Archive for January, 2012


The future of associations: Is the millennial generation willing to lead the way?

It’s no secret that on Jan. 1, 2011 (just about 13 months ago to the day), the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation celebrated their 65th birthday. Since that historic day, it’s estimated that more than 10,000 Baby Boomers have reached the age of 65 each and every day (and, believe it or not, this trend is expected to continue for 19 straight years). Staggering, right?

Undoubtedly, many of these Baby Boomers serve—or have served—the association community in top leadership positions, including that of president and CEO or executive director (not to mention a multitude of other C-suite, executive-level and director-level positions). And although not all are immediately retiring upon their 65th birthday, many have at least begun making plans for the future.

And we’re not talking about a few dozen organizations and a handful of retirements here. In 2000, it was estimated that the United States alone had more than 23,000 national associations. And that number only grows when you consider the 115,000 state, local and regional associations, as well as the 1,300 international organizations.

Enter the millennial generation (approximately 80 million strong).

Millennials want to make a difference in the world, be heard, feel like they are contributing, innovate and know they are succeeding. They live in a generation that moves at an extremely fast pace and are often left wondering why everyone in the workplace is not moving as fast as them.  By and large, millennials also work well on teams. They know how to delegate efficiently and choose the person best suited for a task based on skill, not hierarchy or seniority.

Millennials also bring to the workforce a unique proclivity for technology. They utilize social media tools daily and tend to remain connected long after the traditional workday has ended. They are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re also less religious, less likely to have served in the military and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history.

But are they ready to lead our associations in light of this anticipated exodus from top leadership positions nationwide? (Better yet, are they willing to do so?)

Hear me out for a moment before you get crazy. (I know you want to; I had a similar conversation with a seasoned association executive and a room full of young association and supplier professionals just last week.) My question is not about the skills and expertise of the millennial generation (either now or in the future). I know they are great leaders and I know they are up to the challenge.

The question is really about interest. Is the millennial generation interested in the generalist lifestyle (or would they prefer to be experts in a particular field)? Are their feelings about hierarchy, governance and authority in competition with the present ideologies that form the backbone of our associations? Are they willing to fight the good fight and make the necessary changes to keep our organizations nimble, competitive and solvent?

Consider, for a moment, the unofficial (but widely offered) advice given to each new CAE candidate studying to sit for the exam: Plan to answer each question as a seasoned chief staff executive (presumably, Caucasian) from a national professional society. This, alone, implies that our leaders and, in turn, our organizations are to some extent predictable, conventional and unimaginative. Who’s to say the millennial generation is interested in investing their time and energy into changing this paradigm?

Certainly, some are eager to meet this challenge head-on (as was evidenced by my conversation last week); however, a majority of my colleagues seemed undecided. Perhaps the entrepreneurial spirit implicit in this generation is just too enticing. Most assuredly, opportunities abound. My peers are—by their own admission—interested in establishing association management firms of their own, serving as industry consultants and hitting the speaker circuit.

So, my question to you is this (and it’s an important one this week): What are you doing to attract young professionals to leadership positions within your organization? Is your organization committed to breaking the proverbial mold (especially as it relates to long-standing organizational behavior) and celebrating diversity (including diversity of staff, board and member composition, as well as diversity of skills, values and opinions)? What else are you doing to ensure the millennial generation will want to lead your organization long after your Baby Boomer executives have retired?


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?


Associations as curators: Supporting your speakers, educators and facilitators to success

In the last week, I’ve had the occasion to engage in several different learning opportunities with a variety of individuals who were clearly not trained speakers, educators or facilitators. (We know what this looks like, yes?) The specific instances aren’t important; however, I should note that they cross several different organizations and involve about a dozen or more people (in other words, we’re not talking about an isolated incident here).

As a result of these experiences, I’ve decided to take a second look at this notion of “associations as curators.” Although the organizations in question technically aren’t associations, I feel as though the concept is equally applicable. The fact of the matter is that these organizations had quality content and endeavored to teach others – and did so poorly.

Now, I should tell you that I’ve been hating on the phrase “associations as curators” for at least the last six months. To me, it’s been way overused and didn’t really demonstrate to me new ideology related to education and professional development. After some careful reflection, though, I’m slowly seeing the err of my ways.

There’s an endless amount of information in this world to know (a point I talk about often). Presumably, there’s an association that specializes in just about every major body of knowledge. Associations curate this knowledge just as any manager or overseer does his or her gallery, museum, library or archive. Both are content specialists who (1) are responsible for their institution’s collections and (2) are involved with the interpretation of the material contained within these collections.

The important distinction here is the interpretation of this material. In other words, it isn’t enough to simply have knowledge or content or data or information. Rather, it’s necessary to create added meaning (value) through a process of elucidation or explication. It’s necessary to analyze, synthesize, evaluate and apply this material in a meaningful way, as well as teach it – successfully – to others. And there’s the rub.

All content experts are not good curators.

That is, not all speakers, educators or facilitators are skilled in the process of interpreting and delivering content in such a way that ensures retention and transference in adult learners. Nevertheless, as the entity “responsible for their institution’s collections,” associations (and all organizations, really) are responsible for ensuring that their speakers, educators or facilitators are adequately prepared to deliver meaning and value to learners (our members).

Traditionally, this is done via a series of interactions with speakers, educators or facilitators. Preparation can take the form of individual coaching, conference calls, online meetings, e-mails or dedicated websites or portals. And content can range from venue or session logistics; training or tips for better presentations; information about expected attendees (e.g., number, interests or skills); information about overarching themes or content tracks at the meeting; or information about the speaker or session evaluation process.

The point is this: As a curator, associations are responsible for much more than hiring speakers, educators or facilitators. To create the most dynamic member experience possible, associations must take an active role in supporting these individuals to success. (A lesson that’s equally relevant to for-profit organizations throughout Michigan and beyond!)

So, my question to you is this: How do you prepare speakers, educators and facilitators for your meetings and conferences? What type of content does your organization provide to these individuals in anticipation of an upcoming program? What best practices have you instituted over the years to ensure positive member experiences?


Member needs, wants and desires – and how they (should) impact your marketing efforts

Full disclosure: I’m not a marketing professional. But that’s not to say I haven’t written plenty of interesting copy or designed plenty of successful print and web-based collateral in my time. (Once in a while, I’ve even had the occasion to impress myself!) And, over the years, I believe I’ve become savvier, more member-focused and more results-oriented when it comes to marketing a new program or signature event to a designated audience.

It starts with knowing your audience and framing a message that speaks to the shared needs, wants and desires of this target group (while at the same time remembering that this group comprises individuals with distinct attributes/demographics). Ultimately, it is these individuals who will approach your marketing materials with their own unique set of circumstances, experiences and lenses, thus informing their specific response to your promotional piece.

In my opinion, “good marketing” attempts to outline real deliverables that will be gained as a result of having participated in your next big program or event. These deliverables—either tangible or more theoretical—promise in some way to improve life for your members (and, ultimately, for those individuals who use their products or services). I feel strongly that it’s important to consider both constituent groups when developing a successful marketing strategy.

Now, to my point (and I’ve been stewing on this topic for a couple of months now). Like many of you (I’m sure), I receive a dozen or so e-mails a day from various clothing and accessory retailers trying their best to sell me the latest and greatest when it comes to suits, ties, jeans, jackets (but not jean jackets, please), watches and more. For you, the categories likely vary depending on where it is you frequent most.

One company, in particular, continues to puzzle me when it comes to their marketing efforts.

Fossil, founded in 1984, claims to be “the first American brand to bring value and style to the watch category.” And, over the years, I’ve definitely purchased my fair share of watches from this budget-friendly alternative to the more costly watch brands I can only afford in my dreams. Lately, however, I’ve noticed an important marketing flaw in this international brand: The weekly e-mails I receive feature only women’s products.

For the last couple of months, in particular, my in-box has been filled (by-and-large) with pictures of totes, cosmetic bags, handbags, women’s watches and more. Only on the very rare occasion have I actually been presented with a sleek men’s watch.

In an age of mass customization, this seems a bit behind the times (pedestrian, even). Surely my impression of the brand has been impacted by this messaging flaw. While I know I could—at any time—click on one simple, hyperlinked word—Men—and be transported back to Fossil’s website where I’d be free to scan and select from dozens if not hundreds of products, that’s not the point.

While I know the website will always be there—and I certainly don’t need an invitation or a weekly reminder to prompt a visit—I generally engage in “website shopping” when I’m looking for something specific for myself or for a gift. I would call this “active shopping.” More passive or “impulsive shopping” is best encouraged—at least for me—by these weekly e-mail messages. And if no products of interest are featured for me, the likelihood of me (and just about anyone else for that matter) impulsively shopping is significantly reduced (if not eliminated altogether).

Let’s consider what’s happening here for just a moment. For starters, I’ve not been presented with products that speak to my needs, wants or desires. This impacts not only my decision—in that moment—to read or delete that e-mail, but it—at least in some small way—impacts my long-term confidence in and loyalty to the organization’s brand. If they don’t know me or they don’t get me, then why should I shop with them? When it comes to the next message that dons my inbox, I might be a bit less likely to even open it.

This is true of our members, as well. Stop for a moment and consider the last marketing piece your organization disseminated. (A few rhetorical questions to get you thinking…) Did it speak to the needs, wants or desires of your members? Did it consider the need of their constituents? Did it assume that each individual member needed, wanted or desired exactly the same thing or did it leave some room for diversity of thought and opinion? What could have been changed to make this piece more effective?

As an education professional that is extremely passionate about professional development, I urge you to build print and web-based collateral that focuses on learning and community. Identify how your members will grow and develop as a result of your learning/networking opportunity, and how that change will positively ripple into the community (think: pay it forward, especially as it relates to those individuals benefiting from the products and services your members provide). And maybe then will you see more results (e.g., higher open rates, increased registration) from your marketing efforts.

So, my question to you is this: What other marketing “rules” or “recommendations” would you add to my list? What strategies have you found most effective when it comes to marketing a new program or signature event to your members? What strategies have you found less effective? What new or innovative social media strategies are you employing this year to breathe new life into your marketing “experience”?


Changing the world (that is, Michigan) in 2012

The Christmas decorations are all packed up and safely put away for another year. The endless trays of cookies and shortbread and toffee have been consumed; the trays washed. The house has been cleaned, the furniture and knick-knacks replaced to their usual positions, the laundry caught up and the New Year’s resolutions begun.

For many, this begins the longest three months of the winter. Here, in Michigan, it means the first “real” snow for many communities throughout our great state, as well as countless dark and dreary days, blustery temperatures, slippery driveways, icy windshields and salt-covered shoes tracking in and out of our cars, homes and offices (no matter how careful we are).

But it’s not all bad news, I swear. Although this picture (at first blush) appears bleak (and a touch depressing), the real story in 2012 has nothing to do with the weather. Rather, it’s the people that promise to make 2012 something special. Many of you have already read Maddie Grant’s post: “How are you going to change the world in 2012?” If not, I highly recommend checking it out to provide some context for my contribution to this meme.

As many of you know, 2012 is shaping up to be a big year for me. After nine years as an association professional with the same Michigan trade association, I’m changing gears and putting on the proverbial “consulting hat.” It’s both exciting and scary; however, the continued support of my family and friends is quickly transforming this dream into a reality.

My consulting work centers on learning. At the end of the day, when you take away the big, flashy lights, the world-renowned entertainers and the dynamic assortment of locally-grown foods, what matters most at any conference or meeting is the learning.

Year after year, associations around the world plan learning programs for their members. These programs contribute substantially to the financial stability of their organization, but are also intended to impart knowledge and information (with the expectation that these members will walk away with something meaningful that not only improves their lives, but also the lives of those people who use their products or services).

And this is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. There’s endless knowledge and information in this world to be known. These days, there’s also a (nearly) endless supply of providers willing to share this knowledge and information (usually, for a fee).

This reminds me a bit of a scene from American Idol that plays out time and time again. How many auditions begin with much promise (after all, the person auditioning has taken vocal lessons for the last 10 years) and end with the judges scratching their heads (or, more tragically, giggling).

What is the correlation? It’s simple: We can do better. Just because organizations can and do offer continuing education and professional development opportunities for their members (vocal lessons), doesn’t mean these learning opportunities are successful at imparting knowledge and information in such a way that ensures retention and transference (a quality singing voice).

“We can do better” means delivering content via innovative design and delivery methods that is unique to the target audience. It means developing an evaluation process that actually measures learning (rather than preferences) both onsite and at a specified period of time following the program. It means engaging speakers and facilitators during the planning process to ensure a learning experience that is dynamic and meaningful. (I could go on, but I think you can hear the passion in my voice.)

Although my work forwarding these and other initiatives related to learning promises to take me beyond the borders of Michigan, I’m committed to making things better here at home, too. This will begin with a Michigan association meetings industry survey in partnership with the Michigan Society of Association Executives. The results of this survey will identify current practices of Michigan meeting professionals and associations, and will identify future opportunities for me (and others) to give back to this remarkable community.

Anyway, that’s my first step to changing the world in 2012. Maddie’s recommended we tag some more people and encourage them to write a quick blog post or share a comment, and tag some more people. Following are the people I’m tagging (but the invitation is open to everyone!):

For more information about my new consulting firm, please “Like” Event Garde LLC on Facebook.

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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5,359 other followers

Twitter Updates

Featured in Alltop

%d bloggers like this: