Influence Across America

Thanks to the generosity of my friend and colleague Ed Barks, I had the opportunity to attend Influence Across America: The Rise of State and Local Power and the Impact of Digital Media, a National Digital Roundtable panel event at the Newseum earlier this week.

Panelists shared some interesting and disturbing statistics, as well as good advice for breaking through the noise and getting local and national media attention for your organization’s signal.

First the stats (all from Pew):

  • 2019 will be the first year digital ad spending outpaces ad spending in traditional media.
  • Facebook and YouTube are still the top social platforms overall, but among 18-24 year olds, it’s Snapchat and Instagram.
  • Facebook and Google VASTLY dominate digital ad spending. Nothing else is even close.
  • Lots of people of all ages get their news partially or mostly online, but the demographic generation with the biggest growth is Boomers.
  • 71% of people think their local newspaper is doing fine financially. Only 14% of people pay for local news. (You would think that would cause at least some of them some cognitive dissonance, but apparently not. People: NEWS IS NOT FREE.)

Where do people prefer to get their news?

  • 41% – TV
  • 37% – online
  • 13% – newspaper
  • 8% – radio

(It’s official – my NPR-listening, print Washington Post-subscribing self is a big weirdo.)

Now for the advice:

The Kellogg Foundation produces an event called the National Day of Racial Healing, which takes place in January each year, in conjunction with the Martin Luther King holiday. They saw the highest social/online engagement from cities where they also had the most in-person events. Lesson? In-person events and social/digital campaigns reinforce each other. They were also to recruit a big-name influencer – Ava DuVernay – to support and amplify the campaign, because this is part of the work she does on a daily basis. Lesson? You can attract celebrity help if you choose wisely.

Zero To Three (a Spark client!) used the See-Say-Do model to organize their efforts and set goals.

  • See = impressions, reach, awareness
  • Say = engagement, likes, shares, influencer attention
  • Do = call to action (for them, it was to join their public policy alert network)

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation also had success attracting a big-name influencer for their Hidden Heroes campaign, which highlights and supports the work of caregivers for wounded veterans – Tom Hanks. Again, the lesson is to look for alignment between a celebrity’s interests and work and your cause. The Dole Foundation also has a real advisory group that fully sets the agenda for their work, which has led to a focus on working with cities (130 so far) to find local resources, support, and recognition for caregivers.

The advisory group also led the Foundation to take a more “playful” tone on their social media platforms and to be genuinely interactive, as opposed to just shouting marketing messages at their audiences (something many associations are still guilty of). They also focus on telling the stories of caregivers, and provide camera-ready resources for their ambassadors – literally, because they’re realized that Instagram is the right focus platform for their audience, which is largely mid-20s through mid-50s women.

The panel featured:

  • Angela Greiling Keane, Deputy Managing Editor – States, POLITICO & Former President, National Press Club
  • Ernestine Benedict, Chief Communications Officer, ZERO TO THREE (State of Babies)
  • Madison Moore, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Elizabeth Dole Foundation (Hidden Heroes)
  • Howard M. Walters, Program and Evaluation Officer, W. K. Kellogg Foundation (National Day of Racial Healing)
  • Dr. Nii-Quartelai Quartey, Senior Advisor and National LGBT Liaison, Community, State & National Affairs, Multicultural Leadership, AARP
  • Anthony Shop, Co-Founder, Social Driver & Chairman, National Digital Roundtable (moderator)
  • Barbara McCormack, Vice President of Education, Freedom Forum Institute (host)


What Really Worked in 2016?

Beth Brodovsky, who hosts the Driving Participation podcast (and if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?) recently asked a bunch of her former guests this insightful question for a year-end episode.

Here’s my answer:

One thing that really worked for my clients was talking to their members. I know that sounds obvious, but associations tend to – in my opinion – over-focus on surveying people to the detriment of other methods of learning about our audiences. I’m not saying that surveys aren’t important or a necessary part of our data gathering efforts. But they aren’t the whole picture.

Surveys can be particularly useful as an early warning system for identifying problem areas in your value proposition, if they’re properly designed and administered, and if you ask the right questions.

They’re not great at “blue ocean” situations, though. If you’re trying to learn about future goals and desired outcomes, new challenges, or emerging trends in the profession or industry your association serves, surveys are not effective. You learn about those sorts of things much more effectively and efficiently through open, honest conversation.

Association professionals can sometimes be nervous about talking directly to members in an unstructured way. What if they’re angry about something, or have complaints, or ask questions we can’t answer, or have requests we can’t meet? Those are all reasonable fears. I would argue, though, that it’s better to invite the momentary discomfort that comes from finding out something negative than it is to ignore it. When you know, you can do something. When you choose not to know, members walk away and you have no idea why.

In 2017, I would encourage your readers and listeners to start a formal program of regular audience conversations. There are lots of ways this can be accomplished: regular in-person or virtual focus groups, town hall style meetings or calls, tasking staff members or volunteers with calling one or more members a week, working with your chapters, setting up regular member visits, an emailed or online open-ended question of the week, doing Appreciative Inquiry style peer interviewing, hiring a consultant to conduct interviews, a mix of the above, etc. But regularly gathering and widely sharing this sort of information is vital for the long-term health of your organization and your relationships with your constituents.


Seven Keys to Great Testimonials

One of the best ways to promote your association and its programs, products, and services is to let your members, customers, audiences, and other stakeholders do it for you.

In other words, to use testimonials.

ASAE’s June 2010 Communications Section newsletter listed 7 key questions to ask to generate compelling testimonials:

  1. Why did you choose to participate with <your program>?
  2. What are your 3 favorite things about your participation and why?
  3. What’s the most valuable aspect of your participation and why?
  4. Please tell us about any specific success you’ve experienced because of your participation.
  5. How has your participation benefited your organization?
  6. Is there anything we could do to improve your experience?
  7. May we use your comments, with attribution? [VERY IMPORTANT]

So where do you find people who might be willing to answer these questions?

  • Your feedback forms, like post-conference and post-webinar evaluation forms. Make sure you have at least one open-ended question with a comment box (rather than all Likert scales), as people will often leave comments you can use almost verbatim once you have permission.
  • Your unsolicited praise. Did somebody say something nice about your programs, services, or customer service, either verbally or in writing? Ask them if you can use it.
  • Your loyal fans – and you probably already know who they are. When you’re looking to generate fresh testimonials, they should be the first people you ask.


More Tips to Improve Your Open Rate

Tips to help your blast emails shine, Part 2:

  •  Personalize it – It’s 2014. We all have the ability to send emails to “Dear Elizabeth” rather than “Dear Colleague” so be sure to call people by name.
  • Be a real person – Write like you would talk to someone, not like the first draft of a Business Communications 101 project.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms – This is hard in associations, but do your best and be sure to define any acronyms you do use.
  • Short paragraphs – People scan emails, so you need to write in a scanable way, which means short sentences and paragraphs. Even better? Bullet points!
  • Keep it short overall – This is not a scholarly treatise – or the last time you’ll ever speak to your reader. Keep your emails as short as possible while still conveying your message. Edit, edit, edit!
  • Call to action – What do you want your readers to do? If the answer is “nothing,” you probably don’t need to send the email in the first place. Always have a call to action, and if it includes a link (and it should), make sure you include the link more than once in your message.
  • TEST! Don’t just send it out – send a test run to a small group first to make sure everything’s showing up the way you think it should. Problems happen, and it’s WAY better to catch them in an email that went to five of your fellow staff members than when the message has gone to hundreds – or thousands – of your members.
  • Test it to more than just yourself, and more than just internal association email accounts (i.e., include a Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc. account in your test group). It’s really hard to spot your own mistakes, and you want to make sure that your email is going to look OK and get through even for people who aren’t using Outlook.

Get Part 1 here.

Matching Your Channel to Your Audience

One of the most important principles in creating successful multi-channel communications is to match your channel to your audience and your purpose.

  • Are you sharing information about something that’s open to the public? Use public channels like Facebook, Twitter, and unprotected areas of your website.
  • Are you sharing information about something that’s for your members only? Use member-only channels like your member enewsletter and member-only areas of your website.
  • Are you sharing information about something that’s available only to a sub-set of people? Use email or direct mail to target them precisely.

Remember, of course, that you always want to have a call to action, but it’s really important that the audience you’re talking to be able to answer your call.

(You might think: “This is totally obvious! Why are you posting this, Elizabeth?” You would not believe how many times I see associations posting links to login restricted information and resources on open social media channels.)

Five Tips to Write Better

I write a lot. Obviously, reading this, you know about the Spark blog (which started in 2008, long before Spark was even a twinkle in my eye, as the independent association blog Thanks for Playing). I also write whitepapers. And for other association industry publications. And I write a food blog. And I’m just kicking off my 9th consecutive season blogging about the NFL. And, to brag for a minute, I’m not too bad at it (writing, that is).

How does it happen? How does one become a passable writer?

  1. You have to read. One of the best ways to learn any skill is to apprentice to a master. Does that mean you should expect TC Boyle or Natalie Angier or Virginia Wolfe or Michel Foucault to tutor you personally? No (and Virginia and Michel are dead anyway). But you can learn from them by reading what they wrote. The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to read voraciously and widely: essays, articles, blogs, poetry, magazines, newspapers, short stories, novels, fiction, non-fiction. The surest way to get words to love you is to love them back.
  2. You have to know yourself. Where do your skills lie? What writing style suits you? What genre? Short or long? Opinion or research? Fiction or fact? Flip or earnest? How do you know? You have to experiment and find your voice. Which leads us to…
  3. You have to practice. Although Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours thing has been pretty much disproved, he was right about the fact that without focused, intentional practice, you’ll never get better at anything. You have to develop a writing practice. Err on the side of structure, at least initially: “I will write for 10 minutes only for myself every morning over my second cup of coffee. I can write about anything I want to, or nothing at all, but I have to write for 10 full minutes. I will do this six mornings a week for a month.” It doesn’t have to be precisely that structure, but you have to get into the habit of writing by making it a habit for as long as it takes.
  4. You have to learn. It’s extremely rare for people to be excellent writers immediately upon starting to write and in first draft form. In fact, it pretty much doesn’t happen. Ever. You need to develop a thick skin to be able to critique yourself and take criticism from others. Start by writing something a little more substantive than your morning 10 minutes, something that took a little more working, thinking, and research. Set it aside for at least a few days. Come back to it, and try to read it objectively, assessing both content (“what did I say?”) and form (“how well did I say it?”). After you’ve edited it, share it with someone you respect and ask for her feedback. When she gives it, don’t react – accept it, unpack it, learn from it, get better. It’s tough to improve without someone to help you see where you’re going wrong. Even pros have coaches.
  5. You have to be bold. Writing, particularly writing that you intend to share with another person, is scary. Putting your thoughts and ideas out into the world can feel an awful lot like taking Butterstick away from Mei Xiang and throwing him into the tiger enclosure at the zoo. You have to be willing to make public mistakes, occasionally look the fool, and withstand sometimes harsh (and unfair) judgement. But if you really want to do this, trust me, it’s worth it.

Finally, I’ve found a few resources that have helped me in developing as a writer: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldenberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. I won’t lie. All three are a little “woo-woo,” but the practices they recommend *will* help you develop your chops.