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One #Association That Has Created Change

This summer, I had the pleasure of connecting with Paul Smith, Executive Director of CACEE (Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers), due to a post I submitted through a LinkedIn Group.

My post in the group asked for an executive to "raise their virtual hand" and want to be interviewed by me on a change they have implemented within their organization.

Paul graciously provided his time, thoughts, and feedback on how his association implemented a major change in their operating structure.

In this article, Paul shares with me that his organization recognized a need to streamline processes, policies and procedures, how he received buy-in from internal and external stakeholders, the time it took to implement the change, as well as challenges and successes that were found as a result of this.

I encourage you to check out our free resources section, where the interview with Paul is located.  Please look for "Associations That Create Change (CACEE)".

If you are interested in being interviewed for an upcoming paper, I would love to hear from you.  Please feel free to get in touch.

#Association Concerns – And What To Do About Them…

In the recently released 2014 Pulse Report, our research found that association executives are working hard to bring their association into the age of engagement.  With 178 responses, we discovered that some of their top concerns are:

  • Misalignment of staff around strategic initiatives;
  • Overuse of marketing lists;
  • Risk-averse, tunnelled organizational cultures;
  • Relevance of educational offerings;
  • Declining revenues or membership numbers.

Amongst others…

What can you, as an association executive consider (or, implement) to help combat these issues? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Regarding the misalignment of staff; is this a misalignment or a strategic plan issue?  When creating your plan, or deciding on the initiatives that you want to implement; were your front-line team members (those who are in contact with your members and other stakeholders regularly) involved in the decision-making process?  It may be time to re-group with your team to ensure that they fully understand the program, or the plan, and get them on board to achieving your organizational goals.  That way, they can properly communicate them to your stakeholders daily.

  2. Your marketing lists – are they overused?  Or over-emailed?  As an executive, you may need to determine the difference… with the Anti-Spam Legislation in full force here in Canada, it has made your job to communicate with prospect members, sponsors, exhibitors and other stakeholders more difficult; if they did not opt-in, you cannot email them.  Have a look at other marketing methods – phone, social media, and yes – direct mail (it will likely make a bit of a comeback)…

    If it is truly overused list – the answer is to research new potential companies and prospects to market to.

  3. If you believe you are working with a risk-averse team, you are certainly not alone.  But there are organizations who have moved beyond that…in a recent article in Association™ magazine (produced by CSAE), Beckie MacDonald, with the Ontario Library Association states “The best thing you can do is try it and fail, because you’re only going to learn how to do it better”.

  4. If you have concerns on the relevance of your educational offerings – take a look at your suite of programs.  You already know that something isn’t right – look at program purchase history and determine popularity.  Don’t forget to ask your members – it may not be the program at all – it could be timing, location, etc.  Ask them as members what programs they would like to see offered to enhance their professional lives; and determine if it is feasible to offer it to them.

  5. And of course, to complete many of the areas above, it takes time, members and money, which was also a concern listed.  To retain members, you have to be engaging ongoing, and delivering value (in a way that means something to the individual; not the organization).  Retention efforts could be an issue – and I suggest having a second look at your process to see if there is anything else you could be doing at renewal time.

    If these boxes are checked, and you still are not clear on why your membership is declining – then it is likely time to find out.  A comprehensive lapsed member survey to uncover reasons for departure, their experience as a member, etc. will not only give you a sense of why they left, but it may bring them back.  It will also provide you with some fantastic insights on what could be changed to help eliminate this issue in the future.

The 2014 Pulse Report is now available online for download.

How to set your association apart from the rest

As an association, you want to be known as the best. You want everyone in your industry to think about you as the go-to source for information. You want to be different. To stand alone. To be great.

To successfully set your association above the rest, an understanding of your differentiators is key. Those differentiators can be found by defining your target market (which in many cases comes down to the specific industry you serve), competition, niche and position.

Getting noticed through all the other noise and resources available to your members (and potential members) can be daunting. Prioritizing your marketing efforts will help. To start, ask yourself a few questions:

Who’s your target audience, really?

Your target market is not “everyone” and it may not even be everyone in your industry. Think about who you struggle to reach and who you have an easy time reaching. For your association to be successful, who are the most important audiences? If you struggle with member retention but have no problem with new members, your focus should be on identifying how to communicate with those members who are leaving your organization. If you are full of Baby Boomers but struggle to engage younger generations, your focus needs to be on marketing your association in a way that is appealing to younger members.

Identify your top target and some secondary targets for your association and get to know who those people are. These are the people you’re going to need to engage and build relationships with.

Find out what they care about, what’s important to them regarding your industry and your organization, and what makes them tick in general. You need to understand who they are and why they would considering joining your association (or why they are a member already). Narrowing down and understanding your target markets will help you craft better messages that solve your audience’s specific problems and meets their specific needs. This is what will get you noticed.

Who’s your competition?

Before you can stand out, you need to know what you’re up against. Take some time to research your other associations and see how they compare. Think outside the box here. Don’t just look at associations that are in your industry, look to those that are doing is well and who you’d love to emulate.

What marketing tactics and tools they are using? How can you utilize similar concepts in your marketing strategy? Do some comprehensive research to figure out who your competition is and why they matter. Everyone has a competitor. Get to know them.

What is your niche?

Once you’ve researched your competition, get a solid understanding on what makes your association stand out. What can you offer that is unique? That no other association is offering? More than likely, you’re doing things differently already; identify what those things are and what sets you about. Then talk about it!

What’s your position?

Establish who your association is and what you want it to be known for; set your position. What are the essential qualities that set your association apart? Your position should distinguish you from other companies like yours. Your position will be reflected in your brand, but it’s a tool you should use internally.

For example: Home Depot’s position is that it’s the hardware department stores for the do-it-yourselfers. Their brand reflects this in their tagline “You can do it. We can help.” Home Depot has positioned themselves as the store for everyone, not just contractors and professionals. They’ve set themselves apart by being the place to go for DIY home improvement. The spirit of that position is clearly reflected in their brand’s tagline and the types of content they post online. This same exercise can be executed for your association as well.

Be consistent in your messaging

Once you have answered the above questions, spread a consistent message across all your marketing channels. Use your website, print media, social media, video to show your target market who you are. Repetition of a meaningful message will grab your market’s attention and help build your association’s brand awareness. Be consistent, but don’t be afraid to monitor and tweak the message based on what’s working for you and what’s not.

If you want your association to stand out, you need to start with what your members and potential members want and then establish who you are. Understanding your competition, your target market and what makes you unique are the first steps in getting noticed. Building your association’s brand based on market research and self-awareness will help you stand out in the marketplace. Now, go get ‘em!

BIO 

This guest post was submitted by Melissa Harrison, founder and CEO of Allee Creative, LLC, a content marketing and branding firm in the Twin Cities. Melissa has more than a decade of experience in content management and strategy, branding and design, working with organizations to build strategic social media and online content strategies. Listed as one of the “Top 36 Content Marketers Who Rock” by TopRank and Content Marketing Institute, Melissa believes that organizations must adapt to what customers want, which includes using social media and creative online content to provide relevant, consistent information, in order to survive. 

Melissa is also a four-time recipient of the Hermes Creative Award and a regular speaker on the topics of branding, content strategy and social media. Melissa is also certified by Google Analytics Academy in Digital Analytics Fundamentals. Follow Melissa on Twitter

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / Freedigitalphotos.net 

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 20th 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.