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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.

The Next Step for Greenfield: Taking Over the Management of CanSPEP


Greenfield Services is pleased to announce it is undertaking association management for the Canadian Society of Professional Event Planners (CanSPEP).  As of August 1, 2014, the company will be providing strategic business development and stakeholder engagement support for this association of independent meeting professionals.

CanSPEP represents a powerful group of entrepreneurs, many of whom are recognized leaders in the meetings and events industry.  Formed in 1996, the organization provides a forum in which members meet to exchange ideas, develop skills through educational programs, and share partnership opportunities that foster business growth.

CanSPEP is an active member of the Business Events Industry Coalition of Canada and an organizational leader in the meetings and events industry.  The average buying power of CanSPEP members contributes over 65,000 room nights and $30 million in revenue to the industry.

In a recent message to its members 2013-2014 CanSPEP President, Catherine Paull, CMP, announced,

Over the past few months the Board of Directors, with assistance from the Past Presidents’ Council, carried out an extensive RFP process for association management services for CanSPEP.  As a result of this diligent process, the Board of Directors has made the decision to engage Greenfield Services Inc. for association management, effective August 1, 2014.  

CanSPEP has grown to become the vibrant association it is today and that would not have been possible without the dedication and efforts of Carol Ford.  Please join the Board of Directors and the Past Presidents’ Council in thanking Carol Ford for her past service and tremendous dedication and extending a warm welcome to Doreen Ashton Wagner and the Greenfield Services team.

Greenfield’s Chief Strategist, Doreen Ashton Wagner, explained the company’s decision to move into the association management company (AMC) space: “Since 2003 professional and trade associations have been turning to Greenfield for project-based member recruitment, retention and engagement.  We’ve also been executing more sponsorship and exhibit sales programs.  But as our associations see shifts in the landscape – with very rapid changes due to demographics and technology – many are choosing to become more strategic.  This means focusing on the “big picture” for their industry, handing the reigns to a proactive, hands-on partner who goes beyond administration.  We’ve been preaching engagement, pull marketing and the smart use of technology for years.  This was a natural evolution for us.

For more information on CanSPEP or Greenfield’s association management services, please call 1-866-488-4474, extension 4512 for Doreen Ashton Wagner, or extension 4517 for Meagan Rockett.

#Engageassn – A Successful Summit

Last week, Greenfield Services, along with its partners, held its first annual Engaging Associations Summit, at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, ON.  We welcomed 74 people to the event: 52 executives, and 22 partners and speakers.

The launch of the Engaging Associations Summit represented a significant shift for our company.  The decision to create this event for the association industry helps us have a deeper understanding of challenges, best practices and successes of our clients, prospects and the industry in general”, says Doreen Ashton Wagner, Greenfield’s Chief Strategist.

While the decision to create this event was ours, we certainly did not do it alone.  It truly was co-created; from our focus groups last Fall, to our amazing partners this year.  And I was truly speechless when people started to arrive – it was wonderful to see the buzz the Summit created before, during, and after the event!” adds Meagan Rockett, Director of Client Solutions.

Our commitment to the industry and the Summit’s participants won’t stop there – stay tuned for event re-caps in blogs, a case study of the event,  and a live debriefing of the event at the PCMA Canada East Canadian Innovation Conference in November.

And, of course, we have announced tentative dates for 2015, so block Thursday and Friday, July 23-24 on your calendars!

We look forward to watching the ideas and best practices exchanged at the Summit grow, and keep the momentum of engagement going!