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Smart and Steady Wins the Race

Smart and Steady Wins the Race
“If we pull this off, we’ll eat like kings.”

It’s the tagline from a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, going back to the mid-1980s. The artwork showed two spiders that had spun a web across the bottom of a playground slide. I’m sure I remember a child at the top of the slide, that the child was far too big to be caught in the web…and that the spiders were about to learn a harsh lesson about solving a problem by counting on a silver bullet.

Unfortunately, it’s a message that some association executives are still having trouble receiving.

In the fourth of her five-part series on associations in peril, Association Subculture blogger Shelly Alcorn captures the moment when an organization slides into crisis mode. “Ah, if we could just find that one endorsed program, that one member benefit, that one social media solution, then all of our problems would be over,” she writes. When times get very tough, “thinking centres on a dramatic and desperate search for the key that will unlock the one door that holds all the answers…

“The trouble is—there is no such thing.”

This story is all too familiar because it’s happening right across Canada. Associations are losing government support they may have depended on for years or decades, and even if they had advance warning, they may not have been able to line up new funding sources. Member needs and expectations are shifting, community demographics are changing, communication and outreach tools are transforming…and with core funding in doubt, it feels impossible to keep up.

But pinning everything on a silver bullet will only make the problem worse. Shelly Alcorn warns that “a single-minded, laser focus on ginning up one magical solution can often cause staff and volunteers to neglect everything else, allowing the entire enterprise to deteriorate that much faster.” And if that magical solution evaporates, an organization with no alternatives might have to close its doors.

The smart and steady alternative (since nothing these days is slow and steady) is to build a more nimble, resilient organization by:

  • Understanding what your members need and want, and how they expect their association to deliver it
  • Building a solid foundation of reliable revenue—whether it consists mainly of membership dues, certification fees, or some other predictable income source—that will stay with you in good times and bad
  • Adding secondary revenue streams by demonstrating the enduring strength of your primary programming.

The sad irony for associations at risk is that a resilience strategy is also the best way to capture the silver bullets—precisely because the organization’s survival no longer depends on them.

I've talked to my share of executives who face declining membership and lost revenue, and have a year or two to turn their associations around before funds run out. Some of them are looking for major sponsorship to fill the gap—but from the sponsors’ point of view, the risk may outweigh the reward. If the organization looks shaky, it’s hard to see why a donor or patron would agree to a major investment.

Which really means there are no short cuts. The associations that survive and thrive will be the ones that understand their communities and deliver the value their members need—steadily, reliably, relentlessly. And those spiders on the playground slide? They may be in for a cold, hungry winter.

Strategic Considerations for New Member Segments

Meredith Low provided this guest post.  She is a management consultant, focusing on helping organizations and companies understand how, when, and where to grow in the context of fast-changing environments. Her work with associations includes leading strategic and tactical planning, performing assessments to position conferences and meetings for growth and durability, and assessing the needs of members and other stakeholders. 

Strategic Considerations for New Member Segments
For associations looking to grow, tackling a new membership segment – perhaps colleagues, assistants, or supervisors of your current members – may be an attractive option to consider. However, there are risks; the benefits may prove to be a mirage, and the undertaking could sap enormous amounts of energy from the organization.

So, before plunging in, there is strategic work to do.

Why do you want to consider this? What underlying problem do you think it will solve for you? What strengths does it capitalize on? What makes this a strategic fit for your organization?

If you have a great operating system that is just a bit too expensive on a per capita basis for your current membership, or a crackerjack approach to marketing for member acquisition, then a new segment is worth considering.

However, if instead you are hoping that an influx of new members will shake up a hidebound political structure, more members may just exacerbate the problem.

Make sure this is a solution to the right problem, and make sure the key stakeholders (typically the Board) clearly understand the strategic hypotheses behind the idea.

What does yes look like? What would you have to believe to be true in order to say yes to this? What are the things that would make you turn away from the opportunity? How would the organization be different if this is what you choose to do?

What does no look like? Is your status quo sustainable? If pursuing a new segment doesn’t turn out to be the solution for the issues you are facing, what else might be? Do you have an attractive alternative – or is this really something that has become an imperative?

How will you make the decision? Who makes the call on whether this change should be made? What preparation or inputs will they need to make a good decision?

It’s important to think about decision-making in the abstract, for a couple of reasons. First, when you have data or information already in front of you, it’s easy to dwell on the details and miss the critical question of how the data answers the questions you are asking. Second, if you don’t know what data will influence the decision, you will waste time and energy chasing down answers that don’t help you figure out whether this is a good idea, and may distract you. Figure out what you need to know to make the decision, and then go answer those questions.

Due diligence should include at least some consideration of the following, although you may not need to address them all in the same detail:

  • Demand – Is there any sign this segment would respond to your overtures? What can you offer that is uniquely valuable?
  • Competition – Presumably these potential members are not entirely ignored now. Who are your competitors? What competitive moves can you anticipate if you target this segment? 
  • Organizational capabilities – What would it take? Do you have the right skills or, if not, can you get them? 
  • Finances – Can you do this profitably? Do you have the funds to make the investment that would be required? 
  • Governance - Does anything in your governance structure preclude this move? How would governance need to change? 
  • Advocacy – Would you be able to advocate effectively for both segments at once? Will there be conflicting interests?  
  • Brand – Would it benefit or dilute the brand? 

There is opportunity cost with every strategic initiative, in terms of senior leadership (staff and board) time and attention – is even studying this idea really the best use of that already-constrained resource? If this isn’t the right idea to help your organization thrive, then you need to focus on finding out what is. And if this is a good idea for you, the sooner you get a realistic sense of what it will actually demand to be successful, the better.

Asking the Right Questions

Can't Decide Which Way To Go
A colleague once told me that he never tires of Stephen Leacock’s (humourist, author, political scientist) description of the brave knight who “flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse, and rode madly off in all directions.”

Unfortunately, for associations at risk, that’s often the temptation. When executives sense a problem, or run into a full-fledged crisis, there’s an almost irresistible urge to do something, anything, to make the pain go away.

And once that mindset takes hold, we may not want to be confused or delayed by a proper interpretation of the facts.

In the third of her five-part series on associations at risk, blogger Shelly Alcorn talks about the denial that can set in when an organization’s best-laid plans begin going awry.

“Even if your organizational leadership drank the Kool-aid and invested a tremendous amount of time and money into ventures that appear to be going wrong, there may still be time to fix the situation if they can confront the facts,” she writes. “When discussing the future of your association, it is wise to make sure issues are framed correctly and all parties are conducting honest assessments of the potential risks involved.”

Which is why Alcorn points to the risk of being too selective in gathering and interpreting the data and market intelligence that are the necessary cornerstone of any business decision.

“Leaders can invest a significant amount of energy in finding data to support their own conclusions,” she says. But “pollsters know the difference between getting actual numbers and getting numbers that support a particular position—it all depends on which question you ask.”
But here’s the good news: This is one problem that is easy enough to solve. Here are some simple steps to gather reliable data you can count on:

  1. Be honest with yourself and your team about the risks your organization faces and the biases you’ve acquired as a result.
  2. If you’re gathering data, ask a professional pollster or research team to develop the questions. Or…
  3. …if you’re conducting the research in-house, ask an independent professional to review your survey.
  4. When the survey results come back, ask two or three team members to help interpret the data. If you can, involve outside advisors in the conversation. And if there are disagreements…value them! The decisions you reach will be exactly as good as the process of discussion and deliberation by which you reach them.

Your strategy decisions matter, and that’s reason enough to avoid selective interpretation of critical research. But in an era of social media, the stakes are even higher. In days gone by, if executives drew incomplete conclusions from their data, they often had time to reconsider. Today, your community is watching on social media—and if your analysis is incomplete, they may catch it before you do.

That’s just one more reason to set the right direction the first time. Stephen Leacock’s brave knight was probably pretty tired by the time he finished his day, and 75 years later, we’re still talking about him.


It’s 2013: Change or die

This is a guest post by Sarah Sladek, an expert on demographic shifts, talent turnover, and generation gaps. She is the founder of XYZ University and author of three ground-breaking books. She launched the nation’s first business conference focused on bridging talent and leaderships gaps in the workforce and became a sought-after speaker and consultant to organizations nationwide. Her goal is to help organizations remain relevant to future generations.

It’s 2013: Change or die
Did you make a resolution this year to change the way your organization operates, and invests in its members?  Research indicates a third of resolutions never make it to the end of January. I think that’s because most of us approach resolutions as wishes and desires and not as goals.

This is true in our personal lives as well as our nation’s institutions.

Even amidst economic upheaval, rapidly changing technology, and unprecedented demographic shifts, many organizations are clinging to traditions and processes of the past. The leaders of these organizations may say they want change, but they don’t actually stick to a strategy to make change happen.

The fact is change isn’t easy. It also isn’t optional.

By 2015, Generation Y (ages 18-31 this year) will be the majority of the workforce. This generation’s move into power is already spurring shifts. In fact, The Economist predicts there will be a “great global redistribution of economic and social power” in the coming months.

This isn’t the equivalent of cutting jelly doughnuts out of your daily diet. This is really big, really serious stuff.
According to The Economist, 2013 will be a transitional year for many of our nation’s institutions because “power will flow away from traditional institutions that have failed to deliver progress” and “flow towards businesses whose leaders understand and act on the big trends shaping our future.”

In other words, the phrase ‘Change or Die’ is more accurate than ever before.

If survival isn’t enough to inspire your organization to change, then perhaps these three strategies will help your leadership set goals, embrace change, and achieve success in 2013.

Influence Change

Changing an established culture is the toughest task your organization will face. You must win the hearts and minds of the people you work with, and that takes a significant amount of persuasion. Recognizing you won’t be able to convert everyone at once, start with people who have disproportionate influence in the organization.

Remember: The influencers aren’t always the leaders. Get the influencers committed to change or, failing that, get them out. And once they are committed to change, shine a spotlight on their accomplishments so others get the message.

Make Change Happen

In the 1990s, the New York Police Commissioner made his top brass – including himself – ride the subways day and night, to understand why frightened New Yorkers had come to call it the “Electric Sewer.” Today, we see similar concepts play out on CBS’ Undercover Boss reality show.

The point is, you can advocate for change until you’re blue in the face, but lecturing doesn’t always work. Look for ways to get the decision-makers to experience the harsh realities that make change necessary.

Invest in Change

Look at where your organization spends its resources and you will find its heart. Is your organization investing in the right things? The right things are those that require the least amount of effort for the most gain.

You are in a race for relevance here, folks. Your organization must be focused, nimble and capable for nothing less than greatness. Anything that drains resources and yields minimal results should be put on the chopping block.

I think the ancient philosopher, Lao Tzu said it best: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

Do you simply wish for change to happen, or is your organization being intentional about making it happen?
I hope for the sake of your organization, it’s the latter.

Image courtesy of

Member Recruitment & Retention: It’s All in the Balance

Navigating A Maze
There are moments in the life of any association when it’s critically important to recruit new members.  But it can be a fatal error to focus primarily or exclusively on recruitment, while ignoring the qualities that attract people to your organization—and motivate your existing members to come back to you year after year.

In the second in a five-part series on her Association Subculture blog, Shelly Alcorn describes a situation that should ring true to too many membership organizations.

“Leadership obsessed with recruitment at all costs will champion such things as running reckless membership promotion campaigns, offering deep, unsustainable dues discounts, offering commissions for new member sign-ups, or offering lavish prizes in member-get-a-member contests,” she writes. “They can even recruit more members than the association staff can adequately serve, leading to disappointment and low retention rates for new recruits.”

An overzealous approach to member recruitment can lead to tensions with existing members and confusion for new arrivals. And those problems are magnified when leaders “judge staff and volunteer performance on new member recruitment numbers, rather than current member retention.”

Last fall, the Greenfield Services Pulse Report pointed to a serious gap in Canadian associations’ member renewal marketing. “One of the most troubling findings of the Pulse Report was that 52.1% of associations followed up with only one to three member touchpoints as member renewal deadlines approached, while only 13.6% followed up seven or more times,” we wrote.

“These numbers matter a great deal against the established sales and marketing theory that it takes eight to 10 touchpoints to break through the clutter of competing media and priorities to reach a target audience with a message that requires a decision and action.”

And while member retention was a leading goal for 59.6% of the associations we surveyed, “fewer than half (48.5%) saw it as a top priority to demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) that would give members a compelling reason to renew, and fewer than three in 10 (27.2%) placed strong emphasis on new product or service offerings.” Two-thirds of the organizations invested less than 10% of their operating budgets in membership marketing.

It isn't that member retention can or should be your only marketing strategy. The challenge for any association is to deliver the right balance of marketing content and social media to simultaneously tap new prospects and delight current members. That’s the key to building the deep pools of member loyalty and engagement that will keep your organization strong in good times and bad.


3 Secrets of Associations That Generate Substantial Revenue from Their Private Online Member Community

This post is by Joshua Paul, Director of Strategy for Socious, a leading provider of online community software for mid-sized and large associations. He blogs at the Online Community Blog (

3 Secrets of Associations That Generate Substantial Revenue from Their Private Online Member Community
The best kept secret in the non-dues revenue world is the potential for online revenue generation. Typically, association executives only think of online advertising when it comes to using their web properties to generate revenue. To most membership organizations, advertising looks like a “river of nickels” when compared to revenue from events, dues, and educational program. This paradigm sends online revenue programs to the backburner of organizations that have limited resources to pursue non-dues revenue.

It is time to change all of that. The truth is that membership organizations that make their online community strategy central to their organization’s membership management operations are already seeing revenue streams that are significantly impacting their financials.

I have previously written about how an online member community’s vendor program can be structure to maximize revenue. The basic idea is that your online community software features combined with the built-in partner management tools enable your organization to offer sponsorship packages that provide much more value to vendors and your membership than anything they have seen before. Members will get more value from their membership and your sponsors will pay more to be closer to their target audience.
Here are three under-the-radar tips for how to create measurable non-dues revenue from your private online member community and its built-in vendor programs:

Think Beyond Advertising
Display advertising has always been, and will always be, part of an association’s non-dues revenue mix. However, in the past 10 years the options that associations have available to them have grown significantly.

Here are some of the other revenue options built-into online community platforms for associations to offer their partners:
Dedicated Blogs
Guest Posts on Main Blogs
Controlled access to discussion forums and listservs
Dedicated vendor discussions
Dedicated email sends
Email newsletter or other message sponsorship
Listserv email sponsorships
Market research surveys
Online community and event mobile app advertising

Along with providing more value to your members and partners, thinking beyond website advertising also give you flexibility in attracting a wider array of sponsors through various combinations of the opportunities above.

Win/Win Sponsorships
Members don’t care about or want to see advertising. Your sponsors, like many businesses, see very little return on their investment from display advertising on the web.

What if there was a way to make you private social network, and consequently membership in organization, more valuable to your members, while at the same time, making a sponsorship result in more awareness and sales for your partner vendors. This is the mindset and strategy of associations that generate hefty amounts of non-dues revenue from their online vendors program.

When you set up your online community in a way where vendors can engagement members by helping them, everybody wins. Your members get more support, your sponsors get more meaningful access to serve your membership, and your association can charge more for this type of sponsorship value.

Bundle Into Tiers or Provide a Custom Menu
All sponsors don’t come to you with the same strategy, budget, and interest in getting in front of your member community. By having so many ways to provide value to your sponsors, your association has a lot of flexibility to sell more sponsorships at a higher price.

Your partnership team can choose to either publish standard vendor program packages – think platinum, gold, silver, etc. Or they can consult with each vendor to come up with a custom package for a specific vendor that touches on all of the main areas that would cause them to pay a premium for access to your membership. I have seen both approaches done successfully.

You can also combine your online community vendor program with event sponsorships. For instance, with the platinum sponsorship of your annual conference, your partners can get a 3 month pass to participate in your online vendor program. This gives you good reason to raise your sponsorship prices and the real value to explain that decisions to your partners.

Non-Dues Revenue Take Away
Revenue from private online member communities is real. Socious has membership organization customers that deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars in non-dues revenue to their organizations using their online vendor program.

Associations have a responsibility to take online revenue programs seriously. If you implement the right online community platform and the strategy, you can hit the trifecta – significant benefits to your members, value to your sponsors, and revenue to your organization.


The Data to Make Your Decision

Increasing Your Business
When I run across an interesting new blog, I devour it like a good book, and that’s what happened when I discovered Shelly Alcorn’s Association Subculture.

As I read Shelly’s five-part series on associations at risk, I kept thinking of conversations I’d had - or, sometimes, quiet observations I’d made - in my work with some of my favourite organizations. And I saw more than a few questions that went along with the answers in the Pulse Report that Greenfield published last fall to document some of the major issues facing Canada’s associations.

One of the most important themes - and one of the riskiest for organizations that lose track of it - is the need to ground decisions in the best available data. It’s a simple rule that organizations can forget when they get over-confident, and when that happens, disaster may be just around the corner.

“A confident organization exudes a certain sense of capability and attention to detail,” Shelly writes in the first of her five posts. “Hubris goes a step further, where capability becomes unassailable and attention to detail either all-consuming or irrelevant, depending on the temperament of the board in question.”

Your executives or managers may be losing touch with their data if they've fallen into the habit of:
  • Assuming that their intuitions, instincts, or brainstorms - brilliant as they may be - can translate directly into action, with no research or validation
  • Assuming that their way is the only right way
  • Making decisions without seeking input from members, sponsors, colleagues, or other stakeholders
  • Missing out on the golden opportunity to listen to the wider community via social media
  • Failing to explain major decisions.
It isn't that you can or should consult endlessly on every small decision or detail: people are busier than ever, and survey fatigue is a very real concern. But you must strike a careful balance by taking a pulse when you need to, then moving ahead with confidence when you have enough information to choose a direction.

The good news is that the tools to gather that information - from online surveys to social media management and analytics - are more sophisticated and accessible than ever. But whether you do your own research, call for professional assistance, or do a bit of both, you should always pause to ask the right questions to guide your most important decisions and strategies.