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Anti-Spam Legislation Delivers Wake-Up Call to Canadian Associations

New spam prevention laws in Canada were the jumping-off point for a fast-paced conversation about marketing, engagement, and respecting your audience during the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit in late July.

Greenfield Services Chief Strategist Doreen Ashton Wagner opened the session with some startling statistics. She said some associations reported losing up to 80% of their external prospect lists after Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) took effect July 1, for the simplest of reasons: lists age very quickly, and when the organizations asked their less frequent contacts’ permission to continue soliciting them by email, the contacts declined.

Thanks to CASL, it was easy enough for the recipients to make a dent in their incoming email volume. All they had to do was not answer the flurry of requests they were receiving from multiple senders in the second half of June. As long as they did nothing, the senders were obliged to remove them from their lists.

Good News or Bad?

The question for Summit participants was whether the sudden loss of email volume was good news or bad. Panelists Rachel Stephan, Principal of sensov/ event marketing, and Mitchell Beer, President of Smarter Shift, agreed the user response to CASL was an important wake-up call.

Stephan said it’s scary for organizations to suddenly see their email lists thinned out by hundreds or thousands of recipients. But if 80% of a list of sponsors, advertisers, and exhibitors was mostly a mirage, it’s better to aim for a higher percentage return from a smaller, more engaged audience. Beer took the point of view of the audience for marketing emails, asking whether anyone in the room was receiving too few incoming messages. (Shocking spoiler alert: No one raised their hand.)

By relying more on inbound, “pull” marketing, rather than traditional outbound techniques, the panelists said associations can use proactive acquisition campaigns and online networks to develop deeper, more positive relationships with members, sponsors conference participants, and other stakeholders.

New Ways to Communicate

Discussion during the session focused on content marketing techniques that emphasize conversation, peer learning, and community, rather than pushing for a quick sale to place an expo booth, an ad, or a conference registration. The most successful online communicators:

  • Develop detailed audience personas that reflect a deep understanding of the groups they’re trying to reach
  • Listen closely to each audience, to understand what information they need and what they’re trying to achieve
  • Deliver targeted, original content that reflect their audiences’ interests 
  • Give back to the community, by fostering genuine conversations and online engagement.

Participants heard that CASL has forced associations to personalize their marketing and pay closer attention to their audiences’ preferences. Stephan quoted Experian Marketing Services’ recent finding that customers would no longer buy from an organization that failed to take account of their preferences and purchasing history.”

Click here for highlights of the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit and a sneak preview of the 2015 event.

Associations Need To Re-Think Their Value

In an era when interactions are driven predominantly by online platforms, not by 20h century institutions, keynote speaker Jeff De Cagna said associations have to rethink their value in a way that may lead away from traditional membership models.

Technology is creating a new behaviour space for associating that doesn’t require associations,” said De Cagna, Chief Strategist and Founder of Principled Innovation LLC in Reston, Virginia. The inescapable conclusion for asssociations, he added, is that “it’s much more important for associations to create value than to drive membership.

The self-described “association contrarian,” dubbed the “antichrist” by one association executive, urged participants to recalibrate for a world in which:

  • The massive recent growth in world population and social development is directly tied to the evolution of technology, “the only powerful shaping force in the history of civilization.”
  • We now trust robots—also known as algorithms—to guide some of our most intimate and consequential decisions. 
  • One in five people around the world owns a smart phone.
  • The Kickstarter crowdfunding platform has launched 66,000 successful projects, with 6.6 million backers logging 16.5 million pledges worth more than $1.2 billion.
  • Online networks have created a world in which “individual humans connected together can accomplish what once only centralized, large organizations could,” according to Silicon Valley business innovator Nilofer Merchant.

Decision Time for Associations

For associations, De Cagna said, it’s time to decide whether to embrace a networked world or quickly lose relevance. He urged participants to open “value conversations” with their communities, leaving behind a traditional model in which “’engagement’ is code for ‘send me some money so I can sell you more stuff.’”

Associations that operate in that traditional mode “are so overwrought about building membership that they’ve lost track of how to build a strong, sustainable infrastructure,” he told participants.

In addition to delivering greater value to the communities they’ve already identified, associations can gain from a more connected, relevant approach by drawing in audiences and partners who would otherwise have stayed outside the membership wall. De Cagna said one of the greatest vulnerabilities of traditional associations is their failure to “consider the stakeholders who aren’t here,” whose challenges and expectations are fundamentally different from the groups that have already affiliated.

Click here for highlights of the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit and a sneak preview of the 2015 event.

Association Strategy: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice

Filling in the “air sandwich” between strategy and implementation is one of the biggest challenges facing associations, consultant Meredith Low of Meredith Low Consulting told participants at the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit.

Not all associations invest in strategic development. But even for those that do, Low said there’s a crucial difference between setting a broad direction—what she described as “making choices to succeed”—and “capturing and enabling” those choices in a coherent strategic plan and then actually making them happen.

The difference determines how effectively an organization addresses and prevails against strategic challenges it may have worked very hard to understand. And when strategy fails to produce tangible results, it can give the whole strategic planning process an undeserved bad name.

We’ve Heard It All Before

It’s easy to spot a generic strategy that is vague in aspiration and short on delivery, Low said. Try to imagine any association that hasn’t set out to “achieve effective engagement with members and key stakeholders.” To “create and deliver cutting-edge educational opportunities.” To influence public policy, promote and support research, or “strengthen and promote the field through partnerships and collaboration.”

Don’t look now, but that language may not be very far from your strategic plan.

Here’s the problem: When a strategy is that general, it can mean almost anything. So when it comes to implementing the plan and evaluating the results, it actually means next to nothing. Low said the strategy process only works when it delivers specific, targeted goals that point toward actions an organization can and will take – and those they won’t.

By asking the right questions, sharing knowledge, consulting widely, then formulating narrowly, Low said an association can answer the most pressing questions it faces and, crucially, craft a compelling story about what it will do to meet its goals. A clear strategy “can lead not simply to a report on the shelf but, instead, to a stronger, more resilient organization.”

Time Horizons Matter

Low contrasted the 12-month time horizon we often have in a volunteer association president and the longer-term focus that is essential for the organization as a whole and the sector it represents. Although there’s room for mid-course adjustments, she said it’s a mistake to reopen a strategy every year.

“It’s a time investment to get to a commitment,” she told participants, so organizations should be purposeful about developing their strategies and resolute about protecting them, at least broadly: If you shift gears every year, she said, “you don’t have a strategy.” But at the same time, at the level of precisely how the strategy gets implemented, you have to have flexibility to respond to an evolving environment and to the changes within the organization – as you build capacity, as you learn, as you bring in new perspectives.

Click here for highlights of the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit and a sneak preview of the 2015 event.

Event ‘Shatterpoints’ Point to the Need for Change

Associations can strengthen their conferences and protect the revenue they generate by anticipating the “shatterpoints” that could eat into audience loyalty and send the event into a tailspin, consultant Jeff Hurt told participants at the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit.

“One change in one shatterpoint can have a domino effect, with drastic consequences,” said Hurt, Executive Vice President of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting in Dallas, Texas. Acknowledging the Star Wars movie series as the source of the term, Hurt said organizations’ conference revenues could be vulnerable if they don’t achieve at least:
  • 50% paid attendance at two out of three annual events
  • A 65% renewal or “stickiness” rate among exhibitors
  • A 75 to 80% stickiness rate among sponsors.
Looking to the Future

Hurt said a goal can be a lagging indicator, to the extent that strategies are built to address problems an association has already experienced. By contrast, a shatterpoint can be a leading indicator, pointing to future risks that the organization can mitigate or prevent.

After inviting Summit participants to discuss their own measures of a healthy, sustainable conference, Hurt suggested a series of longer-term shatterpoints, including:
  • Secondary revenue stream that represents less than 30% of the total
  • Only 35% of conference participants under age 50
  • Less than 55% of direct expense devoted to the participant experience.
One Piece of a Larger Puzzle

Hurt stressed that conferences are just one part of a larger patchwork of association services and initiatives, and should be seen as part of a continuum of customer and audience touchpoints. The key audiences onsite fall into three categories—economic buyers, decision-makers, and influencers—and more than ever before, organizations can use smart data to define and target the groups they need to reach and bring together.

Although shatterpoints can point to serious risks for associations that don’t pay attention to them, a Summit participant said the impact can be positive if they “blow things up” and draw attention to the potential for change.

Click here for highlights of the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit and a sneak preview of the 2015 event.

#Eventprofs - Heading to @Incentive_Works? See Booth #1439 for #Event #Marketing

Do you work for an organization with a small team who has been tasked with the BIG job of putting on an event?  Doreen Ashton Wagner & Meagan Rockett will be exhibiting at IncentiveWorks August 19 & 20th, and if you plan on being there, you should come by and say hello!

We have worked with numerous organizations, large and small, in assisting with the aspects of the event that are important – but that you do not have time for.

If you have difficulty focusing your efforts in one of the following area:


Then you should stop by Booth #1439, and chat with us.  We will have on hand some tips & best practices as takeaways, and if you work for an association, copies of our recently released 2014 Pulse Report: A Time To Decide (on Membership Marketing & Engagement) will also be available.

We look forward to seeing you there!

A Time to Decide: The 2014 Pulse Report Now Available

After years of resilience and creativity in the face of declining resources, shifting demographics, and changes in member expectations, the 2014 Pulse Report suggests that many Canadian-based associations have gone into a holding pattern in response to the transformative shifts in their immediate future.

The 2014 version of the report is our third annual review of the association sector in Canada, and found that relatively few organizations are pro-actively addressing the key strategic and operational issues that will determine their future strength.

The research was conducted from April through mid-June 2014, and received 178 responses from Canadian-based associations.  We reached out to approximately 1,500 organizations, through our own association client list, and through our partnership with Advanced Solutions International, extensive exposure on social media (including Twitter and LinkedIn Group posts).

Some of the key findings derived from this research are:

  • Membership growth, higher visibility in the association's industry or field, and increased member participation remain the top three priorities this year;
  • Non-dues revenue, insufficient staffing, and lack of funding to support association initiatives were the most serious concerns among respondents.  The overall level of anxiety over these challenges may have been abated somewhat between 2013 & 2014;
  • Alarmingly, no more than 56% of associations have marketing plans in place to reach potential new members and offset steady attrition of existing members;
  • Association executives are well aware of the emerging need for member-driven management and customized service.  Almost half expressed strong concern about their organizations' inability to properly track or measure member engagement.

We recently published the report, and released it at our 2014 Engaging Associations Summit to participants. The study is now available online.  Download your copy today.