Don’t Get Lazy!

Putting it all together, maybe the most important thing Sohini and I learned from fundraisers as we were If it ain't broke don't fix itresearching Steal Like a Fundraiser (and as Sohini has worked with them over the past two decades) is: don’t get lazy.

And it’s really easy to do that, particularly if you’re organization is not in crisis. And many associations are NOT in crisis. According to the 2017 edition of the Marketing General Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, nearly three-quarters of associations who responded are either holding steady or increasing membership. Renewal rates are generally solid. Participation in programs, products, and services – particularly white-label social networks, virtual and in-person event attendance, and credentialing programs – remains robust.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right?

Well, no. To quote the whitepaper:

It’s easy to get lazy. We urge you and your team not to, though..The association industry’s operating landscape is shifting rapidly and in unpredictable ways…That’s why it’s important, at least at times, to turn outside the industry to see what other organizations are doing to attract audiences, particularly younger audiences; to build relationships with those audiences on their terms, not the organization’s terms; and to recognize their contributions equitably and make people feel known, heard, special, and appreciated.

To learn more, download your free copy of Steal Like a Fundraiser: Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations at Also, mark your calendar for Wednesday, March 21, 2-3 pm ET. Sohini and I will be delivering a webinar on the whitepaper, graciously hosted (so free for attendees) by the nice folks at Wild Apricot.

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Reduce Barriers to Entry

Just about every association I know of is struggling to recruit younger members (aka do not enter signMillennials).

Part of the reason for that is that we’re erecting barriers to entry rather than removing them.

What’s required to be considered part of your association’s community? A certain degree? A license? A certification? MONEY?

Those are all barriers to entry that a young person may not be able to clear – at least not yet. What you’re telling them, in effect, is: “You are not welcome here.”

No wonder, when they can clear or have cleared those barriers, they aren’t returning. You made them feel unwelcome right when they needed you, when they were new in their careers, when they didn’t have an established network, when they needed a job. You turned them away. And for what? A few bucks?

Fundraising organizations know that if they can establish a relationship and loyalty up front, the dollars will come. Even if they don’t, those committed young fans will contribute in all sorts of valuable ways: volunteering to help with the mission-driven work of the organization, recruiting other supporters, amplifying messages and stories online and on social media.

Learn more about how fundraising organizations create alternate entry points to belonging and how associations can adapt their methods in the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal Like a Fundraiser: Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations freely available for download at Pay special attention to the stories of the Capital Area Food Bank and the CFA Society of Minnesota on pages 28-31.

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Your Baby Is Ugly

One of the great things about being a consultant is that we get to tell people when their 1950s housewife in front of rotisserie ovenbaby is ugly without them getting mad at us – hey, they’re PAYING us to tell them when their baby is ugly.

Well, your (campaign) baby is ugly.

But it’s not your fault!

Marketing automation makes it easy for us to “set it and forget it!”

You set up the campaign, and your AMS and automation software run in the background, sending notices out on time and to everyone who still hasn’t renewed/registered for the meeting/bought the webinar or book.

But those highly automated campaigns aren’t compelling. They don’t tell a story. They aren’t personal. They don’t make a connection. Because of that, they often don’t live up to expectations.

Fundraisers are experts at doing all of those things. They have to be. They’re not asking for people to give them money to get a direct personal benefit (a membership, a conference experience, professional development, knowledge). They’re asking people to give them money for some sort of greater good. And they do it really well.

How? Is it magic? Do you have to know the secret Association of Fundraising Professionals handshake?

You do not – you, too, can run a compelling, visually-arresting, emotionally- motivating, effective campaign. Find out how in the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal Like a Fundraiser: Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations freely available for download at Pay special attention to the interview with Shonali Burke on the three keys to effective campaigns on pages 8-10, the sidebar by John Haydon on using social media effectively to promote your campaigns, and to the stories of CompTIA and New Endeavors by Women on pages 19-22.

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Treat Members Equitably Not Equally

In the association world, we tend to want to treat all our members equally: nobody is more cartoon peple on puzzle pieces linking hands with each other and inviting a fourth person to join important or special than anyone else. That’s a noble impulse and helpful, up to point. After all, you don’t want your association to seem cliquish, or for any member to feel like there’s no place for her, like the association doesn’t respect or value her.

But only up to a point.

Because the fact of the matter is, some members ARE more important or more special than others. Some members only date your association casually and then move on. Some make significant, long-term commitments. Those two types of members are not equally valuable.

The challenge is to recognize ALL kinds of members and ALL levels of contribution and relationship appropriately, while still making everyone feel welcome in your community. That is, to treat people equitably rather than equally.

How do you actually do that?

Download your free copy of Steal Like a Fundraiser: Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations at to find out, and pay special attention to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company case study (on pages 6 and 7) to see exactly how one organization makes EVERYONE feel like a rock star.

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Steal This Idea!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 20 years, it’s that associations don’t always have all the answers. We definitely have some major advantages, not the least of which is that we are highly cooperative and collaborative, not least of which because there’s not a lot of intra-industry competition (i.e., the AICPA and the American Nurses Association have basically zero overlap in audiences). But there are some areas where we lag, and where other industries, say charitable fundraisers, do things better than we do.

That’s the topic of the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal Like a Fundraiser: Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations. Written with Sohini Baliga, a communications expert from the charitable fundraising world who’s recently come over to the association side of non-profits, Steal Like a Fundraiser addresses three major areas where charities are innovating and shares their secrets of success:

  • Building relationships with donors at all levels, with a special focus on major donors, and how that relates to membership relationship building and management
  • Creating and running outstanding campaigns
  • Attracting Millennial/young professional supporters

The whitepaper also features contributions from Beth Kanter, John Haydon, and Shonali Burke and case studies from:

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper for the rest of the week, highlighting some key findings and action steps you can take, but in the meantime, I invite you to download your free copy at – we don’t collect any data on you to get it, and you won’t end up on some mailing list you didn’t ask for. We just use the as an easy mechanism to count the number of times it’s been downloaded.

And don’t forget to check out the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too:

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Letting Go for 2018

I recently had the opportunity to contribute to Beth Brodovsky’s Driving Participation facebook icon in a trash binpodcast year-end special.

Beth posed the following question to her contributors: In 2018 what marketing tactics, social media, or tech tools are you letting go of and why?  

My response?


I’m not recommending that you delete your organization’s Facebook page. More than a billion people have active accounts, so they need to be able to find your organization there if they’re looking. But I would recommend interrogating your investment in Facebook critically.

Facebook is not in the business of helping your organization. They are in the business of making money. You’re using their platform for free, which means they can change the rules of engagement any time they want to, and you have no recourse. And they do change those rules, frequently. Pretty much every change they make that affects organizational pages degrades organic reach. You can still get your messages in front of people on Facebook, but you have to pay to do it.

For some organizations, paying for reach makes good financial sense. But I would argue that for most it really doesn’t. I would strongly encourage organizations to do a clear-eyed accounting of their Return On Investment – both direct financial investment and investment of staff and volunteer time – in Facebook, and if you discover that your ROI is in the red, scale back and devote those resources to audience engagement efforts that have a higher, more consistent return.

Personally, I deactivated my Facebook account more than a year ago, and I don’t miss it.

There are numerous studies that increased time on Facebook leads to decreased self-esteem and increased depression and anxiety.Which makes sense, when you think about it, because you end up comparing your every day life to your friends’ highly curated timelines of only the most amazing pieces of their lives.

“But I’d miss the baby pictures! And how will I keep up with my high school classmates and my grandma?”

Here’s the thing: Now that I’m not inundated with baby pictures, I’ve found that I’m much more motivated to go actually see the actual baby. In fact, now that I’m not under the illusion that I’m keeping up with my friends because I see their posts on Facebook, I’m more motivated to spend time with them in real life, listening to them tell me about their lives, and getting the juicy bits of their stories that don’t make it onto Facebook.

Be honest: Do you really care about what’s going on with your high school classmates? If you haven’t seen them in 25 years, there’s your answer. While it can feel good in the moment to see that the cool kids haven’t done much with their lives, while all the nerds have great careers, as one of the nerds, I can tell you it’s ultimately bad for your soul.

You know what your grandma would love? A phone call. A card, in the actual US postal mail. A visit.

Remember that if it’s free, you’re the product. Facebook is a highly addictive platform that creates a false sense of connection and encourages people to provide all sorts of private data about themselves that Facebook then controls, sells, and profits from.

If a divorce feels too scary, I’d encourage a trial separation. Delete the app from your smartphone (or at least move it to the farthest back screen of apps) and pledge not to open the web platform for a week (there are all sorts of productivity apps that can block it for you, if you’re afraid your willpower isn’t strong enough). Then see how it goes. You may find that your life is better without Facebook. I know I have.

Need more incentive to reconsider your relationship with Facebook? Check out techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk on the subject:

Edited to add: Beth’s full podcast is out. Listen at to find out what a whole bunch of other people who are way smarter than me had to say, too.

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Membership 101: Data, Data, Data

If you’ve been following this series – and I hope you have! – you’ve probably noticed that I cartoon man filling out surveytalk a lot about data.

You need data to calculate LTV.

You need data to construct your ladders of engagement.

You need data to personalize effectively.

You need data to run an effective welcome series.

You need data to understand why people joined in the first place.

You need data to know when prospects are ready to join.

You might be thinking: “That seems like a lot of data. How am I going to get it?”

I’m glad you asked!

You can collect data actively AND passively. You can collect it formally AND informally. You can collect quantitative AND qualitative data.

Ideally, you’ll do all of the above.

What do all those options mean?

Active data collection is when you intentionally and purposefully ask for feedback through something like a focus group or an online comment form.

Passive data collection is when you use technology to record what your members and other audiences do, like what emails they open, what links they click on your website, what they purchase from you, what conversations they participate in on your white label social network, and what events they attend.

Formal data collection is when you’re collecting data in a time-bound, structured way, like an annual membership satisfaction survey.

Informal data collection is what you learn from your day-to-day interactions with members, like your email and phone exchanges with them, or talking to them at in-person events.

Quantitative data is stuff that can be reported on with numbers, charts, and graphs, like a Likert scale asking attendees to rank your conference.

Qualitative data is freeform or unstructured data that can be highly illuminating but challenging to share, like the results of interviews.

We tend to do a good job with active, formal, quantitative data. Not that constructing an effective survey is easy – it is definitely not – but we know how to run surveys, our members know how to respond to them, and we know how to report on and disseminate the results.

We tend to do a good job with passive data, as long as we put a little thought into what we should be collecting and how we intend to use it, set up the systems to do so, and remember to go look at it and report on it periodically.

Dealing with informal qualitative data is a lot more challenging. First of all, it’s distributed, and we usually don’t have a good means of collecting and sharing it. I guarantee there are staff members on your team who know all KINDS of interesting things about your audiences that you don’t know, just because you’ve never asked them and there’s no easy way for them to share what they’ve learned.

Unstructured data is hard to report on. You can’t make a dashboard or a pretty graph of the results of interviews. Even identifying themes requires us to use our words. And, to quote my Getting to the Good Stuff co-author Peter Houstle, “the plural of anecdote is  not data.” Qualitative data gives you stories and opinions, and can get at the “why” of what your members are thinking and doing better than almost anything else, but you still need to go out and validate those stories and opinions.

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Membership 101: Life Time Value

One of the questions I get asked a lot is: “How much should I be willing to invest to recruit a bar graph with people of increasing size illustrating life time value of a customermember?”

The answer is not obvious.

For example, let’s say you invest $1000 on a recruitment campaign and bring in five new members. That means you spent $200 each to acquire those members.

(Don’t get distracted by: “But I contacted 100 people, so I only spent $10 per person.” No, you didn’t. 95 of those people didn’t join.)

What if your annual dues are only $100?

Was that campaign a waste of money?

It looks like it might be, but it’s not necessarily, because of something called the Life Time Value (LTV) of membership.

Hopefully, at least a few of those five people you recruited will renew for years two, three, four, and beyond.

Even if they don’t renew, they may do things in that membership year like register to attend your conference, or buy a book or a webinar, or contribute actively to discussions in your white label social network, or boost your social media signals to their own friends, fans, and followers.

All that other stuff? That’s LTV. The total value the association receives from a member encompasses far more than just one year’s dues payment.

That means it’s probably OK to invest more than the value of one year’s dues to get a new member. But how much more?

That’s where things get tricky.

Marketing General has some helpful base formulas you can use as a starting point.

The simplest way to think about LTV is to add average dues plus average non-dues revenue and multiply that by average membership tenure (which MGI also helpfully explains how to calculate).

That provides a good baseline calculation, but there are two potentially significant issues that would skew that calculation.

  1. Not all members behave the same.
  2. It ignores the value of non-financial contributions.

You almost definitely have different segments of members who behave in very different ways. Large companies versus small companies. Domestic members versus international members. Students versus established professionals. Young professionals versus retired and retiring members. Members in regions with active chapters versus those in regions with dormant chapters. They may pay different dues amounts, have different average membership tenure, and have very different purchasing patterns. Those would lead to very different answers about the level of appropriate investment to bring them in.

A large company that pays a large sum for dues, and is likely to be with you for many years, send teams of people to your meeting every year, and require their managers to earn your certification merits a much larger investment than a mom-and-pop business that’s likely to be acquired by a larger competitor within the next three years.

You should to create LTV member segments just as you would for the other types of member engagement we’ve discussed throughout the Membership 101 series. And you need to document those segments and the assumptions you’re making about their behaviors so that your LTV calculations can be consistent over time.

Also, as I hope is now apparent to you after reading some of these Membership 101 posts, “value” is not just dollars. Members contribute to the good of your association and the profession or industry you serve in all kinds of ways that have no price tag attached to them. How do you “value” things like service on your board of directors or committees, speaking at your conference, writing an article for your magazine, presenting a webinar, mentoring young professionals, and encouraging colleagues to join your association for purposes of LTV calculation?

I can’t tell you. The answer to that question is unique to every association, and you can only decide what it looks like for yours by sitting down and talking it through with your team members.

What I can tell you, though, is that you do need to think about it. I hope it strikes you as absurd to ignore something like board service in calculating LTV. It’s equally foolish to ignore those “smaller” contributions.

You need to document which non-financial contributions you’re including (and which you’re not, and why), how you value them, and how they match up with your membership segments, just as you did with direct financial contributions, so you know the assumptions that underlie your LTV calculations.

Then you test those LTV calculations against reality, and, with all your segments and assumptions documented, if you discover a mismatch, you know what levers to push to improve.

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Being a First-Time Attendee

Note: my good friend Joan Eisenstodt had asked for people to share our experiences as hello my name is stickerfirst-time attendees for her Fridays With Joan column for Meetings Today. I realized that some of my blog readers might not regularly read that column and that my story might be useful to you all, too, so here it is:

My first time at any association industry event was 17 years ago, at ASAE’s old m&t conference. I’d only been in the profession for a few years, and I didn’t know anyone outside the confines of my own association employer and the staff members of our three “sister” associations.

The conference was in town (I live in DC), and being my first one, I didn’t realize that I should clear my evening schedule for the receptions and parties that would take place in conjunction with the event.

So I went to sessions, sat in the back of the room all by myself, didn’t really talk to anyone, and scurried off at the end of the educational program each day to keep my evening commitments. In short, I was the attendee with no friends.

I did learn a lot, but I kind of missed the point of an in-person event: I didn’t expand my network at all.

I didn’t attend another large association conference for another two years. Back to m&t, and I still didn’t really know anyone outside my (still the same) employer and (still the same) “sister” associations.

But I’d learned two key things in the interim: one, keep my evenings free, and two, I was going to have to make the first move. Associations weren’t yet paying a lot of attention to the newbie experience, so I knew it was on me to create a better outcome, and I did.

This time, I pushed myself outside my comfort zone to look for the other person in each room who didn’t seem to have any friends, go over to her, and ask her a question about herself, which is the easiest way for introverts to get conversations with strangers going. That was the start of building the professional network that has sustained me for the past twenty years, through multiple job changes and launching Spark more than five years ago.

Joan asked the follow up question: “What do you think is the best way to not be lonely at a conference and/or what do you think conference organizers can do to lessen loneliness at conferences, especially for people who are new to an organization or company?”

My answer: “My favorite thing – when it works – is the ‘conference buddy/mentor’ idea. You have to match people up in advance and encourage them to communicate before the event, and then hold some sort of a meet up for your pairs right at the beginning of the event – the one I think works best is a pre-opening reception gathering, where the pairs can meet in person and the mentor is trained/instructed beforehand that her job is to bring the newbie with her into the opening reception with her and spend at least the first 30-60 minutes introducing the newbie to others.”

What have your experiences been when you’ve been a first-timer at an event? What has worked well for you in trying to find your niche? What has your association tried to help your first-timers fit in? What has – and hasn’t – worked well for you? Why?

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Membership 101: Ladders of Engagement Revisited

Once members join, the next question becomes: How do you keep them? How do you pyramid of engagementbuild real relationships over time that deepen your commitment to each other and lead to long-term loyalty on both sides?

The answer is ladders of engagement.

I’ve already talked a little bit about ladders of engagement in the membership 101 series, in that earlier instance, specifically related to joining an association. But they’re also the key to retention, which is critical to the health of your association.

According to ASAE’s Benchmarking in Association Management: Membership and Components Policies and Procedures, the average association invests $20,000 a year on recruitment and $15,000 on retention. That means associations feel the need to spend less in both absolute and relative terms, given the number of members retained versus recruited each year. It’s cheaper and easier to keep an existing member than to get a new one.

As I discussed in the earlier post, retention starts even before people join, and you have to teach your prospects and new members what it means to be a member, help them navigate what association offers and how it benefits them, and set expectations right from the start.

The overall goal is engagement: engaged members renew, disengaged members don’t.

Associations tend to have an inward-facing understanding of engagement: “How can we get our members to do what we want them to do?”

The thing is, that’s backwards. Better questions include:

  • What do my members value?
  • What reward system can I build around that?

Hopefully, the next logical question in the sequence has already occurred to you:

  • How do I find out what my members value?

The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy: You ask them.

Remember: Asking people what they want is usually futile. To quote (possibly apocryphally) Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Ask them, instead, what goals they’re trying to accomplish and what problems vex them.

People associate to accomplish things in a group that they can’t individually. That’s where you come in, helping them achieve goals or solve problems they can’t all by themselves.

When you know that, you can begin constructing ladders that focus on your members’ most important goals and most pressing problems. You’ll go through that same process of deepening effort, cost, and/or commitment that you did when converting a lead to membership, only with better insight into what to offer along the way.

Let’s say you discover that a young professional member wants to build her network.

You still start by offering something that’s, ideally, free (or included in the price of membership) that relates to that goal: say a networking brown bag lunch. Bonus points if there’s some sort of program, which doesn’t have to be terribly formal, that provides some content about how to build your network – tips like “Connecting on LinkedIn =/= building a professional network” or “Get to know people a little bit before asking for a job” or “Rather than flinging your cards at people like Mardi Gras throws, ask them for their cards.”

Assuming she attends, follow up by offering her something that involves a little more commitment, maybe a webinar that goes into more detail and maybe brings in an outside expert and thus costs something so you can pay said expert.

The next step might be to invite her to participate in your small group many-to-many less formal mentoring initiative.

The step after that might be to invite her to participate in your formal, structured one-on-one mentoring program.

When she finishes that formal program, you could ask her to present or write an article on her experiences for your association – or to be a greeter at your next brown bag, or to turn around and mentor someone herself, or join your task force that’s looking into technology mediated ways of extending your mentoring program to more people.

That’s one potential ladder. There are as many additional ladders as your members have goals and challenges.

When you flip your perspective from an internal focus on what the association wants to a member-centered way of viewing the world that puts the emphasis on helping people rather than pushing programs, products, and services, people will WANT to engage with you, because you’ll have become a vital partner in their success.

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