Engagement: You’re Doing It Right!

Engagement: You’re Doing It Right!

One of the other hot topics on the engagement virtual panel Mary Byers had organized for the Veterinary Medical Association on April 22 was: Who’s doing member engagement well, and what can we learn from them?

A few years ago, Anna Caraveli and I wrote Leading from the Outside-In, in which we describe what member-centric engagement looks like, enumerate eight keys to member-centric engagement, and profile 11 different membership organizations that are doing a great job at it.

Some of those were “big” stories, organizations that had completely transformed themselves, or were built from the ground up, as member-centric: the National Grocers’ Association, the Society for Hospital Medicine, SERMO, and The Community Roundtable. But most of the stories we shared were of associations that had transformed one program, one service, and were using that as a springboard to further change: American MENSA’s SIGs (special interest groups), the Homebuilders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut’s awards program, the Hydraulic Power Association’s standards locator, etc.

Even in one of the first collaborative white papers I produced, The Mission-Driven Volunteer, with Peggy Hoffman, we shared the story of the Oncology Nursing Society, where they were able to go from 1:26 active volunteer members to 1:5. THAT is an engagement success story.

Growing up, my dad was a big fan of Saturday morning PBS educational shows (This Old House, The Victory Garden, and the like), and there’s a running joke in my family about a gazebo-making machine into which you feed a tree and a fully assembled gazebo pops out the other end. The thing is, engagement is more like on the New Yankee Workshop, with master carpenter Norm Abram: Every project is unique, and requires attention to detail and a specific application of the materials and tools at hand.

What’s my point?

Every engagement success story is different and unique to the audiences that association is serving. There isn’t some sort of Universal Association Answer to Engagement, there’s only your audiences, their challenges and goals, and what your association can do to be their go-to solution provider.

Because that’s what I want for you.

Too many associations are a “nice to have” not a “need to have.” Being a “nice to have” is enough when times are good, but when times get tough (professionally or personally), people drop a “nice to have.” I want your association to be a vital partner in your members’ and other audiences’ success, and absolute dedication to a member-centric perspective is the way to get there.

Engagement Lessons from the Pandemic

Engagement Lessons from the Pandemic

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to appear on a virtual panel on engagement, organized by Mary Byers, for the Veterinary Medical Association. We covered a wide range of topics, a few of which I think others would benefit from thinking about, so I’ll be doing a few related blog posts.

Of course, the pandemic was top of mind for everyone. As vaccination rates rise, people (including your members and other audiences) are cautiously poking their heads out of their pandemic hibernation, trying to figure out what “normal” will look like going forward.

How has the future of association engagement changed as a result of the pandemic?

The story associations have always told ourselves is that we’re slow moving and cautious, wary of making too many changes too quickly.

During the pandemic, we learned that that story is not true and it never had to be.

Associations had the opportunity, and have taken it, to tell ourselves a new story about how we can operate, making decisions quickly, experimenting, trying new things, not expecting everything to be perfect all the time, and having compassion for our members and that compassion being reciprocated.

The key is going to be not forgetting that new, better story. We have to keep exercising the new muscles that allowed us to move quickly and be experimental and accepting. We were willing to try things that might not be 100% perfect, and nobody freaked out. Remember that.

The pandemic had uneven effects: some associations enjoyed increased member engagement while others have been deeply challenged. As we finally eye a post-pandemic future, what would you advise association professionals to be thinking about?

Your members’ goals and challenges are shifting rapidly. They’ve almost certainly changed dramatically from what they were in 2019. What you knew – or think you knew – about your members 18 or 12 or even six months ago is likely no longer accurate.

You can’t rely solely, or even heavily, on your board of directors to tell you what’s up. They’re partial “insiders,” so they know too much about the internal workings of your association. Their member experience is neither representative nor typical. Even their professional or industry experience is usually not typical, as people who are more senior or prominent in the profession or industry you serve are almost certainly over-represented.

You have to get out there and talk to your members and other audiences and find out what’s going on with them, and a 1-5 Likert scale satisfaction survey is not going to cut it. Their operating environment has shifted MUCH too radically.

Relatedly, the pandemic taught us all a lot about being more human with each other.

For example: There’s a well-known video of Professor John Kelly’s kids interrupting his interview with the BBC, and it was *quite* the scandal because it happened in March 2017.  After 14+ months of working from home and endless Zoom meetings, now people get mad if you reference your dog or cat and they DON’T make an appearance on your video call.

This has provided a wonderful opportunity for colleagues to be real with each other, and stop pretending like we’re all WorkBot 9000 8+ hours a day, with no personal lives or family relationships or human needs.

Well, guess what? Your members and other audiences are real people, too.

Hopefully, in the pandemic year, you’ve had the opportunity to begin to get to know them as people (and vice versa), and to better understand their fears, hopes, goals, and problems. As we move forward, continue to expand that human understanding, and seek to operate, in your programs, products, and especially services, from that place.

What have you learned, in your association, about engagement during the pandemic that you want to carry forward into the After Times, whatever they turn out to look like?

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Rethinking Revenue: Your Membership Plan

webinar information - Rethinking Your Membership Plan, PIA Case Study, Wednesday, September 30

What happens when your membership plan becomes reality?

Join me and Dana Anaman (National Association of Professional Insurance Agents) Wednesday, September 30 at 10 am ET as we take you through our journey to increase membership for the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents. We’ll discuss how we approached membership recruitment, onboarding, engagement, retention, and renewal – the full membership lifecycle – to increase membership.

In this session, you’ll learn:

  • How we created a membership plan for PIA and what we thought was going to happen
  • What really happened when PIA began implementing this membership campaign
  • What PIA learned and how we’ve pivoted as a result
  • The results we achieved to increase memberships

Missed the session? No worries – you can view the free recording here.

Hosted by: Atigro, Charles River CFO, Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires, and Social Innovation Forum

What’s Blockchain?

And why should associations care?

Shelly Alcorn (Ubiquity University and Alcon Associates Management Consulting) and I will be presenting for CalSAE on The Perils and Promise of Blockchain Wednesday, September 30.

“Hm,” you may be thinking, “I’m not IN California. Why is Elizabeth telling me this?”

Because CalSAE’s annual ELEVATE meeting has been converted into a series of Virtual Summits taking place for four consecutive Wednesdays in September, starting September 9.

  • Building Capacity – Wednesday, September 9
  • The Essentials – Wednesday, September 16
  • Thriving Associations – Wednesday, September 23
  • Trends Watch – Wednesday, September 30 (that’s when Shelly and I are presenting)

Quoting the CalSAE Virtual Summits site:

The buzz is unmistakable. The next technological wave is beginning to crest and blockchain is leading the way. Advocates claim it will revolutionize trust on the internet and, perhaps counterintuitively, lead to more privacy for individuals. Detractors have concerns about misuse, security, and what the overall socio-economic impact may be of blockchain being deployed at scale. Is it all just hype? How can we develop a better understanding of how blockchain may impact us as individuals and leaders of organizations? In this session, we’ll answer those questions, talk about what blockchain is and how the technology works, discuss how it’s going to affect the association industry, and provide a roadmap for associations to use as they begin to help their members prepare for the impacts of this disruptive technology on their industries and professions.

Shelly and I pre-recorded the session, which is based on our recent free whitepaper of the same title, so we’ll be able to be active in the chat with participants. That means: Come ready with your questions about blockchain, because we’ll be ready to answer them!

Learn more about all the sessions on all four Wednesdays and register for one or all four here.

Are You Ready to SURGE?

I’m excited to share that I’ll be speaking at Association Success’s inaugural SURGE virtual event, November 7-9.

SURGE 2017 session graphic lean startup Ann Mei Chang Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate Elizabeth Engel

Around the world, thousands of association professionals confront the same challenges. We all have insights to offer on how to grow, adjust, adapt and innovate.

SURGE 2017 is designed to bring all these challenges and voices together under one virtual roof to have a productive and meaningful conversation around innovation. SURGE 2017 participants will have exclusive access to sessions centered on transformative, forward-thinking solutions to the challenges we all encounter.

The sessions will be pre-recorded and played at set times in the Association Success platform. Meanwhile attendees will be able to communicate simultaneously with both each other and the speakers. We want to see what happens when we foster participation and knowledge-sharing amongst thousands of people, with each individual thinking and talking collaboratively.

My session, scheduled to run Thursday, November 9 from noon – 1 pm ET, will be on using lean startup methodology in the association industry and will feature my Innovate the Lean Way co-author Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, CIO at the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) and Ann Mei Chang, Executive Director of Lean Impact.

But the adventure into collaborative innovation begins long before the event.  Immediately upon registration, you can connect with likeminded individuals in the forum, contribute to the idea box, participate by answering a session-related question, and absorb expert insights on the blog.

The aim of SURGE 2017 is to spark collaborative innovation. Click here for more information or to reserve your free spot at the summit now!

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.

Membership Marketing on a Shoestring Budget, NAHB-Style

I had the opportunity to present Membership Marketing on a Shoestring Budget for the National Association of Home Builders’ Association Leadership Institute earlier this week. As usual, when I deliver this session, I solicit great inexpensive marketing ideas from the participants as well. Here’s what the chapter leader smarties at NAHB came up with:


  • Swap a trade show booth for an association need (like decorating or landscaping for your new office)
  • Trade a membership for ad space, or a service (like with your local Better Business Bureau to handle conflict mediation for your members)
  • Give a firm a sponsorship in exchange for reduced rent, or for providing incentive prizes for a membership contes


  • Automate your blog content posting into an e-newsletter – for bonus points, let your members set their preferences for topics they’d like to hear about, and send PERSONALIZED e-newsletters
  • Run email contests to inculcate a culture of paying attention (like old radio contests – everyone who responds by a certain time will get a certain prize) – this one led to a 45% open rate on all association blast emails, which is damn impressive
  • Pay attention to your open rates, and send emails when your members are receptive to them


  • If you have a great member program that saves them a significant amount of money (maybe even more than their dues?), ask members to share their stories
  • Create member discount reminder cards like you get for becoming a member of your local public radio or TV station
  • Create your association’s TV channel on YouTube, and interview members (short, sweet, interesting) for it – they’ll tell their friends
  • Generate some excitement around your Member Get a Member campaign with outstanding prizes and public recognition (nothing like a little competition/peer pressure)

Customer Service!

  • Educate and train your staff
  • No passing the buck – if you don’t know the answer, find out
  • Remind people that the best thing to do if the problem is your fault is admit it, and move to solutions
  • Educate your members to share information
  • Show appreciation for them

Your Tips!

  • Use YouTube creatively – do member on-site visits, get them to provide short how-to videos
  • Engage students in your field – they might have a service they can provide in exchange for a free membership
  • Engage students NOT in your field – could you work with a marketing student on new collateral, save money by paying her at a lower rate, and help her get experience in the process?
  • Visit your members, ask for their feedback ALL THE TIME (and do something with it) – create a REAL relationship
  • Educate yourself about your members’ operating environments


Are You a Student or an Attendee?

Thanks to the efforts of Jeff Hurt (among others), those of us who speak frequently in the association world are well aware of the principles of adult learning, particularly those around frequent, active participation, engagement, being solution-oriented, providing content in small chunks with ample opportunity for practical application, etc.

And yet I know I’m not the only one who works to incorporate those sorts of things into presentations, even warning people at the beginning of sessions that they’re going to be highly interactive and sharing an agenda up front that includes active learning exercises, only to get dinged in evaluations for not standing there and talking at the room for an hour.

“But everything I know about adult learning tells me they want and need all that interaction and activity! Why don’t they?!?”

This morning on the subway, I was reading a recent New Yorker article profiling author Jennifer Weiner. One of the events it covers is a presentation she gave for the Renfrew Center Foundation, so the audience would likely be mostly clinicians who treat people with eating disorders. But her presentation, which was reported to have gone over very well, was of the inspirational life story variety. Which struck me as odd. Wouldn’t doctors want scientific presentations? Also, Lauren Hefner and I presented the Membership Development course for ASAE’s Association Management Week yesterday. The course intentionally incorporates some adult learning principles, the two of us worked in even more, and, by all reports, it went over well.

Putting the two together, I had a small epiphany: what if it comes down to the difference between between being a student and being an attendee?

What difference?

Students are there to LEARN. Attendees – at least some of them – are there to BE ENTERTAINED. And if what you’re expecting is to sit there for an hour and be told a nice story, and the person in the front of the room is asking you to engage and think and interact, that session is not meeting your expectations. A little over a year ago, I had a total crash-and-burn, salt-the-earth speaking experience that foundered on exactly this problem.

What does this mean for conference organizers and the speakers they line up? I think it’s important to try to figure out which type of audience you have, and choose/inform your speakers accordingly. And what if events offered “passive” and “active” tracks, in addition to subject area tracks? We’d probably have to come up with a better name for them, though. Maybe “traditional” and “interactive”?

Frequent speakers, what do you think? Am I on to something here? If so, what do we do about it?

Image Credit: Best Clip Art Blog

Marketing Masterstrokes

Yesterday, Kristina Twigg (Water Environment Federation), Lauren Wolfe (Higher Logic), and I presented on marketing your private online community at the Higher Logic Users’ Group Super Forum.

Kristina, Lauren, and I each shared our own tips for marketing community (contained in the slides below), and then we led a crowdsourcing exercise to elicit additional private community marketing advice from Higher Logic clients and users:

  • Make business cards with your community URL to hand out. Advanced tip? Have a laminating machine at your conference so people can make luggage tags with your community card on one side and their own business card on the other.
  • Have a solid strategy for roll out (and K.I.S.S.).
  • Do at least ONE mailing (maybe a postcard?) about your new community.  If your members have unsubbed your mailing list, you won’t be able to get them via email.
  • Have a mobile app for the community? Use QRC for easy app download.
  • Encourage people to upload profile pictures. Send “is this you?” messages with a blank head outline periodically.
  • Pre-populate the login “remember me” box – make people opt *out* rather than having to opt in.
  • Start a blog series to attract attention.
  • Include a regular “most discussed in our community” feature in your other communications pieces (like enewsletters).
  • If your listservs are still live, link to them in the appropriate communities so the information is searchable.


Attention Doesn’t Scale

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present on the topic Attention Doesn’t Scale: The Role of Content Curation in Membership Associations for the Indiana Society of Association Executives. As a component of that presentation, and with Jeff De Cagna‘s advice and assistance, I wrote a white paper on the same topic.

This week, I’m going to be blogging about what’s in the white paper.

My basic premise was:

  1. Information overload, while not a new problem, has gotten so much more severe in the last few decades as to turn a difference in quantity into a difference in kind.
  2. Membership associations are making this problem worse for our members.
  3. But we don’t have to. Switching from an information creation mindset to an information curation mindset is one potential way out of our dilemma.

I’ll be writing  more about each of these points in turn this week, but in the meantime, please pick up a free copy of the white paper at http://bit.ly/WVpP4a.