like.  When I worked at small association, I can tell you to make my organization perfect I would have liked:
  • Additional organizational buy-in from senior leadership.  
  • A way to track members engagement through an actual membership database.
  • A bigger budget. 
My wish list may not be different from some of my clients, but the truth is that each organization is different.  The problem with many associations is that they have done things a certain way for so long and they are reluctant to change.  This was the case with my previous non-profit (trade) association, the president was from the industry.  The key thing that we were missing out on, is not a unique problem to associations -- engaging the younger generation of members.  Each suggestion that wasn't a print ad, press release, or direct mail campaign was met with a great deal of resistance.  If something isn't working do you keep doing it? At this association, yes was the answer.

We've heard it a million times, with the economic crisis members are changing roles more frequently.  Tenure at a company is decreasing and when people move it's hard to keep track of them on something like a Microsoft Access or Excel "database."  Believe it or not, unless your trained to create and manage databases out of Access they probably won't do what you want them to.  There are many databases out there on the market, the key question you have to ask is "how much database do we need?" The company I currently work for creates a relational database so you keep track of their employment history, but more importantly their relationship with your association.  If I had only had a database, maybe things would be different? The association I worked for no longer exists and merged with another to stay relevant. 

As an association we often dream of what we could do if we only had the budget, and this is a curse, but it's also a blessing.  Why? You learn to be creative on limited dollars, so that if/when you do have more budget, you spend it wisely

If you really think about it.  What would you like to happen to make your association perfect?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Like it, Tweet It, Pin it -- You decide

Facebook®,  Twitter®, Pinterest® and LinkedIn® are just a few places that you can engage with your members in the social media space.  The true value of being present in these spaces is hard to measure their true return on investment.  Check out a few ways that your association can start tracking your ROI today:

Google Analytics this provides you tools to track how members engage with your association’s website. When you set up your account, you indicate what page you’d like to track.  You can track items like: paid, organic, local, social, etc.  One of my former association clients did a “heat map” showing where they received the most traffic, thereby justifying their premium home page real estate.  In fact, the heat map, showed that their section of the website (career center) was the most viewed and visited page.  This built the business case for both a redesign of this section as well as increasing the prominence on other highly viewed pages. 

bitly makes your link both trackable and searchable.  This allows you to tweet shorter statuses on your association’s twitter account, as well as determine, who is out there listening to you.  This feature also allows you to customize your shortened URL so you can include keywords that you want to appear in search results.  The more you can track the more you can show the value of time(hopefully) well spent. 

Tweet Deck the largest advantage of this feature is the ability to schedule your tweets.  I usually open this up in the morning and after I check email I start crawling the web for stories about things I find interesting.  This could be anything from membership growth strategies, database best practices, interesting stories in the business world, as well as other things.  I spend about 30 minutes every morning finding these stories and then sharing them with the world via twitter. 

Klout helps you understand what the association’s sphere of influence is and how it’s changed.  The interesting thing is you can see who influences you, if you weren’t aware before.  I have a few go to’s in terms of blogs that I follow.  They are:

With so many different ways to engage with your members out there, I think it’s important for someone to share what they’ve learned.  There may be easier ways to do it, but this is what I have learned.  Hope you find it helpful!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Go it alone or outsource?

What is your association's membership niche? That's the real question, whether it's animals, a professional society or even a trade association.  Your association specializes in your niche.  You may not have gone to school for your association's industry but the amount of years you have spent working as a professional with this organization has made you a fast expert in your industry. 

Association's often outsource because they know that vendors have their niche.  WebLink International, my current employer has a specialized niche in association management software and websites.  My previous employer specialized in career centers for non-profits, while the associations I worked for were trade associations and professional societies.  Throughout my adventures, I have picked up a few skills that I wouldn't have if I had worked other places.  However, I am still faced with the fact that I know that there is a better way to do this, and quicker.

At one of my employers, I was responsible for doing graphic design.  This was not in my immediate skill set, and I made no secret of it.  However, I was willing and eager to figure it out, and take the time to do so.  I learned the very basic elements of graphic design, and could change layouts, and other things quickly.  Starting from scratch without an idea of where to go, now that was a real challenge.  What this made me understand is that sometimes, while it's cost effective it's best to not go it alone and engage experts where your budget and project needs fit.  Often times, the items that I designed from scratch took a long time to produce, and I always thought they could be better if this was in my skill set. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Budgets Make Dreams Come True

The summer brings a lot of things for associations.  One gift that keeps on giving is your budget planning.  As you prepare your budget for 2013, ask yourself what dreams do I want to come true? Budget season for me was a time to go to the table and ask for things that I didn't think were possible at any other point in the year.  You start with a clean slate, so here are some things that other association professionals are asking for this budget season.

At the ASAE Marketing & Membership conference, they took an informal survey of the room.  Approximately 95% of the room hadn't redesigned their website in three years or more.   I am all about brand consistency, but when new functionality comes out it's important as an association to stay current and not annoy your customers.  At the same conference, it was revealed that a target budget is going to depend on what you want your website to do. 

Here is a list of questions that I would ask a vendor if I were looking for a web site redesign. 
    • Open Source? Customized? Off-the Shelf? 
    • Do you have any white papers, best practices written on association websites?
    • What is included in this price and what is an "add-on" and additional charge? 
    • Is hosting extra? 
    • Is the content management system (CMS) made for someone without programming experience? 
    • What about updates/tweaks? 
    • What is your per hour charge if we go over our estimated hours? 
    • What is your experience in the association space?
    • Do you have references in my industry that I can speak to?
    • What integrates with this? database? financials? social networking? 
    • Does this include bringing over all my content? 
By asking the right questions up front you make sure that you know what you're getting into before you begin this big project.  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Experience, Curiosity & Questions

I recently read a post by Joe Rominiecki discussing his 5 years experience as an association executive at ASAE.  Coincidentally, I have double the experience of Joe and I have to tell you, I too have many unanswered questions.  For the sake of brevity, I won't dump them all here, instead I will chunk them into five questions.

  1. How many people in marketing actually majored in business and or marketing? I spent 10 years doing marketing with or for non-profits, and my education had little to do with marketing.  My B.A is in American Studies, while my M.A is in Communications.  American Studies is based in history and likes to flirt with many other disciplines, it was heavy on reading and writing, which did serve me well.  Communications and marketing seem like they are closely related but if you had asked me 5 years ago which disciple I preferred, I would have told you marketing.  Today, professionals have to have more of a hybrid approach in the non-profit arena because you're dealing with limited resources and if you don't have a skill set you learn it.  Which leads me to my next question...
  2. Experience or education? It's a follow up question to the one above, but what's more valuable your experience as a non-profit professional or a certificate in non-profit management? Here are some things that I learned on the job but not in school: managing vendors (designers, printers), understanding how to talk to those vendors so that it didn't cost you an arm and leg, politics (make nice with everyone, it makes your life easier, seriously), and try to make your boss look good no matter what.
  3. Does anyone feel secure in their job? With the great recession, I can tell you I was not immune to being laid-off.  I worked for a small 6 staff association, and I was the last to be hired and the first to go when times got tough.  The association had never had someone do marketing for them, and the board didn't see the value in continuing it.  I spent three months of poorly paid government vacation being laid-off before I found my next gig.  What did it teach me? I shouldn't take my job for granted and I should do the best job that I can each and everyday.  Even with that, their are no guarantees. 
  4.  Is change that hard? Perhaps it's my age, which isn't very old, but I don't find change to be that hard.  Just because you have always done something a certain way doesn't mean you should keep doing it that way.  However, when I find myself at the crossroads of making a change I am often lingering with doubt.  Is this the right decision? Should I choose this new vendor over the one I already know? What if this change doesn't go the way I want it to? So many follow up questions, and a lot here. 
  5. How do we stay relevant with our members (customers)?  As former non-profit professional, keeping the association on the top of our member's minds was something that I spent a lot of time working on.  Emails, print, social media, I tried it all.  What did I find, people have so much information, that they rarely engaged with the association, or me.  I keep wondering, what do we as association professionals have to do to provide a service to members that they can't live without.  For your association the answer might be different.  
Basically, I think we all learn from our experience, in the end, my quest for additional knowledge always wins out.  How can I do better? What did I learn today? If I were my member, what would I think? 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Change is good...

In the non-profit world we're often slower to adopt to changes, and the most recent example of this is in social media.  Depending on the size of your association, your membership numbers and overall leadership associations are still thinking about dipping their toes into the social media water. 

Association members are using social media, regardless of the membership type, and believe it or not it is a way for them to engage.  Baby boomers engaged with their association by volunteering and becoming very active in the membership.  However the new generation, is engaging by sitting at their computers and updating their friends one status at a time.  If associations aren't at least listening to the conversation then they are missing out in engaging their future generation of members.  

One of the associations that I worked for is just getting in the social media mix, and when I spoke with my old supervisor over there, I told him that he was very late in the game.  He agreed and knew that the organization needed to supply a full time staff member to engage with their members in the social media stratosphere.  They have done as most associations do, hire a consultant to tell them what they don't know.  I offered my free advice, which was, get into the mix and don't do it "half-hearted." 

In order to be successful in the social media realm you must keep up your engagement.  With so many tools out there to engage members, what are you waiting for?