Velvet Rope or Come Party with Me?

group of people at a Holi celebration throwing gulal

Scene one: I’m in New Orleans on vacation wandering down Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny looking for a good place to hang out and hear some tunes on a Wednesday night. First stop: the Spotted Cat.  It was so packed I couldn’t get in the door (literally), so I hung out on the sidewalk with a WIDE mix of characters (and nobody does “characters” like NOLA) for a while enjoying the music wafting out…for free. At the band break, I decided to move on, and down the street, I heard the sweet strains of Shamarr Allen’s trumpet pouring out of Cafe Negril. There was a short line, as the guy at the door struggled to keep up making change for the $5 cover when everyone kept handing him $20s. When I got inside, the crowd ranged from middle aged and older white people to hipsters from the neighborhood to a “professional hugger” from Austin (Keep Austin Weird!) – all ages, all races, all styles of dress, everyone just hanging out and grooving to the Underdawgs. Vibe? Awesomesauce, even before the generous pour, reasonably priced cocktails.

Scene two: One of my spouse’s co-workers moonlights as a DJ in DC. He was spinning at a chi-chi lounge on a recent Saturday night, and we thought we’d swing by and see him. So we roll up only to spot a velvet rope, two scowling bouncers, and a LONG line. Vibe?  B-A-D BAD.  And totally unwelcoming.  And definitely *not* groovy.

So what’s the connection to associations?

  • What does your organization look like to an outsider?  Not someone on staff, not someone who’ s been a member for a million years, not someone who’s served on your Board – someone who doesn’t know you at all but might be interested in what you provide?
  • Are you welcoming to everyone or only to the “right” people?
  • Do you make it easy for people to get access to what they want and need, even if they aren’t an “insider”?
  • Do you let people participate at the level they want to, even if that’s the equivalent of standing on the banquette outside the club just grooving to the great tunes for free?
  • What’s your barrier to entry?
  • What’s your association’s reputation in your industry, profession, or community?
  • Are you affordable to people of lesser means or lower professional stature who might benefit from what you offer?

In short: Are you groovy or snooty?

Photo by Adam Whitlock on Unsplash

What if associations decided that sometimes, telling a member ‘no’ is an acceptable practice?

white "NO" on black background

What if (perish the thought!), we actually told members NO?

I actually suspect that most associations already do this, but we do it in the wrong way. We say “no” all the time. Only it’s called, “That’s against association policy.” Which, aside from “we’re out of bourbon,” might be my least favorite four words in the English language.

You know what “that’s against association policy” REALLY means?

  • “I’m only line staff – I’m not actually empowered to decide anything.”
  • “I don’t want to/feel like it.”
  • “Member service isn’t my job.”
  • “Some day, far in the dim, dark past, someone decided that we don’t that. I don’t know why. Just because.”
  • “We have always done it that way.” (my least favorite seven words in the English language, other than “by the way, also out of chocolate.”)

Members are absolutely NOT always right – they know the industry/profession, you know how to run your organization – but what if every request was considered on its merits, rather than whether or not it’s “against” some random policy that some person put in place some time ago for reasons known only to him? What if ALL levels of staff were allowed, even encouraged, to make decisions? What if we really measured what we’re doing on “does this serve the members?” (Not just *this* member, all members – which can help resolve conflicts when a member asks for something that would be bad if universalized.)

Giving every staff person the ability to make decisions implies that sometimes she might say no. Which means it’s really important to know how to say no in the right way.



“Because I said so.”

Not the right way to handle members.

“We can’t do X (and there better be a reason other than “Because you were mean to me and I don’t feel like helping you”), but we do want to make this right. What about Y instead?” Or “I can’t do that, but what else can we do to make this right?”

Get the member involved in producing a solution, and you’ll get her mind off the fact that you just said no to what she asked for and on to the fact that you’re working with her to resolve the situation. Detractors can become your most passionate fans/evangelists *if* you handle them right.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

What if associations required every staffer to cold-call one member each week just to connect and listen?

orange old-school rotary phone on a wooden desk

I am reupping this post from 2009 with only minor edits, because every word of it remains true.

What if EVERY staff member had to talk to members on a regular basis?

Despite the existence of the idea “Membership is Everyone’s Business,” too often, it’s really not. Membership retention, for most organizations, is the business of the membership department. If retention goes down, the membership staff gets blamed, even if the reason people are leaving is because, for instance, they hate the monthly magazine. Or they’ve decided to focus their energies on their local chapters. Or they’re organizing online. Or the annual meeting’s gotten too expensive. Or whatever.

(And, while we’re on it, why are we always so concerned with affixing blame? It’s pointless. It stifles innovation, because people think “cover your ass” not “come up with and try amazing new idea.” And it wastes time and mental energy that would be better spent FIXING the PROBLEM. But I digress…)

I was hired for my first association job as Director of Member Services and Technology not because I knew anything about associations or management, but because I was from the profession, and the executive director figured I’d empathize with the members. And she was right. And that was great, as far as it went. Which was as far as one staff person – me. Not far enough, by a long shot.

We all talk about the idea that we exist to serve members, meet their needs, and help them solve their problems. But most of us have no real idea what those things are. We do annual satisfaction surveys and listen to and repeat conventional wisdom and swear that we’ve been doing this long enough to know every little thing about our members, their industry or profession, and what’s best for them.


You know the easiest way to find out what people want and need? Ask them. And not in some Likert-scale driven survey way.

“Hi there, Member. This is Elizabeth calling from Association. If you have a few minutes to chat, I’d love to find out what’s going on in your professional life, and if you have any questions or comments about what’s we’re up to here at Association.”

What do you get? Information, sure, but also connection. Community. A source of new ideas. The feeling that the association cares about me. Early warning of problems that might be cropping up, whether in your industry, or related to your association.

And, more importantly, it’s unfiltered. This is not meant to imply ill intent to your membership staff (often the only staffers who have regular contact with members). But everyone filters information they receive through their own mental maps. And someone with a different map might interpret the same data differently.

How would your association benefit from deep understanding of your members, their goals and challenges, and the industry or profession you serve, spread widely across the entire organization? What could you do with that?

Would your members think differently about the association when the renewal notices show up or when they arrive at your annual meeting if they felt connected, not only to other members through the agency of the association, but to the association itself through contact with staff?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“It’s About Delight”

pile of smiley face cookies

Seth Godin recently had a sort of silly story about a recent experience at Whole Foods. Which is all well and good. But one thing particularly struck me:

“It’s not about charging less. It’s about delight.”

I want to emphasize that.

It’s about delight.

Stop and think about that for a minute.

I think we don’t focus enough on the concept of creating delight when we’re creating member experiences. We think about being polite on the phone, spelling their names right, getting the renewal invoices out on time, delivering the journals to the correct address, and putting together solid conferences and useful networking events. Tactical, mundane stuff that keeps the association running smoothly, but isn’t exactly earth-shattering.

Everybody knows changing your perspective and seeing things differently can help us come to new, more creative conclusions.

So what have you done not to serve, not to handle, not to shut up, but to delight your members lately?

When – if ever – was the last time you even gave that concept consideration?

What would the world look like for your organization and constituents if delight was your focus?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

1: Membership 101: The Welcome Series

Welcome in bright rainbow colors

And finally, coming in at #1 in the Spark All-Time Top 10 Blog Posts (and it wasn’t even close): Membership 101: The Welcome Series.

First written more than five years ago, this post remains the first or second most visited page on my entire website month after month (thanks, Google Analytics!).

Once again, I’m finding that the advice I provided, gleaned both from my own years as a membership director and my time working with clients, holds up: Create a drip campaign, mix your methods, keep it personal, focus on building a (hopefully long-term) relationship, and make sure you have calls to action to respond to and then pay attention to those responses.

In the interim, the lovely folks at Kaiser Insights and Dynamic Benchmarking have come out with two reports (one from 2018, and an update just released this fall) with data that backs up a lot of this advice, while also sharing some good practice metrics that my clients have found useful, such as:

  • 3-3-6 pacing: three communications in the first week, one a week for the remaining three weeks of the first month, then one a month for the next six months
  • 3-5 tactics: associations CAN use all kinds of tactics and platforms to communicate with (new and loyal) members, but you should probably stick with 3-5 so as not to spread your marcom team too thin, so you can develop expertise, and so your members know where to look for you

In fact, Amanda Kaiser just hosted a “launch party” for the updated study earlier this week, with Matchbox Virtual Media hosting many of the artifacts of that event.

As I’m thinking about how things have changed since the original post – and how they haven’t – I’m particularly intrigued by the responses to the “challenge questions” from the launch party (you’ll need to log into the Matchbox platform to get access to the Jamboards with the responses).

One of the biggest things that’s STILL holding associations back with regards to connecting with our newest members is: Most associations offer LOTS of benefits, but most members join for only a few of them.

The problem is, how do you learn which benefits any given member needs to help her solve her most important problems and achieve her biggest goals? 

Which gets back to my advice in the original post. You can do a great job creating a multi-channel drip campaign that shares your benefits (NOT features) one at a time and doesn’t ask your new member to spend more money too early, BUT if you aren’t paying attention to what happens next, you’ll never answer that important problems/biggest goals question, which means your new members will never get past that “awkward newbie” stage and connect both with the solutions your association provides and with the community of people you’ve gathered together (aka “the rest of your members”) that creates the magic that keeps them coming back year after year.

So yeah, you have to do the hard, unglamorous work of looking at your data periodically to see what messages on what platforms are resonating and with whom, and what actions are being taken and by whom, and then use that information to inform your next steps in relationship-building.

Or, as I closed out the original post:

[A]ctually 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.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Curiosity with a Purpose

As Zora Neale Hurston described it:

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

When you’re sponsoring a research study, one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make is what method(s) to use.

What are your choices?

  • Quantitative v. Qualitative
  • Primary v. Secondary

You also have some decisions to make about data collection. The choices there include:

  • Formal v. Informal
  • Active v. Passive

All of these choices have associated pros and cons.

For instance, surveys (quantitative primary research where the data collection is active and formal) provide numeric answers that can be described by levels of statistical significance and degrees of confidence (see yesterday’s post for more on that). That’s obviously a pro.

On the con side, because surveys provide reassuringly specific answers, it’s tempting to over-rely on them. They’re also more susceptible to design flaws that can introduce bias – and once the survey’s deployed, you can’t correct those errors without invalidating all the responses that have already come in.

So what’s the answer?

Download the new Spark collaborative whitepaper Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research to find out!

“P-Value”? What’s a “P-Value”?

And why should you care?

Associations generate a lot of original research, but association execs also use a lot of research created by other entities both to assess the internal operations of the association as a tax-exempt business and to understand what’s happening in the industry or profession the association serves.

And let’s face it: Lots of research terms are pretty jargon-y. P-values and margin of error and confidence interval and representative versus purposeful samples, oh my!

It’s easy to find yourself glazing over in the methods section of the study you’ve chosen, ignoring it all together, or just deciding not to worry about what it reports.

That would be a mistake.

All those things directly affect the validity of the study and the results presented, results which we use every day to make decisions for our associations and the professions and industries we serve.

Quoting the new Spark collaborative whitepaper Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research:

Good research does not guarantee good decisions, but it certainly helps. And bad research, barring getting lucky and guessing right, almost inevitably leads to bad decisions.

We want you to have everything you need to make good decisions, so in Caveat Emptor, my co-author Polly Karpowicz and I provide plain English explanations of key terms in research design so that you can build your information literacy muscles and choose wisely what research you will – and won’t – trust.

Get your free copy at, no divulging of information about yourself required.


Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics?

Association execs consume – and produce – a lot of research in our day-to-day work, but most of us don’t have formal training in research. A lot of the language of research programs– p-values and confidence intervals and margins of error – can be pretty jargony, and some of the concepts behind what makes for good (or less good) research can be challenging for people who haven’t had the opportunity to take a graduate level methods course.

How can you be sure that the research you’re using or sponsoring is giving you the insight you need to make good decisions? How can you protect your association’s reputation as a trusted source of unbiased information for the profession or industry you serve?

In the latest Spark collaborative whitepaper, Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research, Polly Karpowicz, CAE and I tackle the sometimes thorny issue of what you need to know to be a savvy consumer and sponsor of research even if you DON’T have a formal background in research methods or much formal training (which, let’s be honest, most of us don’t).

The whitepaper also includes:

  • An interview with Dr. Sharon E. Moss, co-editor (with Sarah C. Slater) of The Informed Association: A Practical Guide to Using Research for Results, on ethical practices in research.
  • An interview with Dr. Joyce E. A. Russell, The Helen and William O’Toole Dean at Villanova School of Business, on developing discernment in assessing research.
  • An interview with Jeff Tenenbaum, Managing Partner at Tenenbaum Law Group PLLC, on avoiding antitrust liability.
  • Case studies with the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Casualty Actuarial Society, and IEEE.
  • A plain English review of key research terms, and a brief explanation of the rules of formal logic (and how they affect research work).
  • Recommendations for books, articles, websites, podcasts, and courses you can use to improve your research skills.
  • A series of thought questions for you to use to spark discussion with your team.
  • An extensive list of resources in case you want to dig deeper on any of the topics addressed.

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper more in the coming days, highlighting some of our major findings, 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 some of the other FREE Spark collaborative whitepapers, too, on topics ranging from content curation to digital transformation, blockchain, DEI, lean startup, member-centric engagement, and more!

7: Membership 101: Exit Surveys

neon blue "exit" sign

In position number 7 of the top ten all time Spark blog posts: Membership 101: Exit Surveys.

(I told you the Membership 101 series would be back!)

Once again, the advice in the initial post remains solid. To this day, I regularly recommend conducting an exit survey as part of client projects, or as something they should start doing on their own after we’re done, or both.

It’s important to remember that exit surveys are not a formal statistically valid instrument – they’re a pulse check.

That said, they can, as I wrote nearly four years ago, provide useful clues to emerging problems with your member value proposition, as well as providing one last chance to recapture folks who might not have realized they lapsed.

One thing I would like to highlight that I missed in the initial post is: Are people leaving for reasons that are under your control or NOT under your control?

“I left the profession” is a good example of the second. “A customer service staff person was rude to me” is a good example of the first.

You genuinely can’t do anything about the someone leaving the profession. That person is appropriately gone from membership, and all you can do is wish her good luck in her new ventures.

For the second example, that’s a clue for further investigation. But don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the staffer in question needs to be retrained – or fired. Maybe the member is just a jerk (it happens). Maybe you’ve set up a system that’s rewarding the wrong behaviors (i.e., how many complaints the staff person can handle in a day, how quickly the staff person can conclude the interaction). Maybe your customer service team is under-staffed, or you’ve tasked them with responsibility (to fix problems) without authority (to actually do anything meaningful about problems). Or maybe that person – or the entire team – needs refresher training on things like empathy, listening, follow through, warm handoffs, checking back in to ensure the problem was solved, and how to debrief as a team effectively.

But many reasons are not so clear-cut. Example: “My employer stopped paying for my dues.”

Is that under your control?

Well, no – you can’t make any given employer pay employees’ association membership dues.

But also, yes – what you’re offering isn’t valuable enough that the employee is willing to pay out of her own pocket. Why is that?

In short, keep running those exit surveys, and keep looking for clues to the *next* question you should ask based on what you learn.

Photo by Dustin Tramel on Unsplash



8: Membership 101: Effective Renewal Cycles

In position number 8 of the top ten all time Spark blog posts: Membership 101: Effective Renewal Cycles.

(Spoiler alert: you’re going to see more of the Membership 101 series posts in the countdown.)

When I reviewed the initial post, I realized everything I wrote still holds four years later. I still walk clients through this process today in creating renewal campaigns, answering questions about goals, audience(s), offer, message, tactics/platforms, resources, schedule and responsibilities, and metrics on the way to creating our campaign plan working document, because EVERY campaign is a working document.


Ideally, you’re going to learn and adjust as you go, devoting more resources to what’s demonstrably working and reducing or eliminating what isn’t. (On a related note, this is why clients often include an implementation retainer – it’s a lot easier to stay on track and actually do real-time evaluation when you have an accountability buddy asking you about those things every week or two.)

After ten years at this (plus my MANY years as association membership staff before launching Spark), what have I learned about where things generally go wrong?


We always run into problems with data, either because we don’t have data we need (or would like) or we can’t use the data we have.

Goals: Associations may struggle to know, with any degree of precision, what their retention rate is, or has been over time. That makes it hard to set a realistic goal.

Audiences: Associations may not know much about their audience, other than that they’re the members who are currently due to renew, when it’s really useful to know how long they’ve been members (first time renewals generally need a little extra attention), what programs, products, and services they have – and haven’t – been using, where they are in their careers/lives, what their normal renewal behavior is, what platform(s) they prefer to communicate with the association on, who else might be involved in the decision to renew, etc. The more you know about your audiences, the better you can segment them and target your messaging to be most effective.

Offer: Associations may not know what persuades – it’s not always discounts – or what’s worked in the past. As an example, a client recently tried offering a drawing to get MORE of their most visible and valuable benefit (it’s a metered program) for those who renewed right at the beginning of the cycle, and we saw a HUGE bump in members who renewed off that first month’s communications, which has all sorts of compounding benefits for the rest of the cycle, not least of which is that staff has fewer slowpokes to chase later on.

Message: Likewise, associations may be unclear about who they’re trying to persuade. Is the member herself? Her boss? Her finance department? Her spouse? They may also not know what persuades – it’s not always WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). As an example, I had a client recently where the most effective message in our renewal series was one that talked about contributing to the good of the entire professional community. I know that type of messaging is supposed to be passé, but I’m here to tell you, it still works for some audiences.

Tactics: Associations may not know what platforms get the best response, aka “Just because your members are on Facebook (or Instagram or TikTok or whatever platform arises between the time I type this and when I hit “publish” in ten minutes) doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be WITH YOU on Facebook.” Another example: a lot of associations have stopped sending any type of print renewal notice, particularly since COVID with a lot of people at home rather than in an office and the association maybe not having those home addresses. And their renewal rates have dropped, because even though associations enjoy a significantly higher email open rate than pretty much any other industry, it still runs around 35%. Multichannel campaigns FTW, my friends.

And the thing is, we often don’t discover these gaps until we’re putting together the campaign or even running it, when we find we can’t easily track what’s happening in real time so we can make adjustments, because the association’s various tech systems and platforms don’t talk to each other, which makes that whole “who’s going to do what when?” conversation a little tricky, and makes measuring what happened, and documenting it so we can do better next time, even MORE tricky. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, as we now know where the gaps and problems lie and can begin addressing them by work arounds, working with vendors, or changing systems.