Catch Spark at #ASAE16

I’ll be presenting two sessions at the upcoming ASAE Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City in a I'm Speaking ASAE 2016 Annual Meetingfew weeks:

  • Unsession: The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm, Sunday, August 14
  • Deep Dive: The Lean Startup Changes Everything, Tuesday, August 16

For the unsession, join me and Shelly Alcorn (Alcorn Associates) for a town hall-style discussion of how associations are being impacted by and can in turn impact trends in education and employment. Both of these sectors are undergoing profound disruption, and we believe associations are uniquely positioned to play a vital role in helping our current and future stakeholders adjust and even thrive in this rapidly changing environment.

In this unsession, we’ll share a preview of our soon-to-be released whitepaper, The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm (yep, the next Spark white paper is about to drop, y’all!). We’ll highlight some of the latest research on this topic, identify what we see as association advantages in these areas, and share the stories of associations that are doing good work preparing their audiences for the future.

We plan to challenge your thinking about the role associations can play in bridging the education to employment gap. We’ll have some questions for you, and we hope you’ll have some for us. Our goal is to have a productive dialogue that opens all of our eyes to some new possibilities for benefitting our members, our other stakeholders, and society at large.

We’ll be in one of the pop up session pods, probably around 3:30 Sunday afternoon.

For the Deep Dive session, join me and Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) for a full 90 minute session on lean startup methodology.

There’s no bigger waste than investing resources working on the wrong thing. Lean startup is a development approach that requires articulating and testing assumptions, favors rapid experimentation over elaborate planning, relies on customer feedback over intuition, and encourages iterative design, all in the service of ensuring you’re investing in the right thing.

It’s based on our October 2015 white paper Innovate the Lean Way: Applying Lean Startup Methodology in the Association Environment, and because we have a deep dive session, we’ll have time to work through a multi-part exercise, using the lean canvas, where attendees will get to work with lean concepts like the MVP, The One Metric That Matters, and the Pivot, so you can learn to apply this technique in your own organization to eliminate waste, validate your learning, and innovate faster and more successfully.

The deep dive session will be in Salt Palace room 255E from 9 – 10:30 am on Tuesday.

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2016: An Association Blogging and Podcasting Odyssey

I’ve been blogging about association management since 2008 – and I was far from the first one into the pool. I remember participating in my first bloggercon at ASAE in a sunny plaza in San Diego in 2008, shortly after I’d launched Thanks For Playing, the precursor to the Spark blog, with about 30 other association professionals, sharing our thoughts about how to use this new platform to strengthen our industry and our community.

Eight years later, association professionals are STILL blogging – and podcasting – to help our organizations be the best they can be at helping our members and other stakeholders achieve their most important goals and solve their most pressing problems, serving the needs of the industries and professions we represent, and providing public benefit.

On Tuesday, July 19, KiKi L’Italian gathered a who’s-who of association bloggers and podcasters to #Assnchat about how things have changed in the past decade, how the platforms themselves have morphed, how the ways we use them have shifted, how our audiences and their goals have grown, and how to be effective in creating and sharing content.

Topics of debate and discussion included:

  • How do you create posts that go viral (which included a major debate about PDFs: Evil v. Really, Really Evil)?
  • What about the reverse: what happens when you love a story and no one else does?
  • How do you market and promote posts successfully?
  • How do you create good writing habits?
  • What are your favorite tools for creating content?
  • Why did you start creating and sharing content? How has that changed – or remained the same – today?
  • How do you deal with on-the-spot tech glitches and problems (particularly relevant for podcasters)?
  • How do you cover the cost of content creation? (Do you cover the cost?)
  • How do you manage guest bloggers and other outside content contributors?
  • How does content creation evolve over time?
  • What impact have you had?
  • Where do you get your inspiration?

Missed it? No worries: you can watch/listen to the whole thing online.

Participants included:

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Is Growth Necessarily Good?

For membership associations, total membership count tends to be one of the key pieces of data we report to our senior leadership, our Board, and often publicly. And up is always better, right?

Not necessarily.

First of all, to quote the Spark/Mariner Getting to the ‘Good Stuff’: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations:

More members may be better up to a point, but beyond that you risk bringing in marginal members whose commitment to your mission is incidental at best, whose contribution to your community will be minimal, and whose acquisition and renewal costs will exceed their marginal revenue. In other words, they’ll be a drain on your association’s resources.

(Joe Rominiecki talked about this concept recently in Associations Now, too.)

This is all focused on growing your market share, that is, getting more customers.

But there’s also the concept of growing your customer share, that is, getting your customers to have a larger relationship with you – to buy more stuff and be more involved.

Harvard Business Review recently highlighted this same trend in looking at “super consumers.”

“But my most involved members already are, well, really involved. They aren’t going to buy more, are they?”

Actually, they will. To quote HBR:

…superconsumers represent 10% of a category’s customers but account for 30% to 70% of sales and an even higher share of profits.

Admittedly, their study focused on consumer brands. But it reiterates a message associations would benefit from, one that I’ve written about before:

Assume you have 10,000 members. Your annual meeting regularly sees 500 attendees, at $500 a pop. Based on past attendance, your actual number of prospective attendees is about 1,000. And you have a $10,000 marketing budget.

Most of us proceed to blast undifferentiated messages out to the entire 10,000 members. Which means we can spend $1 per member trying to get people to our conference. What if, instead, we focused that $10,000 and our staff time ONLY on the 1000 prospects who are likely to attend? All of a sudden, we’re only managing 1000 contacts, not 10,000, and we have $10 per prospect to market the conference. What if those focused, high-impact messages aimed only at truly likely attendees could increase conference attendance from 500 to 700? At $500 a head, that’s an additional $100,000.

In other words, pay more attention to your super consumers, who are, again according to HBR:

…defined by both economics and attitude: They are a subset of heavy users who are highly engaged with a category and a brand. They are especially interested in innovative uses for the product and in new variations on it. They aren’t particularly price sensitive. (emphasis added)

These are the people who aren’t just members or attendees or readers – they LOVE your association and are willing to offer their time, expertise, and innovative ideas to make it better.

What are you doing to find them, to nurture them, and to let them know you appreciate them? Maybe if we all got off our “growth in (marginal?) membership, no matter what” hamster wheels, we could find out.


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Do You Know How to Be A Member?

YAY! You just got a new member! Hopefully, she’ll acclimate and find her place and stay Welcome Matwith you forever.

Wait: “hopefully”? We can do better than that.

Here’s the question you need to ask yourself: does your new member know how to be a member of your organization?

Of course not, right? She’s new. She knows enough about you to have been willing to invest her money in joining. Now you need to help her learn how to make the most of that investment. You have to welcome her, make her feel at home, and show her how to be a member.

  1. Make it personal. Someone who’s not on staff (i.e. another member, aka one of her peers) needs to call her or drop her an email welcoming her and sharing some insight from a member perspective on what membership means and offers. (This, by the way, presents a GREAT opportunity to engage ad hoc/micro-volunteers.)
  2. Get her started right. What’s the first most important thing she needs to know right away? That should be the SOLE focus of the first communication from staff (well, other than the confirmation of her membership, of course). Related to that…
  3. Don’t drop everything on her all at once. What does your “welcome to Association XYZ” communication look like? Is it a long list of “member benefits” (too often presented as features and from the association’s perspective) that she’s supposed to plow through? Try introducing one thing at a time with concrete examples of how other members use it, explaining why they like it in their words (testimonials, examples, case studies).
  4. Benefits not features. “Association XYZ produces the leading annual conference in our field…”? No. “Earn free continuing education credits when you come to our annual conference. We’re excited to feature speakers and topics like:…” Yes!
  5. Don’t ask her for more money – at least not right away. She just joined – the first thing she hears from you shouldn’t be “now spend MORE with us on our book/webinar/conference/whatever.” She’s still figuring out if her initial investment is going to be worthwhile. Don’t try to get her to sink more money in before she’s even sussed that out. It’s just rude.
  6. Ask about her. What’s the main reason she joined? You need to know that so you can focus on delivering it to her, and then remind her that you did deliver it when it comes time to renew. What are her most important professional goals for the year? What are the biggest challenges she’s facing? What do you offer that can help her achieve those goals and resolve those challenges?
  7. Pay attention. As you’re doing your drip campaign introducing benefits, what does she respond to? Did she ignore your email about your new book but click immediately on a link to a webinar? That gives you some valuable information about what she might be interested in. Oh: and don’t just assume “she likes webinars and hates books.” Maybe it was the topic of the book versus the topic of the webinar. That’s something else you can try to find out.
  8. Stay in touch. You’re trying to develop a relationship here, one that you want to last over the long term. You don’t do that by ignoring the other party for a year (or, worse, bombarding her with tone-deaf marketing messages about things she’s not interested in), and then asking her for more money. You need to stay in touch on a personal and non-financial basis throughout the year. Ask her how things are going. Check in to see if she has questions. Remind her of what’s included in her membership. Get volunteers to reach out. You know, actually develop an actual relationship as if you’re an actual person and so is she. Then, when that renewal invoice does arrive, her decision will be an easy one, and you’ll have a successful renewal.

Thanks to and one of my clients for inspiring this post.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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What Is Your “Customer Journey”?

Reading a recent article in the Harvard Business Review on the topic of “customer journeys” got me thinking about their role in the association space.

What is a “customer journey”?

The example HBR used was of a solar company. Their initial outreach to one of the authors was a custom mail piece with a personalized URL that led him to a Google Earth image of his own house with solar panels mocked up on the roof. Clicking on that led to a webpage with estimates of potential energy savings, which then led to a one-on-one interaction with a sales rep to answer questions about leasing versus buying and installation. The company then sent references who were neighbors of the author, and a single-click lease tailored to his needs. The author was able to track progress of permitting and installation online, and is now able to manage the ongoing needs of his solar system as well.

That’s a customer journey – and, frankly, a pretty slick one.

decision journey loop from Harvard Business Review










HBR identified four keys to effective customer journeys

  1. Automation: streamlining processes through technology
  2. Proactive personalization: continuous learning to deeply understand your customers so you can appropriately prepare for – and pitch – the next step you want them to take
  3. Contextual interaction: understanding where your customer is so you can lead them to the next step
  4. Journey innovation: continuing to test, learn, and iterate to create new value for the customer and, as a result, for your organization

The point is to move from offering a bunch of products to providing a seamless, end-to-end solution that helps your customer (member) achieve something important to her.

In other words, leading engagement from the outside-in (yes, as in the white paper I co-authored last spring with Anna Caraveli).

Too often, associations focus on our products: we offer an annual conference, a magazine, some books, a webinar series, an awards program, committee volunteering, industry benchmarking and statistics, etc. And we’re organized to provide those products: there’s a membership team, a meetings team, a publications group, the professional development office, data analysts, etc.

Where’s the customer journey? Where’s the solution to a critical problem? Where are the member outcomes?


What if we, instead, focused on learning about what our members are trying to accomplish and putting together a customer journey to get them there?

Obviously, in order to figure out what members are trying to accomplish, you have to ask them, and in more in-depth ways than a member satisfaction survey with a bunch of Likert-scale questions. But if you think about it, I’ll bet you could come up with some places to start your research. Your members might want to:

  • Find a first job
  • Get a promotion
  • Build their professional (or personal) network
  • Get outside-the-office experiences (leadership, writing, public speaking) to enhance their long-term career prospects
  • Support or defeat particular legislation
  • Help others in the profession/industry
  • Do a better job marketing their business
  • Find clients
  • Etc….

Organizing to provide a solution to the problem of “I have a degree, but I need help finding my first job” rather than “to run our online career center” is a radical shift that demands different types of skills from differently constituted staff teams.

But the goal is to become a “Level Four” firm, “more attached to producing solutions to customers’ problems than it is to the products and services it offers.” Or, as HBR put it, “Key to these expanded journeys is often their integration with other service providers. Because this increases the value of the journey, carefully handing customers off to another firm can actually enhance the journey’s stickiness…” and with it, member loyalty and enthusiasm and association profitability.

Decision Journey image from the original HBR article cited, “Competing on Customer Journeys

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Turning Ideas into Reality

Also known as “the hard part.”

I’ve been working with an association lately where the focus of the engagement is on transforming the organization. I’m specifically working with them on a membership transformation, but a piece of that is looking at transforming programs, products, and services. So we’ve been talking a lot about innovation.

Now, this is not their first time at the rodeo on the subject of innovation. In fact, they’ve been working on innovation initiatives for almost two years. The problem hasn’t been ideas – their staff members have come up with a bunch of good ideas, big and small. The problem has been: what happens next?

In fact, research demonstrates that this is where most innovation initiatives get hung up (seriously – I was going to link to an article, but I found WAY TOO MANY). And I’ve heard this same complaint from a wide range of other association colleagues.

Innovtion hits a wall

The reason it all falls apart? It’s usually because no one on staff has business plan/business development skills, because there’s no budget allocated, and because no one has primary responsibility. In other words, “we solicited your ideas, but we have no plan for what to do next.” You can’t change the game with no dedicated resources.

The fact that this means that nothing changes is bad enough, but even worse, it’s totally dispiriting to the staff members who honestly and enthusiastically contributed their ideas.

But, as I’ve discovered in doing some interviews, there are associations who are having success at this. The common themes include:

  • Dedicated “new initiatives” budget – like Google’s famed and now long gone “20% time,” if you’re serious about innovation, you have to put some skin in the game. And don’t forget the cost of staff time, and the fact that you can’t create change with 5% of this person’s time, and 10% of that’s person’s time – someone will need to take primary responsibility, and that person will likely need to shift some of her other responsibilities to someone else to make that happen.
  • Documented process – there are a lot of good resources out there on this (one of which may be ASAE’s process, hint, hint, and you can find out more about it at this August’s ASAE Annual Meeting), but you need to have a way of reviewing ideas that includes some level of formality and objectivity, and some criteria for approving things, to keep your innovation initiatives from devolving into a popularity contest. And part of your process better be a formal review of expected revenues. Not every initiative your association takes on needs to make money, but you can only have so many “loss leaders,” and your choices about them must be conscious and informed.
  • Senior staff champion – someone with the weight of authority in the association needs to stand with each approved project to make sure that, when the person actually running with it needs help or resources or answers, she can get them. And senior leadership needs to be fully on board with this, and follow the process themselves.

What has your association learned about innovation success?

Image credit: Bottom Line Innovation Associates

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Engagement: It’s Not About You

There was a lot of talk about measuring and scoring member engagement at December’s ASAE Technology Conference.

People talked about scoring systems. People talked about tech platforms to track and report on the scores. People talked about engagement as the key to recruitment, retention, and upselling, whether that means getting members to invest money by buying stuff or invest time by taking volunteer positions. People talked about rewards for engagement. People talked about engagement being the core of the association value proposition.

We’re all on the engagement bandwagon, yes, sir, we are!

So what’s the problem?

I might have missed something, but nearly all the talk about engagement I hear was about scoring, tracking, and rewarding what the association values. We value committee service, so we give it a high score. We value spending money with the association, so we give it a high score. We value getting articles written for free for our magazine, so we give it a high score.

Spot it yet?

The perspective is totally backwards. Tracking, scoring, and rewarding what the association values tells you precisely zip about what the members and other audiences (do we even consider audiences outside the membership?) value about their interactions with us.

In other words, we’re focusing our resources, our attention, and ultimately, our value proposition on what the association values, not what the members value.

And then we wonder why the membership model is in trouble.

What if we changed our engagement model to start with conversations with members and other key audiences about what they value about their interactions with the association and the other members and key audiences, then based our scoring and rewards on what they value? How would that change our value proposition? The way we invest association resources, including money, staff, and time? Our organizational focus? Our members’ sense of involvement in and ownership of their association?

Edited April 24, 2013 to add: Associations Now recently addressed this very topic and came to the same conclusion: we’re “only scoring engagement the association values.” Yes folks, this is a big problem.

Edited February 25, 2016 to add: Is there a better way? You better believe it! Check out the recent Spark/The Demand Networks FREE white paper, Leading Engagement from the Outside-In to learn more.

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Recruit the Whole Person

I was recently chatting with the smart and talented Andrea Rutledge (Executive Director of the National Architectural Accrediting Board) about membership recruitment.

Andrea’s been a volunteer with ASAE’s research committee, which supports the work of the ASAE Foundation, and we specifically got talking about the Future of Membership project. She said that one of the things that had most struck her and has been on her mind since the reports came out was the concept, raised in the University of North Texas study, of “recruiting the whole person.”

The UNT study was a bit different than the other research projects: rather than doing surveys or case studies, the UNT team did in-depth ethnographic-style dives into the lives of a handful of international graduate students. What they discovered in all cases was that the Decision to Join was not an individual one.

It’s easy to dismiss this finding: small sample size, people with different (possibly less individualistic) cultural backgrounds, in the limbo land of being a grad student, where you’re no longer an adolescent, but you’re maybe not quite fully an adult yet either.

In short, “that’s nice, but doesn’t reflect the reality of my association.”


Do your members pay their own dues, or do their employers pay?

Even if they pay their own dues, do they make financial decisions in a vacuum, or do they have spouses/SOs/dependents who are involved in those decisions as well?

Are they entirely and solely in control of how they invest their time, or do bosses or elderly parents or kids or other commitments influence whether it’s acceptable for them to be gone for conferences or committee meetings?

We think that the join decision is a simple one: Mary, we want to offer you X benefits that will help you in Y ways for Z dollars – yes or no?

In reality, the decision to invest the money and time in our associations, rather than the myriad other ways those resources could be invested, is likely not being made by individuals acting completely alone, uninfluenced by anything other than our shiny marketing materials. You may also need to convince a supervisor that the money your member is requesting for membership will return something that will make him better at his job. You may also need to convince a spouse that the time you’re asking your member to invest will provide enough career benefit to merit his absence from family and community activities.

Is this even on your radar? What are you doing to “recruit the whole person”?


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Retention is a Relationship

And you can’t claim to have a relationship with people you don’t know.World revolves around me

This topic has come up frequently with clients in the past six months, both within full engagements, where we’ve been looking at how to increase membership, and in speaking engagements, where I’m trying to help chapter leaders learn how to be more effective.

Retention is key to long-term membership growth and to maintaining vital, lively chapters. While recruitment is like dating, retention is like getting – and staying – married. It’s about being in it for the long haul, about making an increasing commitment of time, energy, attention, focus, and money on BOTH sides.

The problem is, too many of us don’t know our members. That’s a data issue. We don’t think about what data we should be collecting on our members and other audiences. We don’t think about how to store that data in a way that it’s accessible and useable. We don’t think about how to integrate disparate data sources. We don’t think about how to use that data wisely, analyzing it to look for meaningful answers to important questions, and then acting accordingly. ACTING is key.

Being honest with ourselves, we’re lazy, and we throw up our hands: “It’s too hard!”

And we become takers in the relationship. We want the members to give us their money and their time and their attention, but we don’t give anything meaningful back (a subscription to your magazine is not a meaningful relationship). We don’t make any attempt to get to know them: their professional (and personal, where appropriate) wants, needs, problems, dreams, fears, goals. We don’t work to find out how we might be able to help them meet and fulfill those.

That’s unacceptable.

It’s OK to start small.

This week, call five members. Not because you’re trying to get them to renew or register for your new professional development series or donate to your foundation. Call just to ask what their number one biggest professional challenge or most important goal is for 2016. Record that somewhere that your colleagues can access. Share that information with your team at your next meeting. Start the conversation about ways you can, as an organization, get to know your members better. Brainstorm about how that knowledge could impact how the association intends to invest your resources (staff time, staff attention, volunteer effort, public focus, money, etc.) in 2016.

But start. Now. Today.

No more excuses.

Image credit: The Saucy Sanguine


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A Lean Startup Conversation

Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate and I recently had the chance to sit down with Rick Rutherford of to talk in a little more detail about some of the ideas raised in our new whitepaper, Innovate the Lean Way.

Our conversation touched on issues like:

  • What failure really is – and isn’t – and why it shouldn’t scare us so much.
  • What success really is – and isn’t.
  • The relationship between lean startup methodology and IKEA (yes, really).
  • The importance of iterative thinking and development.
  • The role of evidence-based decision-making.
  • The fact that no one is right all the time (and that’s built in to this methodology).
  • How you get agreement to get started.
  • Why proving yourself wrong is the key.

Guillermo also talked about NCARB’s experiences working with lean startup methodology in more detail.

Download your free copy of the whitepaper at

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