Archive for the 'Membership' Category


Navigating Extreme Association Trends

ASAE held its annual Great Ideas Conference in Orlando, FL last month. During that conference, Scott Oser and I had the pleasure of presenting a session titled, “Under Pressure: Navigating Extreme Association Trends.”

More than 50 association executives hailing from across the country attended our session. We were pleased so many of our colleagues were willing to take the plunge, as this session required an extensive amount of audience participation.

Ultimately, the goal was to openly discuss three apparent trends in the association community. They are as follows:

  1. Membership is dead
  2. The demise of face-to-face meetings
  3. The social media imperative

Attendees were led through a series of exercises that allowed them to reflect on what they thought about each trend, how they believed the trend related to their organizations and any action items they might want to explore upon returning home. Fortunately, our colleagues were not shy. Following is a summary of their insights.

sprint-unlimited-my-way-undead-zombie-commercialMembership is dead; or is it?

This so-called trend has been heard loud and clear throughout the association community for years now. Although it’s received a lot of press, there are a number of recent studies indicating that membership in many associations is, in fact, growing.

After reviewing facts supporting both sides of this trend, attendees did not believe that membership is in a desperate state of decay. Rather, attendees agreed that the membership life cycle is changing and lapses in membership, when members leave for a period of time before returning, are becoming more common. They also discussed the need for more personalized membership experiences, requiring more membership data and a more targeted marketing approach. Finally, nearly all participants agreed that if associations understand the needs of their members and have a strong value proposition, the existing membership model is a viable option so long as tweaks are made based on industry needs.

conferenceThe demise (or rather reduction) of face-to-face meetings

Everyone’s professional development budgets are strapped these days and time is limited. We’re all busy; there’s simply no going back. So while our participants indicated a necessary reduction and consolidation of face-to-face meetings to right size the number and type of meetings planned each year, there’s simply no evidence they’ll be canceled altogether (at least not in our lifetime). The reason is simple: networking. In fact, in a global survey of 2,300 Harvard Business Review subscribers, 95% said that face-to-face meetings are both key to successful long-term relationships and to building strong relationships.

We did, however, determine that this shift in the professional development landscape has rightfully encouraged many of us to re-evaluate our face-to-face meetings to ensure exceptional attendee experiences that focus on learning research, supporting the styles and preferences of our attendees. Moreover, there’s a renewed emphases on identifying and offering quality topics and facilitators that meet attendee needs (vs. wants). This has resulted in tighter value propositions and more thoughtful marketing collateral. Many had also explored hybrid conference models (including live streaming, virtual expos and the like) as a means of opening up their associations to new audiences.

Social-Media-Manager-Job-DescriptionThe social media imperative; are you crazy?

The introduction of social media has had a profound impact on the way associations reach their members and customers. In fact, there’s been so much talk about social media and its benefits that you might think failing to allocate marketing resources to social media would justifiably harm your organization. While a good number of associations are using social media to their advantage, there are an equal number of associations that are not. And believe it or not, they exist to tell the tale.

When presented with points and counterpoints to the use of social media, our colleagues did not easily reach consensus. What they did agree on, however, is important: If you are going to use social media, you must have a strategy in place that leverages best practices and you must allocate the appropriate resources to effectively implement your plan. If you are not using social media smartly, or if you are unnecessarily pulling your staff away from other essentials products or services, you may be doing more harm than good. That said, participants seemed to concur that most organizations should have some form of social media presence. At the very least, if a member or a prospective member searched for your organization on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, they should find a link to your website for more information.

Final thoughts

This session was held on the very first day of the conference so we were able to follow-up with participants for the next couple of days. Time and again we heard from our colleagues that they appreciated hearing both sides of each trend. They also enjoyed having the opportunity to discuss with their peers how each trend applied to their unique situations. Many attendees told us that far too often only one side of the issue is presented. Moreover, it’s often implied that going against the grain would somehow result in dire circumstances. Both Scott and I believe this is rarely the case and are very happy we were able to bring attendees together to discuss a number of the most “controversial issues” facing our profession – if only for 75 minutes. More conversations like this need to happen in our organizations before new ideas are implemented if we are to remain viable, solvent organizations in the future.

Tell us: Where do you fall on each of these issues?


Sharing our Great Ideas

The ASAE Great Ideas Conference is right around the corner. If you’ve not attended before, I highly recommend looking into it (if not this year, then next year). The event focuses on creative approaches to everyday issues in association management and is built around the sharing of – you guessed it – great ideas.

Unlike other events, this conference offers a relaxed, but business-oriented environment where you can step back from your day-to-day routine and be exposed to new thinking. Likewise, many of the ideas garnered at this conference can be immediately tweaked and applied to your own organization.

Scott Oser

Scott Oser, president, Scott Oser Associates

During this year’s program I have the good fortune to be speaking with my two favorite Osers – Donna and Scott. Scott Oser is the president of Scott Oser Associates and has more than 17 years of marketing experience in the association and publishing industries. Throughout his career, Scott has excelled in developing, implementing and analyzing multi-channel direct-marketing programs and is highly skilled in creating effective membership, marketing and sales programs.

Together, Scott and I will present:

Under Pressure: Navigating Extreme Association Trends
Sunday, March 9, 2:45 – 4 p.m.
Hyatt Regency Orlando, Plaza D

The session description reads as follows:

Countless authors and thought leaders claim to have identified “The Next Big Association Trend”—the end of the traditional membership model, the demise of the face-to-face meeting, the rise of the social media imperative. It’s confusing to know who to listen to and how it all applies to our organizations. Join us for an open and honest discussion about some of the most highly debated subjects in the industry today. We’ll clear the air about these polarizing association trends and you’ll leave with a simple strategy for evaluating the appropriateness of the next “Big Trend” within the context of your association.

Whether or not you’ll be in Orlando, join the discussion on Twitter by following @aaronwolowiec, @scottoser and the hash tag #ideas14 LO1.

Donna Oser, director of executive search services, Michigan Association of School Boards

Donna Oser, director of executive search services, Michigan Association of School Boards

The second Oser I’ll be speaking with is Donna Oser, CAE. Donna currently serves as the director of executive search services for the Michigan Association of School Boards; however, she also has extensive experience as a management consultant, coach and facilitator and specializes in membership, non-dues revenue and business innovation. We worked together to develop the myLounge concept for ORGPRO in 2013 and have since facilitated a number of presentations together. Some may say we’re kindred spirits.

Together, Donna and I will present:

The Solution Room: Burning Issues Resolved
Monday, March 10, 1:30 – 2:45 p.m.
Hyatt Regency Orlando, Florida A

The session description reads as follows:

The Solution Room is an innovative framework for knowledge sharing that provides participants with a brief but powerful consulting session on an issue or a topic of their choosing. Participants can expect to walk away with a variety of ideas and resources that can be immediately applied to their greatest workplace or personal challenges. Come prepared to actively participate!

Moreover, session participants will debrief the Solution Room framework and identify its applicability to their own organizations. Once again, you can join the discussion on Twitter by following @aaronwolowiec, @donaoser and the hash tag #ideas14 LO2. Handouts for both sessions will also be available here later this week.

In the meantime, tell us in the comments about a session you’re presenting at Great Ideas – or one you’re particularly interested in attending.


The many hats of marketers

Scott Oser

Scott Oser, president of Scott Oser Associates

Editor’s Note: This week’s guest blog post is by Scott Oser, president of Scott Oser Associates. He’s speaking this morning at the ASAE Annual Meeting in Atlanta. Follow along in real time on Twitter using #asae13  and continue to monitor Twitter for feedback from Oser’s session.

A couple months ago I wrote an article for “Associations Now” about how marketing requires different skills than it once did. As more potential tactics and options for marketing have emerged, more is expected of a marketer.

You can read the full “Associations Now” article here, but following is a quick summary of just some of the roles marketers are now expected to play:

  • Channel expert. It’s the marketer’s job to be informed about all the traditional and new marketing techniques.
  • Implementer. Marketers must have strong implementation and project management skills.
  • Data analyst. Association marketing professionals must understand how to read and interpret the numbers.
  • Brand champion. In most associations it’s the job of the head marketing professional to make sure the essence of the brand is reflected in everything the association does.
  • Community creator. The stronger your community and member engagement, the more effective your marketing will be. So it’s up to the marketing professional to help create that engagement.
  • Cheerleader and politician. Marketing requires trying new things and some staff members are more resistant to change than others. Therefore, it’s necessary for a marketer to get people on board even when they’re skeptical.

While I was at the beach a couple weeks ago on a brief vacation I re-read the article I wrote. I thought about how even though the role of a marketer has changed and the number of ways in which we market has grown, the goal of our marketing has remained the same.

Regardless of which of the roles above we play and regardless of which medium (direct mail, email, telemarketing, word of mouth, social media, etc.) we use, our main goal is to show recipients the value of what we’re asking them to do so they’ll act.  With all the competing products, services and marketing messages, this has become increasingly difficult – but increasingly important – to do.  Unfortunately, many marketers focus on the role they play and the tactics they use but don’t always do a great job of knowing their target market, the different needs of the segments within their target market and the messaging they need to use.

You can be the best marketer in the world but the bottom line is that value drives response.  Do you understand your value proposition and are you communicating it well?  If not, I recommend you take a step back and start working on that as soon as you finish reading this sentence.

Scott Oser Associates
Scott Oser Associates was formed in 2006 to develop customized solutions to solve unique membership, marketing and sales challenges. It has partnered with a large number of associations, for-profit and non-profit organizations to increase their bottom lines from memberships, marketing and sales efforts. Oser has more than 17 years of marketing experience in the association and publishing industries. Before starting the firm he worked for market leaders like National Geographic Society, AARP and Science. You can follow him on


The X, Y and Z of membership

Sarah Sladek

Sarah Sladek, founder of XYZ University.

We’re in the middle of a generational alphabet soup, a “perfect storm” as Sarah Sladek, founder of consulting company XYZ University, calls it.

You’ve probably heard of Generation X and Generation Y, but what about Generation Z?

As a Gen Xer, I’ve grown up listening to how our generation craves economic diversity and demands social justice.  And I’ve heard we strive for a work/life balance while defining our own careers. That’s nothing compared to Gen Y. Working on a college campus (my fulltime job is at Michigan State University) I see the wide-eyed, go-get-the-world naiveté of Gen Y every day.

But there’s another important group: Generation Z, otherwise known as the millennials. This is the same generation that may never enter a traditional office, that prefers Skype meetings and is most likely to be self-employed.

Unfortunately, the last thing on the minds of Xers, Yers and Zers is association membership.  So it’s time for organizations to undergo a major facelift, Sladek said. In her book, “The End of Membership as We Know It,” she outlines examples for moving membership models into the future.

“My book delves into the perfect storm: the culmination of economic decline, advancements in technology and demographic shifts,” Sladek said. “The combination of these three factors has changed membership. What worked in the past isn’t going to work anymore, and my book addresses what associations should do to stay relevant and meaningful in light of recent changes.”


Soon, the workforce will experience the largest historical turnover in human capital, she said. Baby boomers are retiring, but no one seems ready for the influx of new blood, new ideas and new technologies.

“I’m seeing associations make some critical mistakes. What they need to do is focus on their members. That may sound obvious, but I’m seeing associations catapult into panic mode and neglect their members,” Sladek said. “They try to draw in new members, pursue sponsorships to draw in revenue or start looking elsewhere for quick-fix solutions when there are many problems associations can solve right now. Focus on the members and the money will follow.”

If that doesn’t happen, in 10 years several associations could be extinct, she said. But don’t panic. Membership isn’t dead.  It’s just different. Associations can no longer count on members renewing simply because they’ve always belonged. Instead, members need to truly understand the value of membership – and this is tough competition when Google provides a plethora of free resources.

So now what? Associations need to provide better benefits and offer different membership models, such as tiered or online memberships.  And they need to build an online presence and encourage virtual networking.

It’s sort of like stocking up on bug spray for the summer. In researching for this post, I stumbled across a blog post Sladek wrote comparing Gen X to mosquitos. Like those pesky critters, we’re here to stay.

She wrote: “In work, Xers emphasize personal satisfaction as being the most important. Unlike the Boomer leaders, which focus on corporate progression and monetary reward, Gen X will lead with a focus on nurturing individuals, personal development, autonomy and work-life balance. Can you hear the mosquito? It’s buzzing loud and clear.”

According to Sladek, 36 percent of women now earn more than their spouses; Gen Xers are defining their own careers; and businesses are becoming increasingly global. But ask yourself: Is your association embracing any of these changing trends? How are you catering to the next two generations?

We Gen Xers are creating quite the buzz, but just think about the upcoming swarm of Ys and Zs. Are you ready?


Thinking and thriving

Jeff De Cagna

Jeff De Cagna, founder of Principled Innovation LLC

As I wrote last week, this month I’ll be exploring some shifts in association management that some might say are extreme.

To start us off, I spoke with Jeff De Cagna, founder of Principled Innovation LLC. From what I gather, he’s perhaps one of the most respected experts on new thinking.

After serving as an association executive for more than 10 years, De Cagna launched his company in 2002 to challenge association boards, CEOs and executives to build their organizations to thrive in an uncertain future.

“Simply doing more of what your association has always done definitely is the wrong answer,” De Cagna said.  “It never has been more important for associations to imagine a different future for themselves [while also] gaining a richer, more intimate and more empathic understanding of their stakeholders’ most desired personal and professional outcomes. With this kind of deep insight, associations can break free of the past and reorient their strategic priorities for the future.”

De Cagna is author of the e-book “Associations Unorthodox,” which discusses six shifts in thinking. It lays the groundwork for new strategies and helps association leaders plunge into a future that may seem murky, at best. Associations can no longer rely on membership to survive, and De Cagna explains why.

Below is my Q and A session with De Cagna. For follow up, you can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @pinnovation, using #assnchat.

Q: What inspired you to write “Associations Unorthodox?”

A: Quite honestly, I was very concerned about the advice being given to association leaders about how to build organizations that will thrive in the years ahead. Much of that thinking remains firmly embedded in the traditional assumptions of association management and fails to recognize the relentless speed and intensity of the societal transformation currently in progress. What’s going on now is not more of the simple linear “change” to which we’ve become accustomed. Instead, we’re experiencing something much deeper, which I’ve come to call “The Age of Transformation.” And it’s not going away anytime soon.

So I wanted to make a strong statement about the need for association leaders to think and act beyond orthodoxy if they want to create the opportunity for their organizations to thrive.

Q: Who should read this book?

A: The primary audiences are association boards, CEOs and C-Suite executives, but I like to think “Associations Unorthodox” is appropriate for anyone who’s serious about creating a more vibrant future for associations. And frankly, given the shifts I’ve outlined in the book, the more stakeholders who read it, the better. We need to continue the conversation about what it will take for associations to grow,  and we need to include as many different voices as possible in that dialogue. That’s the only way we’ll be able to challenge our community’s most deep-seated assumptions and begin to create what’s next.

Q: Among the six shifts presented in the book, you encourage associations to “go all in on digital” and focus less on in-person meetings. Do you think face-to-face events are obsolete?

A: Absolutely not. People still want to make face-to-face connections and that will never change. However, I do think there are far too many meetings. Association stakeholders are much busier and much more protective of their precious personal time. Meanwhile, their employers are trying to control costs, leaving fewer dollars to attend meetings, and those budgets are always among the top targets for reduction or elimination.

As such, association leaders need to give serious thought to having fewer, more meaningful gatherings that are worth the investment of time and financial resources for their stakeholders. Keep in mind that only a relatively small fraction of most associations’ stakeholders actually attend their in-person meetings. To reach more of their current and future stakeholders, then, associations must make more significant investments in the creation and delivery of new value in digital form. These investments are long overdue, and they are an essential part of reorienting association business models for the 21st century.

Q: How do you respond to committed advocates of face-to-face interaction who believe that it can’t be replaced?

A: We need to move beyond the fine debating points and get to a more fundamental question: What can our stakeholders actually afford? And, again, I’m not just using the word “afford” in a purely financial sense. Time away from family, the office and customers are also costs that our stakeholders must bear. So while in-person interaction may well be superior, and our stakeholders may prefer it to other forms of interaction, they still may not be able to afford it. And yet we still need to create value for these stakeholders, even though we may never see them. Going all in on digital is a necessary step in that direction.

Let me add that it’s a long-standing association orthodoxy to view people who attend events as the most loyal and committed stakeholders in our organizations. Indeed, in many associations, stakeholders who don’t show up at meetings are an afterthought, except at renewal time.  As our organizations come to fully embrace their digital futures, however, association leaders will need to flip this orthodoxy and stop thinking of in-person attendance as another test of stakeholder fidelity.

Q: The transition you’re describing will be difficult for many associations to make. What advice can you offer to their leaders?

A: While “it’s an opportunity to network” might be a generic value proposition for a meeting, the value conversation might be something like, “How can we collaborate to make a face-to-face gathering a more meaningful and viable option for you and other stakeholders in your network?” And we should be clear that the value conversation is not about doing another survey. Quite literally, it’s about creating opportunities for direct and meaningful conversations with the association’s current and future stakeholders and their distributed networks of connections. The learning developed through these conversations will help leaders evaluate and choose among opportunities based on an empathetic understanding of stakeholder problems, needs and outcomes.

To fully embrace digital, I really believe senior staff and voluntary leaders need to flip the orthodoxy that technology represents nothing but expense for the association. On the contrary, in today’s environment of social, mobile and cloud computing, thoughtful investments in technology will create appreciating assets on which associations can capitalize to create and deliver new value and capture new revenue streams over time.

Q: You’re speaking at ASAE’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta next month. Will you be discussing any of the issues raised in “Associations Unorthodox” in your session?

A: Indirectly I suppose. My learning lab on Why Boards Are Killing Association Business Models will take place at 3:15 p.m. Aug. 4. The session is based on the article I wrote on this topic for the March 2013 issue of “Associations Now,” and I will explore five reasons why most boards are underperforming as business model stewards for their organizations. In addition, I will share some “next practices” boards can adopt to more deeply integrate business model thinking into their governing work.

In “Associations Unorthodox,” I make the case for building a strategically legitimate board as one of the six shifts. There’s simply no question that embracing a 21st-century sensibility is essential for boards to establish their value to stakeholders.

So while my learning lab at ASAE13 is not explicitly about the book, some key themes from it certainly will come up during our conversation. I know it’s going to be a fun session!


Adopting education strategy to jump-start member engagement

On Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 – Did another year just pass us by? – at 2 p.m. ET, I’ll have the pleasure of delivering a webinar titled, “Adopting Education Strategy to Jump-Start Member Engagement.” This session is presented by Young Association Professionals, AggregageAssociation Universe and Infinite Conferencing as part of The New World of Member Engagement Webinar Series. 

If you’ve not yet participated in one or more of the programs broadcast as part of this free series, you can view the full lineup here to register. In a nutshell, the interactive webinars help association professionals think differently to drive member engagement. The world has changed – and continues to do so. Various thought leaders, from a wide variety of perspectives, have been assembled to share tangible strategies for dealing with this new environment. The series runs now through February 2013.

Past presentations have included:

  • “What Does Member Engagement Mean to You?” with Eric Lanke, CEO, National Fluid Power Association
  • “Membership Engagement… How to Maximize Your Value Proposition to Grow 10 Times in 10 Years” with Tom Morrison, CEO, Metal Treating Institute
  • “Building a Spirit of Engagement: The New Volunteerism” with Peggy M. Hoffman, CAE, president and association manager, Mariner Management and Marketing
  • “Beer and Bar-B-Que is a Membership Strategy” with Shelly Alcorn, CAE, principal, Alcorn Associates Management Consulting

Future presentations will include:

  • Jan. 9: “Diagnosing and Solving Your Membership Marketing Challenges” with Tony Rossell, senior vice president, Marketing General Incorporated
  • Jan. 23: “Fierce Membership: 7 Ways to Keep from Losing Your Most Engaged Members” with KiKi L’Italien, president and CEO, Amplified Growth Inc.
  • Jan. 30: “Engagement Strategies for a Social World” with Andy Steggles, president, Higher Logic
  • Feb. 6: “The New Rules of Engagement: Understanding and Using Member Value to Drive Engagement” with Andrea Pellegrino, principal, The Maia Marketing Group LLC

And, of course, I’m excited to share my presentation on “Adopting Education Strategy to Jump-Start Member Engagement” on Jan. 16. So, what do I have in store for you?

It’s no surprise to discover that most associations are guided by a carefully crafted strategic plan developed by key stakeholders. However, this plan often does not drill down into the specifics of education strategy despite the prominence of professional development in both the organization’s mission statement and annual budget.

While the education equation is simple (Education = Engagement = Loyalty = Retention = Revenue), transforming this theory into action requires intentional planning.

During this program, learn more about the education equation (Incidentally, this is an Aaron original. You won’t find it presented in the Professional Practices in Association Management.), explore considerations for developing your association’s very own education strategy, and identify actionable next steps.

Ultimately, my goal is to help the association community work smarter (not harder!) to leverage current education offerings and content to jump-start member engagement.

So, my question to you is this: What engagement best practices do you employ in your own organization that I should mention during this program? What resources would you recommend I share with participants? If you plan on attending this program, what questions would you like answered as part of my presentation?


The secret to recruiting and retaining members? Relationships.

Next week I’ll be speaking with association and supplier leaders in Louisiana about the power of relationships. My goal is to illuminate the significant shifts in business today from that of previous decades. We’ll spend considerable time identifying the power of relationships in both building business clientele and in maintaining satisfied customers.

Out with the transactional business model.

Business, in many cases, used to be about quantity over quality. Specifically, the “transactional business model” is nothing more than the act of obtaining and paying for an item or service. It shows little or no regard for the people participating in the transaction and certainly doesn’t consider future outcomes such as referrals, friendship or repeat business.

Think: furniture store salesman the minute you walk through the front door (I know, I shudder too). By and large, this person has little concern for you as an individual and is much more interested in how much he or she can get you to spend before you walk out the door. And, rightfully so. With little time to actually develop a relationship with you, the pressure of a commission-based salary and limited next best alternatives for you and your family, it’s a learned approach (a matter of circumstance, if you will).

In with the relational business model.

But, with more choice—and you have to agree that associations today are a dime a dozen—comes a need to stand out from the crowd. Enter: relational business model. This model emphasizes more the mutual connections or feelings that exist between two parties as a basis or prerequisite for conducting business. In other words, the relationships we build with our members, vendors and clients (regardless of whether or not an actual transaction takes place on any given day) all support future business transactions.

Research reveals that relational customers are interested in doing business with someone they are familiar with and have learned to trust; will try to establish a long-term relationship with an organization after a positive experience; are loyal to organizations with whom a relationship has been established; and base their membership decisions on past experiences, customer service and quality.

Take a simple scan of the environment today (as compared to even a few years ago), and it’s clear that our culture (and business, in general) is mobile-obsessed. We continue to become more technologically advanced and—if it’s possible—we move at an even faster pace. Unfortunately, this has resulted in people becoming more disconnected relationally.

The absence of these relational skills not only erodes customer loyalty, but negatively impacts employee morale and productivity, as well as the association’s bottom line. And yet the ominous threat of limited association resources—primarily, staff time—inhibits us from taking the necessary time to develop these important relationships with our constituents.

And not just from the C-suite. From every layer within the organization: receptionist to staff specialist, coordinator to manager, director to vice president. Everyone—regardless of title—should be permitted and encouraged to develop meaningful relationships with those people who they regularly engage with during their ordinary course of business and are most in a position to impact the organization.

Doing so creates an environment in which members, vendors and clients transform (literally before your eyes) from supporters to advocates. And advocates are a powerful resource; not only do they support your cause, but they speak or write in support of your cause, too. Additionally, they say good things about you, your staff and your organization, and they initiate connections on your behalf. Recruiting and retaining: check.

So, my question to you is this: How well does your organization embody the relational business model? What’s stopping you from allowing more employees the opportunity to connect in meaningful ways with your members, vendors and clients? In what other ways do you and your staff develop relationships with your key constituents?

meet aaron

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

meet kristen

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

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