Monday, January 30, 2012

Guest Appearances

Over the past few weeks I have played in the world of guest blogging, and thought I would share the post listings here:

1. The Beginning of Membership as We Dream It - On the Affiniscape Blog.  After reading The End of Membership as We Know It and discussing future membership model iterations, I think that there is a 'sweetspot' where associations have the chance to take a step back and explore what membership would be if there were no limitations.  Defining membership first from our imagination may help direct the paths we take to be ones we want and not just ones we need.

2. 5 Tips to Keep Your Association Website on the Curve in 2012 - On the AssociationTech Blog - As 2012 ramps up there are a number of articles that have come out describing steps to take to make sure that your website stays forward looking.  For many associations, our websites still struggle to be 2005 much less 2012 - here are 5 quick tips to use when evaluating if your association website is ready for today before moving to tomorrow.

3. Leader Tomorrow?  Work on these Skills Today - On the Millennial Chat Blog - Whether in your volunteer efforts or in the workplace, do you see expanding leadership positions in your future?  Here are just three suggestions of areas of concentration and development today that can help those future pursuits.

And though I have not yet posted, I am excited to participate with newly certified CAE Lauren Hefner on her new blog on the CAE experience - . With posts from those who have tried to become a CAE, those who have succeeded, and those who are in the process of studying/testing (that last one is me) - this blog has the potential to be a great resource for all association professionals who look to get their certification.

A new post will be back on association141 soon - see you then!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Membership Renewal Should be More Than a Business Transaction

I recently received my first renewal invoice for my ASAE dues and (warning: ruining the ending of the story) – I renewed.  The network and community I am a part of, the volunteer opportunities and ways to give back to the association world I have discovered – all of it makes my continued relationship with ASAE as a member a no-brainer.  I am looking forward to receiving what I think is one of the best examples of a membership card in the association world – my foldout from ASAE with a trophy on front with my years of affiliation, personalized to my membership.  

So, now that you know the ending, I have to say that the renewal process I experienced as a member was….well, not cutting edge.  Perhaps it is unrealistic expectations, or that since my track is membership I look with an ultra-critical eye, but I think there are a number of basic lessons we can tease out of the first phase of the ASAE renewal cycle.  (I renewed after the first phase – I know further down the line that if you do not renew you received additional asks and person phone call follow ups.  If the full ASAE renewal cycle plan is available for member review on Collaborate, it would be much appreciated if someone can post the link in the comments below)

1.      1. Invoice first? – Ok, call me crazy, but I just don’t keep stamps in the house.  With the way that postage continues to escalate I know I should buy some of those ‘forever’ stamps that will hold the price steady – but I just don’t have anything to mail.  My bills are online, I usually send e-cards, and when ordering items, Amazon is my buddy.  Though I know there are people who still prefer to renew from a paper form, mailing or faxing it in, I can not believe that this is the majority of the association population.  I really believe that in today’s membership world, the first formal renewal ‘ask’ should be electronic.  I rather click through, pay through the site, and be done in under three minutes.  The benefits to this are a win-win all around – saves the member time and postage/finding a fax machine, online renewal should be tied to the AMS so that upon payment renewal is immediately acknowledged, and best of all – not printing an invoice and mailing it saves costs.  Yes, if I do not renew after the first email/e-outreach then send the invoice – but give me the chance to do it online first!

2.       2. Online Renewal Path Identification (ORPI) – Ok, so I wanted to come up with a new association acronym – but in all seriousness, it is an important one.  On the renewal invoice I received there was information for sending it back in, and faxing it in.  There was the general association website, but no direct url/link was given for renewal.  If I wanted to renew online, I was on my own to find the path.  Granted, there is a link from the homepage, but if the invoice is going to be sent it should be comprehensive in providing the different renewal options.

3.       3. Missing the Warm Fuzzies – While for an association membership renewal is a transaction that is counted and depended upon for the budget, this is not a member-centric perspective.  Ideally, a member has a relationship with their professional community thanks to the association, and the discussion of value attributed with that relationship is ongoing throughout the year.  When the time comes for membership renewal, the ‘ask’ can start from a place of conversation and appreciation.  Thanking the member for their ongoing participation, recognizing that their affiliation with the association has made it a more rich and vibrant community.  With the help of members, some highlights of what has been accomplished, and what the association is looking forward to in the year ahead.  Then the opportunity to remain part of the conversation and important endeavors the association and its members is set to tackle in the year ahead – and the member can renew to remain a vital part of that effort.  I think the direct opposite of this approach is to simply send an invoice with what is owed, demographics to fill out and some general website information.  It is a missed opportunity to remind members of why they want to be members in the first place.

4.       4. Online Renewal should have Glitter – For most AMS it is difficult for the system to recognize the difference between membership renewal and buying a book when it comes to processing the transaction.  I understand that is where we are technology wise, and am ok with that for now.  With that said, the screens leading up to the decision to renew, and the automated response that is sent after should stand apart.   A purchase of a product is a singular transaction – a renewal payment is a commitment to an ongoing relationship with the potential for MANY purchases, volunteer involvement, etc – do we really want to treat them the same?  If we can get the emotion into the logistics of renewing membership, and make a member feel good immediately upon deciding to remain part of the association then that is a huge stake in the ground when the next organization opportunity presents itself.  (Note: I did receive an email letter to this end 8 days after I renewed)

I want to say that I think ASAE rocks – the community I have found and the professional I am becoming because of the association is simply invaluable.  I am guessing that the next steps in the renewal cycle are more engaging, and perhaps speak to some of what I addressed above.  I guess it is just the association professional in me that had hoped that experiencing my own membership renewal with my professional association would be a lesson in what to do rather than what not to do.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Don't Ask the Members, Talk to Them

In her latest blog post on Thanks for Playing, Elizabeth Engel asks how we have more interaction with our members - the best solution to the quandry of finding out how to better serve them.

First, let me be clear what I do NOT think the answer is - more surveys.  In an age when we can survey for free with a few clicks on the keyboard, we are asking for feedback way too often (you can see my previous post on that rant).  Surveys may give us a snapshot of a member opinions for that moment in time, but they become outdated the moment we receive the results.  What is worse is that we can not hear the tone, background, new ideas or suggestions that the member may use while taking the survey (as alluring as the 'anything else to add' box is).  Surveys serve their purpose - benchmarking and evaluating - but they are not what is going to let us know on an ongoing basis how to better serve our members.

Now that I got that off my chest - here is what I think we should be doing, and each of these suggestions fall under the same goal.  We have to stop asking our members what they want or need, and instead talk to them about it.  Through conversation and interaction, members will not only know that we are listening to them, but we will be able to build upon their ideas and even have them share with one another.  Here are three 'hows':

1. Use social media the way it was intended - to connect and not advertise.  Want to kill a LinkedIn discussion?  Post a marketing campaign to get people to register for your next conference.  Want people to stop following your association's twitter account?  Use it to promote educational products.  Seriously people, the point of social media is NOT marketing, and though that may be a happy by-product, we need to do a better job at respecting the medium where we are trying to connect with our professionals. 

What if months before our next conference, we crowd sourced sessions?  What if we did not stop at crowdsourcing for ranking, but let the session topics each be presented and discussed for their merits and pitfalls.  Before even putting their presentation together a speaker would have better feedback on what attendees are looking for, what they need to learn, and why they find the topic interesting.  Incorporate that into your next conference, and watch as each person who participated in one of the discussions feels part of the conference community months before showing up.

What if we showed some praise and virtual love to association volunteers - from board members to badge stuffers - giving them a social media shout out.  How much would we reenforce their commitment to the association?  How many new volunteers could we find through the discussions that would ensue about how awesome the member is and why? 

Private social networks, twitter, facebook, etc - they are all meant for back and forth between people.  Not between members and an association - but between people.  Are we engaging with our members as a person, and not as a faceless organization?  Is it an acronym who is posting a query, or a real person who cares about the answer and will continue talking?  If we are going to be there for our members, then we have to be there. 

2. Phone calls are in, email is out - How many emails do we get a day?  100? 300? More?  Let's be clear - cutting through the email clutter that is our inbox becomes more and more difficult.  Taking the time to craft a thoughtful answer is often a luxury many professionals no longer feel that they have - after all, while they work 20 minutes on one email another 100 emails poured into their box.

But if we can talk to them on the phone, it is a wholly different story.  A conversation on the phone at this point is unique - a chance to be heard with emotion and not an emoticon.  Even if it is after a member has decided to leave our association, a conversation about their experience is much more valuable than any exit survey, and between the two it is the former that will increase the likelihood that they will return someday.

While we may not have the full staff time we need to make all these calls, there are companies out there that have this expertise in the association community.  It is worth the money.  You want dollars and cents? How many renewed memberships, conference registrations, or certification courses would it take to cover $40/hour?  You want real value?  How many stories of a member expressing that they felt the association truly cared about them because they got a personal phone call welcoming them back and asking if they need anything would be too many?  And for those of us on staff, the next time we can call a member with a question instead of shooting off an email - we should really try to do so.

3. Go to them, instead of expecting them to come to us - I know this is going to be the least popular suggestion of all, but we need MUCH bigger travel budgets, and staff need to go to where the members are.  That means more visits to chapter events.  That means being in person for council strategy meetings.  That means going to join members for tours or social events.  It means face-to-face, honest conversation.  It means listening.  It means showing up. 

Yes, we have a unique opportunity at our conferences to interact with members in this way - an opportunity that we should try to take advantage of, but in reality often due not since we are working from 5am-11pm every conference day.  Going to where our members are show they we care enough to make the time to be there for them.  It shows we are willing to make the investment in their profession, in their career, in them.

And best of all, these conversations will give us better knowledge of what our professionals do, how they use the knowledge we try to provide for them, and what their own measures of success are better than any survey monkey poll.

None of these answers are revolutionary, and all take effort,  Yet, if we are going to be good at answering the question of how we can better serve our members, it should take effort.  We should need to be out there, listening, reacting and working with and not just for our members. 

Seriously, the time to start the conversation is now.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Challenge Accepted: Make the World a Better Place

Though I have been playing blog catch-up lately, when I came across Maddie Grant's great post/challenge on what steps each of us plan to take in 2012 to make the world a better place I could not resist responding. 

1. For the association world: Collaborate.  No, I am not talking about the ASAE social network platform (though it is a great place to connect with colleagues and get involved).  I am talking about associations working together to work together.  There are so many of us out there, and each association has the things it is REALLY good at, and those areas where we are constantly struggling (and pouring resources) to just tread water.  In 2012 I am going to identify those models I have that are the top 10% of what I see out there, and find corresponding associations that excel in other areas for the potential of collaboration.  If my association can help them with our model of success, and they can help us with theirs perhaps neither would waste so much time or resources in reinventing the wheel.

2. For the world world: Be polite.  It may sound very kindergarten, but I really believe that the power of 'please' and 'thank you' can win against a rude imperative any day.  It may not always be easy to accomplish this one in a frustrating situation, but if it was easy I guess it would not be something that takes an extra effort to do.  We want the world to be a more peaceful place?  The answer starts with the words I choose to use. 

3. For me: Pick Up Trash.  Ok, so the back story to this one is that I grew up in NJ near Six Flags Great Adventure.  I worked there for a summer or two (take it from me - you never want to run the Guess Your Age/Weight Booth) and Six Flags would give the staff 'bugs bucks' to spend on food/merchandise if they saw you setting an example.  One of the primary ways to earn bugs bucks - pick up trash instead of walking by it.  It has stuck to this day, and if I am about to walk over a piece of trash an internal pull tries to get me to pick it up and throw it away.  I guess I am going to start carrying hand sanitizer wherever I go, because in 2012 I am going to do my part.  The Earth doesn't need to wait for someone else to pick up the litter I walk over - I will make this world better by making it cleaner.

Not sure if these are really the deep, insightful ways that others have pledged to help the world in 2012 - but I think they at least have the right intention.

Happy New Year to all!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

To Find the Right Answer, We Have to Ask the Right Question

At this point, most associations have accepted the reality that membership, as traditionally structured, is changing.  The question that comes up again and again is - do we have a truly worthwhile value proposition?  Or perhaps the statement - if we only had the right value proposition then more members would renew and a greater number of our customers would become members.  Here is my problem with this approach - have you ever heard a member use the words 'value proposition'?

Even though the term may connote the same meaning as what we are trying to achieve, if we are truly trying to be more member-centric, we should build the value of membership on what is at the heart of the association premise as a whole - because of a professional's membership in their association, they will know more, progress further faster, earn more money over their lifetime, and have a stronger network of colleagues and contacts. 

In short - if someone is a member of their association, they will be a better professional and have a better life.

As we shift from a long list of benefits to focus on the impact-value of truly useful offerings and opportunities, we also need to transform the theme of the narrative we are telling. 

- Is a central member benefit a private social network?  We need to share stories of those who were able to solve problems and find opportunities using that network. 

- Do members get exclusive job offerings?  If so, we should share the testimonials of those that have found their next step because of that opportunity.

- Can young professional members participate in a mentoring program with Fellows/experienced mentors?  We should turn this benefit into an invitation.

-  Are there volunteer positions that are exclusively for members?  Let's tell the 'so what' - have those who have held the position talk about what skills they learned or contacts they made by serving that they then used to advance at work. 

If we create benefit opportunities that customers can easily weave into their own story of success, then the value of membership is both personal and obvious.  The impact of the association transcends the benefits it offers and becomes a platform for ongoing professional growth and success. 

Smarter, better, happier professionals - the formula for that result should be our value proposition.