Archive for July, 2013


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?


Want to boost attendance? Just ask.

Kevin Wharton

Kevin Whorton, principal of Whorton Marketing and Research

Last week, Jeff De Cagna explained that in order to thrive, associations must think differently. Simply put: They should accept change rather than shun it. And it starts by asking questions, even if management doesn’t want to hear the answers.

Self-reflection is never easy, but this week, Kevin Whorton, principal of Whorton Marketing and Research, will help make the process a bit less painful.

As this week’s guest blogger, Whorton suggests questions associations should ask as they look at their bottom lines.

Kevin Whorton writes:
I wondered what to write for Event Garde, but then a client solved that for me. On a conference call recently, the marketing and meetings directors of a healthcare organization asked me a basic question: “How can we increase attendance for a meeting that has been stagnant for years?”

This made me think about the marketing and programming of meetings, an area where I help just a few associations at best every year. Some of the questions I asked them on the call are the questions I’d ask myself in a new job and I think you should be asking too, if you’re not already.

“What are the profiles of attendees compared to non-attendees?”
Do you actually understand who you attract, in terms of their age ranges, their practice specialties, from where in the country they come and their genders? This is the first step to finding out why people with under-represented characteristics don’t come and how you can change that.

“How closely do you collaborate with state associations that also use the site you’ve chosen?”
The answer to this says a lot about how well you’ve thought through your grassroots marketing. State (and/or local) associations hold meetings in your site’s area every year, so they could be your best friends and marketing partners. Or they could spread indifference or bad word of mouth from regional thought leaders. You can’t have too many friends.

“When was the last time you spoke to an attendee about their experience?”
Almost immediately I hear “we do surveys,” which isn’t what I asked. Do you reach out to random people through focus groups or phone discussions, unburdened by a script, to have a give-and-take conversation about what they expected, what they disliked and what they want, no matter how unrealistic? It’s an important conversation to have because every opinion you hear will stick in your head. In reality, those opinions represent the feelings of hundreds, even thousands, of people you’d like to attract.

“What is your messaging?”
How does your marketing copy sound when you read it aloud? What do you understand about how a certain kind of member valued the hall talk at your event? Can you share specific first-person examples of a killer idea from a podium presentation or from a cocktail party discussion that an attendee took home?

“What is your programming mix and how well does it fit your overall audience?”
One thing I’ve noticed from senior execs is that they like to hear themselves talk. And for good reason—their body of knowledge is bigger, their learning needs more nuanced and specific, so they want give-and-take experiences in which they can ask questions and hone in on the things they need to know. We’ve found that ego prevents some of these execs from attending meetings in which they would mostly sit and listen. Or if they do attend, ego can sometimes keep them in the hallway interacting with people they already know and trust. But how well you convey the importance of roundtables in which these execs are likely to find kindred spirits with similar experience levels and helpful knowledge will attract mid-career people who have done well without attending your events.

“How well do you segment?”
Most conferences offer tons of content: 20, 40, 200 programs and lots of exhibitors. Yet if you mapped them against the demographic and interest of attendees, they appeal to different kinds of individuals. Are you sending the same message to everyone, aiming for the median attendee and therefore missing the chance to make a deeper connection with everyone? It’s hard to do, but messages that outline the five programs that person is most likely to attend works because it saves them from spending time reading through your program or searching online. Segmentation has a good ROI if you also adjust your level of effort based on the individual’s history and future likelihood of attending. If someone is a regular and hasn’t registered a few weeks out, email or call personally to ask why. You may not like the answer but it will help to maintain a profitable relationship.

“How do you help them visualize an experience they’ll have, if they’ve never attended before?”
Believe it or not, attending an in-person event is not an instinct that comes to everyone. Some introverts may be terrified at the prospect. Many experienced people already “know it all” and need to be sold on the benefit of attending. Almost everyone needs hints on how to get the biggest bang for their buck. If you want them to take a leap of faith, change their habits and attend your conference, you must provide them with video, testimonials and even peer-to-peer contacts showing them how they would benefit. Of course, sometimes they need aggressive first-timer discounts or money-back guarantees. These approaches reflect confidence and a willingness on your part to put your money where your marketing is.

These are just a grab bag of suggested questions. The key thing to remember is that changing market behaviors, such as getting first-timers to attend and therefore increasing your reach, requires creative thinking in marketing.

Kevin Whorton is principal of Whorton Marketing and Research, a consulting firm that conducts industry and membership research and develops marketing campaigns for a wide variety of nonprofit organizations. Whorton has conducted more than 180 quantitative and qualitative research projects for 100 association and nonprofit clients, including needs assessments, compensation studies, public opinion polls, industry-wide analyses and product launch/market feasibility.

 For more information, you can contact him at (202) 258-9889 or



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!


Extreme trends or the new normal?

ASAE Online Engagement Center

An online engagement center at the 2012 ASAE Annual Meeting. Photo courtesy of ASAE on Flickr.

A couple years ago, I was sitting at my desk when I got a text message from my dentist with an appointment reminder.  So naturally, I checked Facebook, which encouraged me to “like” his page. Yep. Even my dentist has climbed aboard the social media bandwagon.

The truth is, I’m a customer, and these days, I text rather than talk and my smart phone works harder than my laptop. I check news on Twitter and connect with friends on Facebook. Good observation for a dentist, right?

But it’s not just my dentist. It’s my doctor, my employer, my grocery store, my gas station.

Times are changing. And this is how customers operate. In a 24/7 plugged-in  society, businesses need to embrace change and welcome technology.

Some might say this is extreme. But is it?

This month, I’ll be writing about a couple trends that could help associations remain viable – perhaps even become more profitable – in a constantly changing world. I’ll talk to two experts in innovation, Jeff De Cagna, founder of Principled Innovation LLC, and Sarah Sladek, founder of XYZ University. Both strategists have graciously agreed to share some of their much sought-after advice.

De Cagna’s book, “Associations Unorthodox,” may one day redefine association operations. In the e-book, he lists six radical shifts toward the future. Especially of interest to association professionals: Go all in on digital.

De Cagna argues that face-to-face experiences are becoming obsolete.  By offering more digital platforms, associations will better engage and serve their members in the methods they prefer. Gone are the days of 10-page newsletters and here to stay are the days of SMS alerts.

And it seems American Society of Association Executives is listening.

During its annual meeting, which will be held Aug. 3-6 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, ASAE will engage and connect members – even if they can’t attend physically. For example, ASAE Annual Meeting Daily Now will be blogging about the event. And, by the way, if you want to join the blog roll, you can do so.

The Twittersphere will be buzzing with tweets, Instagram photos and hashtags during the event. You can follow along on Twitter using #asae13  and the handle, asaeannual. Also, ASAE is collecting a list of Twitter handles, and is asking people to join the Twitter roll, even if they don’t plan to attend. And, of course, there’s Flickr.

I’ll ask De Cagna what he thinks about all this, so stay tuned.

Next up will be Sladek. Her book, “The End of Membership as We Know It” explores the new challenges and opportunities facing organizations. Membership isn’t dead, she argues, but associations must look toward the future.

This should be an exciting month of blogging! I know there will be counterarguments and hesitations, but fostering conversation is what this blog is all about. So until next week, I hope you’ll spill it here.

What trends are you noticing? Are you embracing social media? Is there anything you’d like me to ask these two great minds of change?


Planners and suppliers tell all

Kelly Van Dyke presenting June 18 at the Suburban Collection Showplace

Kelly Van Dyke presenting June 18 at the Michigan Meetings Expo.

Kelly Van Dyke, CMP and I had the pleasure of delivering the highest rated education session at the Michigan Meetings Expo on June 18 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. That session, “The Secret to Successful CSM/Planner Collaboration,” is based on an Event Garde Blog post of a similar name from earlier this year.

To kick off the session and to set the tone for further discussion and collaboration, we asked both suppliers and planners alike what they’re most grateful for in working with their counterparts on a major signature event. The responses, I think, are both representative and telling. And it goes to show that sometimes the devil is in the details.

Our suppliers responded as follows to the prompt “I’m grateful when…”:

  • Clients are loyal to [our property]
  • A planner is a great communicator
  • Agreements are returned promptly
  • We receive prompt payment
  • Our team receives positive feedback
  • We’re provided copies of program materials for reference
  • Event changes are communicated timely
  • Planners approach their work with forethought and organization
  • My clients take the time to communicate their needs to me and are thorough when planning their events
  • Planners return my calls and emails
  • Everything comes together and everyone is happy
  • A planner is specific and honest about his or her expectations and needs

Similarly, we asked planners to respond to the same “I’m grateful when…” prompt. Following is what they had to say:

  • Suppliers provide assistance before they’re asked
  • Venues provide all information up front
  • My conference is over and it has been successful
  • I don’t have to ask twice for something
  • My CSM is easy to get a hold of
  • My CSM thinks of things I may have forgotten
  • My CSM anticipates my next question
  • My CSM puts a lot detail on the BEOs
  • Contracts and BEOs are returned timely
  • The hotel representatives work with all of the changes our clients make and they do it with a smile
  • My CSM and I have a great working relationship
  • My CSM takes time to answer countless phone calls full of countless questions
  • Suppliers anticipate my needs and address anything that comes up in a very efficient manner
  • My contact is proactive in suggestions to make our event better
  • All details are wrapped up in advance – not within the last two weeks
  • My CSM knows our group’s needs and provides assistance
  • Suppliers work with me on the food and beverage so I can get the most for my money
  • My CSM responds to my email right away with a sense of urgency, even if it’s only to acknowledge he or she has received it and is working on it
  • I receive quick and courteous service
  • My CSM does not get upset when we have last-minute changes
  • My CSM jumps in/pitches in as though he or she is a part of our crew
  • My CSM says “Yes, we can do that!” without hesitation
  • My CSM takes the time to communicate clearly and completely
  • My event runs smoothly

At the conclusion of the session, we asked participants to consider the CSM/planner relationship and to reflect on their own experiences, particularly those moments that could use improvement moving forward. Following are just some of the insights shared during that brainstorming session (and which may hit close to home for you, as well):

  • Lack of balance of groups in-house and needs of upcoming events; overworked CSM
  • Not sharing characteristics of group history with CSM, who may be new and unfamiliar with your group
  • Communicating promises made by sales to CSM
  • CSM disappears during the conference
  • Last-minute BEOs
  • Lack of communication and inability to compromise
  • Poor response time
  • Introducing all staff onsite
  • Last-minute changes resulting in “It’s not in the contract” or “That’s an extra cost”
  • Contact has left and didn’t say goodbye
  • Lack of passion
  • Don’t know when to lurk and when to chat
  • CSM only checks in one time during the convention
  • Not meeting pre-established deadlines
  • CSM handling too many groups just prior to my event; no time for my group
  • Contract delay resulting in more addendums
  • Different quality of service after the first year
  • BEO changes not communicated to all staff or staff not reading/responding to last-minute changes

In planning your own events, what are you most grateful for and what hot-button challenges are you most looking forward to resolving with your planner or CSM in the months ahead? Tell us in the comments.

Also, stay tuned to the Event Garde Blog this month. Kristen Parker is tackling extreme association trends. Next week she’ll have a post from Jeff De Cagna you won’t want to miss. And we have a few other surprises up our sleeves, as well. Until then, please have a safe and enjoyable holiday weekend.

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: