Archive for the 'Associations' Category


Time to cut the fat

cutting-fat-thumb18752006Like most businesses, associations have a lot of bulk. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to trim the fat.

That said, eliminating wasted efforts and minimizing defects can lead to new products and innovations, according to a new whitepaper by Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, and Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, director of information systems for National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

From the whitepaper: “Is there a process that can help associations achieve our missions, stay in business, find problems worth solving and make a real and meaningful difference for our members, achieving the sustainable, dynamic impact we seek? Your authors would argue that there is: lean startup methodology, as most fully developed and articulated by Eric Ries in his 2011 book ‘The Lean Startup.’”

Elizabeth Engel

Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, LLC.

I asked Engel to break it down for us, and following is our Q & A. Thanks to Engel for her contribution!

Q: How would you simply explain lean startup methodology?
A: Lean startup is an innovation system developed by Eric Ries that came out of his experiences with lean process improvement, which is all about reducing waste and defects and working more efficiently and effectively. Ries had an insight: It doesn’t matter how quickly you’re moving if you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Lean startup methodology is designed to help make sure you’re going the right way and going there quickly and efficiently.

Q: Why is it important?
A: To quote Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, my co-author, “There’s no bigger waste than investing resources working on the wrong thing.”

Lean startup methodology has been being used not just in startups, but also in more conventional for-profit business, for several years. And that makes it easy for associations to dismiss: “We aren’t a startup – or even a for-profit. This isn’t for us.”

Guillermo and I would argue that associations share a key characteristic with startups: tight resources (and by that, we mean human as well as financial resources). Those perpetually tight resources are precisely why this methodology is so useful for our community.

Q: How do you think associations, specifically, could benefit from practicing this methodology?
A: In associations, decision-making is often driven by anecdotes, untested assumptions and the HIPO (highest income/influence person’s opinion). “One of our board members talked to a member who said she wants X so therefore everyone must want X and therefore we have to go build X immediately.”

But are you sure you’re solving a real problem that’s important to at least one of your key audiences, in a way that’s useful and makes sense to them – and that they’re willing to pay?


Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, director of information systems for National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

That very situation was what sparked Guillermo’s interest in lean startup methodology. His association, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, is one of the case studies in the whitepaper, and he relates two stories: one of a project that took place before NCARB starting using lean startup that was NOT the right problem, the right audience or the right solution; the second of a project after NCARB “saw the light” that was far more successful for them.

Q: Walk me through the build-measure-learn cycle…what’s involved?
A: The build-measure-learn cycle is the core of the methodology.

In lean startup, you build first. That means you’re trying to get the Minimum Viable Product (that is, the minimum version of the product you can build with the smallest investment of resources and effort that would still be real enough to let you start testing your assumptions) out to your audience as quickly as possible. No theorizing or speculating, no “stealth mode,” no working for two years on creating the absolute perfect thing (that you then discover no one wants). You build a prototype and get people using it and offering feedback as quickly as you can and with as small an investment of resources as possible.

Next, you measure. You’ve identified a problem you think might be worth solving, and you have a hypothesis about what the right solution might be. Now you have to test whether your hypothesis is correct. You have to identify and track a few key measures that will prove – or disprove – your theory.

That testing leads to learning. Did you identify something that’s a real and important problem? Are you targeting your solution at the right audience? Does your solution work and make sense for them, at a price they’re willing to pay?

The only way to reliably answer those questions is to let people use your product and find out what they think and how they act. That information feeds back to your team so you can get closer to where you should be going in your next MVP iteration.

Q: Change can be scary. So what do you think is the best first step?
A: First of all, the whitepaper is just a primer on lean startup methodology and is designed to introduce the concept to association executives and hopefully pique their interest in learning more. If that’s you, I’d strongly encourage you to read some of the more extensive treatments of lean startup we share in the bibliography, to get some formal training (and we share sources in the conclusion) or to join a local lean startup MeetUp group for peer-to-peer learning.

Beyond that, start small, with something that lies completely in your own area of responsibility and is relatively low profile. Once you have a few examples of how the methodology works, it’s time to start sharing your story.

Q: Let’s say associations are ready to start with lean. How do they achieve buy in from the board of directors? members? staff?
A: It’s all about being able to demonstrate that the methodology works, which is different from building the perfect product right out of the gate.

To quote two of the other key thinkers in lean startup, Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer: “It’s liberating to recognize that no human being can guess correctly when you face uncertainty, and that part of the process is making changes to adjust to these inevitable errors.”

That’s what’s so powerful about lean startup: You are not going to get it right all the time. This methodology is built on that fact and structured to help you move as quickly and efficiently as possible from “here’s an interesting idea” to “here’s a program, product or service that we know – because we’ve been testing it all along the way – our audiences want, need, will use and will pay for.”

LeanstartupQ: And finally, what are two or three takeaways from your research that you’d like to share?
A: I’d strongly encourage people to download the whitepaper – it’s free – and read the stories of four associations we interviewed, all of which are using lean startup. It’s eye opening to see how this methodology works in real situations, where your peers are using it to help their organizations provide better service for their members and other audiences and invest their resources more efficiently and effectively.

Second, one of the concerns we’ve heard over and over from associations is: “What about our brand?” Again, quoting Guillermo: “In associations, we tend to worry that releasing a half-baked program will negatively impact the brand. I would argue that doing the same thing year after year without changing also negatively impacts your brand.”

Also, you have to realize that lean startup may not be suitable for every single initiative of your association or for every single audience – it’s hard to create a Minimum Viable Certification. Some of your members will not be O.K. with beta-testing a new product for you. But some will love that and leap at the opportunity to co-create a new service with the association. It’s up to you to find those people, who are your champions and allies in this.


The new association “normal”

John Graham

John Graham, president of ASAE

This month’s guest blog post is an interview with John Graham, ASAE president. Association Adviser conducted the interview and posted it on Aug. 18.

ASAE The Center for Association Leadership, which supports the interests of more than 22,000 association executives and industry partners representing 10,000 organizations worldwide, sat down with President John Graham about new membership models and game changers he sees happening for associations during the coming year.

Association Adviser: John, we’ve been talking about the “new normal” for a few years now. How do you think associations are handling the transition to the faster-paced, “what’s in it for me” demand from their members?

John Graham: Actually, it’s a huge opportunity vs. being a challenge for associations. But a lot of these tech advances are expensive. Many associations don’t have the resources in reserves, but you do have to make the investments. For instance, we’re a larger organization, and we invested about $5 million throughout the last three to four years in our website redesign. We had to take money out of reserves, not from the operating budget. That’s a big commitment in the future.

AA: You referenced ASAE’s hybrid membership model in your opening remarks at ASAE’s annual convention in Detroit. Can you tell us more about how it will work and how other types of new membership models are working for other associations?

JG: It’s going to work exactly like the small staff association model works for us now. If you look at small staffs, generally only the CEO (or executive director) is the member and [the] rest of the staff has to rely on the CEO to share what they learned [from ASAE]. Our new model lets [staff] who wouldn’t normally be members access the same information and resources as full members. That, coupled with our education loyalty program, gives us the opportunity to reach a much larger cohort of an organization’s staff.

AA: John, can you walk us through this new membership model?

JG: Sure. Membership will be based on how many staff members an organization has. So for the price of “X,” the CEO and/or directors will be regular members (including receipt of print member magazine) and all the other staff, if they opt-in, will be electronic members. They’ll have access to the same benefits, but will get the magazine electronically. I think many other associations will adopt hybrid and transactional membership models.

AA: What do you think the biggest membership communications challenges are for today’s association?

JG: There is so much information flowing to people from all different sources that it’s easy for your message to get things lost in the clutter. Even in simpler times it was hard to get your message through. What’s the old marketing rule — it takes seven touches to make your message resonate? Now there are so many other ways to reach people. I don’t [know] what the magic number of touches is today.

AA: Are any new channels particularly affecting the touchpoint equation?

JG: Mobile! It changes the dynamic of how people communicate. Associations used to drive information and content out [to members]. Mobile allows the individual to [proactively] seek the content they really want from the organization and not have it pushed to them. So your organization needs to be nimble and flexible enough to make it easy for the individual to seek content from you in a very efficient way.

AA: Now that members of Next Gen are starting to assume leadership roles, what are you seeing as the biggest differences between their management styles and those of older generations?

JG: What changes more from generation to generation is personal experience each generation had growing up. Every leader, regardless of age, seeks face-to-face interaction and interpersonal relationships. But, technology actually enables communication. The younger generation is much more comfortable with technology. It’s viewed more as a communication enabler as opposed to “something I have to learn how to do.” It’s part of their way of life.

AA: So we can expect more technology-based communication from the next generation of leaders?

JG: No. I don’t see it that way. It’s just that younger people have a much higher expectation for technology. Their management style is not that much different. People think every generation is different, but I just don’t see it. Some of the [perceived] differences have to do with the economy when young people came out of school. For kids coming out of school today, it’s a very different experience than it was for kids coming out of school 20 years ago. The other thing we see is that younger leaders put much more emphasis on work/life balance and are drawn to organizations that value work/life balance.

AA: What is the next “game changer” you see on the horizon?

JG: It’s still mobile. The use of mobile today is as much a game changer as the advent of the personal computer was 30 years ago.

AA: If a typical association team leader got an unexpected 50 percent increase in their annual budget, how do you think they would (or should) spend it?

JG: Two areas: technology and messaging platforms. In terms of tech, associations don’t need to be on the “bleeding edge,” but they should at least be on the cutting edge if they want to remain relevant with their members. In terms of messaging platforms, it’s critically important — especially for trade associations — to invest wisely in their messaging platforms. As they try to get the message out about their industries — from solar to petroleum to mining to beverages — messaging is a critical component of what you do and what members expect.

AA: John, there have been some great speakers and sessions here at ASAE this week. How can attendees put all the great tips and insights to use after the daily grind swallows them up?

JG: An excellent practice is to bring multiple staff to the meeting and make sure you don’t cluster. Network with different people and attend different sessions. Soon after you return to the office, get together and share what you learned — not only with those who were at the meeting, but with many others who couldn’t attend. And think about having more people join under the new membership model for next year [laughing].


Don’t be an Association Hoarder: Use Professional Organizer Techniques to Revamp Your Programs

John Ricco

John Ricco, vice president, Partners in Association Management

This month’s guest blog post is by John Ricco, vice president, Partners in Association Management. It originally ran on Partners Preceptors, a blog by Partners in Association Management.

Boxes. In the association world, we know boxes – literally and figuratively. We check them off our to-do lists; we’re encouraged to “think outside” them; and we pack them full for conventions and meetings. The problem with association hoarders is that we often hold those boxes (both the literal and figurative ones) as sacred objects not to be moved, touched or heaven forbid – tossed.  But do not be afraid to hoist your boxes overhead and with a casual tilt, dump the contents for a fresh perspective on your organization’s programs and services.

Professional organizers (yes, there is such a thing, and of course, they have their own association) tell us the best way get organized and obtain a clear train of thought is to start anew. We’ve all seen an episode (or 10) of the “Hoarding” television show where the unsuspecting hoarder is thrust into an intervention where family, friends and professionals attempt to convince them to let go of a house full of plastic tubs of expired grocery coupons, garage sale “treasures” and the like. In these extreme cases, the organizers try to convince the hoarder to remove everything from the house and then decide what is important enough to go back in.

Consider trying the same approach with your association’s programs and services. We recently did this with one of our association clients with fantastic success. The group’s convention had gotten stale and something was missing. So we overhauled the event by dumping the box out and started fresh. The process is basic but complex at the same time. How do you go about it? Using a convention as an example:

1) Identify:

    • The “MUST haves” (education and networking)
    • The “LIKE to haves” (that $30,000 ultra-luxe up-lit evening networking lounge)
    • The dumpster items (the ice sculpture “vodka luge”)

2) Determine where the “MUST haves” will go back in your box.
3) See what room is left for the “LIKE to haves.”
4) Throw the rest in the dumpster.
5) Get buy-in from the appropriate stakeholders.

With a good deal of apprehension and uncertainty, we changed our date patterns, nixed receptions, added luncheons, turned the schedule on its head and added new, fun networking events – all with the goal of increasing the experience for “regular” attendees and exhibitors. The end result was rave reviews from all attendees (except for one or two people – you know who they are). Most first-time attendees said “sign me up for next year.”  Exactly what association pros want to hear.

We are now using the same approach for another group that has been experiencing lackluster performance with their affinity programs. We are in the process of identifying:

    • The “MUST haves” (What products do the members absolutely need for their businesses to succeed?)
    • The “LIKE to haves” (Are there “cutting edge” or new products they don’t yet know they need?)
    • The dumpster items (What programs have run their course and no longer deliver value?)

We’ll then go through steps two to five above; we expect results similar to those we experienced with the convention.

There has been much discussion throughout the past few years regarding the relevance of associations and the future of associations in today’s work and professional climate. Hoarders will not survive.

Don’t wait for the camera crew and intervention team.  Don’t be an association hoarder!


New report: Association marketing has a ways to go

marketing-mix-priceMarketing is much more difficult than most people think. It requires creativity, strategic planning, vision and data analysis.

Marketers have a vast skill set, and that’s why they should have a seat at the decision-making table.

That’s according to a new benchmarking study on association marketing by Demand Metric and HighRoad Solution.

The State of Association Marketing,” unveiled this week during ASAE’s annual conference in Detroit, summarizes the marketing efforts of 373 survey respondents, mostly comprising membership associations.

Key findings:

  • 73 percent of survey respondents rate their overall association marketing as somewhat or very effective.
  • Marketing communications was the most prevalent marketing capability in associations surveyed, provided by 70 percent of marketing functions to their associations.
  • Only 25 percent of study participants report members perceive their marketing communications as always relevant and professional.
  • Membership retention saw the largest year-to-year increase, offered by 47 percent of association marketing departments in 2014 compared to 62 percent in 2015.
  • Event marketing was identified by 78 percent of respondents as the most effective marketing tactic.
  • Associations are embracing marketing analytics more closely, with the percentage reporting no usage of analytics dropping from 13 percent in 2014 to 9 percent in 2015.
  • The budget line item most frequently found in association marketing budgets is for print, found in 46 percent of association budgets. Print, however, ranks eighth in terms of effectiveness.
  • More staff and more funding rank first and second as the resources that would most help improve marketing effectiveness. However, neither staffing nor funding correlated to greater marketing effectiveness in the analysis of the study’s data.
  • Survey respondents identified internal meetings as consuming the most time.

“The baseline study sadly pointed out how far behind associations are in areas such as digital advertising and marketing automation,” said Suzanne Carawan, chief marketing officer for HighRoad Solution. “As you will see in this year’s report, we’re making progress, but there is a lot more work to do before we can bridge the gap between corporations and associations.”

A few things to consider. (My two cents here.)

contentmarketingWhile it makes sense to have the marketing director handle the main marketing duties – banner ads, social media ads, marketing material, website marketing, etc. – it’s also beneficial to have marketers contribute to membership retention efforts. After all, it’s a marketer’s job to explain why membership is valuable, and this means keeping members from losing interest – enter the skill set I referenced above.

In addition, according to the survey, strategic planning wasn’t a top priority for associations. That’s a problem.

As someone who’s learned to blend public relations and marketing, I can vouch for the fact that marketing can’t exist without strategy. A marketing plan isn’t a strategic plan. Instead, marketing should be part of the strategic plan, with clearly defined messaging, tactics and audiences. Marketing should support the association’s strategic vision; not compete with it.

Marketing communications is perhaps the most effective piece of the marketing puzzle –provided there’s good content. Effective, meaningful, useful content.

According to the report, print is still an effective marketing vehicle among associations. But I’d argue that association marketers should consider the power of digital marketing. LinkedIn and Facebook marketing campaigns can yield huge rewards.

Tell us…what role does your marketing staff play in your organization? What works best for you?


Us vs. them

member_engagement_retentionWe hear it all the time: We live in a “me” society. Most of us, at some point, have asked, “What’s in this for me?

Associations aren’t any different. Think about it: How many associations want to boost revenue by hoping their members buy more? How many times have we wished we could just get more volunteers?

In other words, we ask, “How can we get our members to do what we want them to do?”

Newsflash: It’s not about us. It’s about them.

“Unfortunately, while we’ve been busily building and marketing the programs, products and services we think our audiences might like, the world has changed,” write Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CEO & chief strategist, Spark Consulting LLC, and Anna Caraveli, managing partner, The Demand Networks LLC, in their new whitepaper. “In 2015, customers are looking for more than a transaction; they’re looking for custom solutions that can be constructed only through authentic relationships of the type, duration and intensity they—not you—want.

Focusing on member engagement, Engel and Caraveli provide some guidance for associations to transform their thinking: Instead of defining engagement as what they value, associations should be asking how they can help their members accomplish their goals.

Here are some “what-ifs” for associations to consider:

  • What if, instead of membership and product sales, our goal was to enable members to achieve the outcomes that matter most to them?
  • What if, instead of looking inward to try to build the perfect product, we looked outward to our audiences, interacting with them to understand their needs and experiences?
  • What if, instead of viewing members as passive consumers of our benefits and programs, we worked with them as co-developers of the value our associations provide?
  • What if, we gave up control and encouraged our audiences to define the terms of their own involvement with us

And yes, sometimes this means competition.

Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, LLC.

Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, LLC.

The key is to figure out how your association, better than other organizations, can truly engage members and potential members. Thanks to 24-7 access to information, simply being experts in a field won’t cut it anymore. Your members can find information anytime, anywhere, with a click of mouse.

So how do associations compete? They should use their networks to build engaging communities and to listen to their members’ collective voice to learn what really matters, the whitepaper suggests. Associations should ask: What do our members really want to succeed? What are the needs and issues we can help address?

“Adopting the outside-in approach to engagement means your sole goal is to create value for members,” Engel and Caraveli said. “Everything else (program categories, mix of benefits, organizational structure) can be questioned, transformed or even eliminated as long as doing so solves your audiences’ problems and creates value that engages them.”

Some tips:

  • Ask people to contribute. Don’t just create products, events and resources you think people want. Instead, engage your members’ skill sets. Ask them to help create value.
  • Work toward providing your members’ goals – not your own. Get rid of the things that aren’t working and instead focus on those that are. The most engaged members are those who feel you truly care about their personal and professional development.
  • Include everyone, from every department, in your engagement strategy. It shouldn’t just be the job of the membership department. This means breaking down internal silos. It’s important for everyone to work as a team, rather than people looking out for themselves. Sometimes this means getting rid of the fat.
  • Act – don’t just talk. If you ask for members’ feedback, truly mean it. Be willing to make suggested changes. Remember: It’s not about sales; it’s about your members’ success.

It’s not easy, and it may require an entire shift of focus. Simply put: Associations may have to dump the old and bring in the new.

Anna Caraveli

Anna Caraveli, managing partner, The Demand Networks, LLC

But it’s worth it.

“Properly understood, engagement is nothing more or less than the development of real relationships with our members and other audiences,” Engel and Careveli wrote. “Authentic relationships take time to develop, involve increasing commitment on both sides, require us continually to be learning more about each other and are focused on helping each other achieve important goals. Through the process of developing genuine relationships, associations become necessary partners in helping our audiences achieve their most important goals, and we achieve our goals—to be financially healthy, vital, growing, mission-driven organizations—as a result.”

meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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