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

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?

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.

Membership Marketing on a Shoestring

I’m presenting on the topic above at the Events By Design Small Staff Association workshop today, and while it’s too late to join us, I thought I could share my best membership marketing tips for small staff associations (aka “the handout”) with everyone.

Find a complimentary organization or two, and swap member lists, swap magazine ads, swap e-newsletter promotions, swap banner ads, swap conference attendance/booths/speaking spots, etc.

It takes time, but you can do personalized, segmented HTML emails using some very simple shareware tools, some skill, and a little legwork. It doesn’t require subscription to RealMagnet or Constant Contact, etc. (although that does make things WAY easier).

Word of Mouth! 
Who are your passionate members and volunteers? If you know, ask them to spread the word about the exciting things you’re doing (you are doing exciting things for them, right?). If you don’t know, FIND OUT!

Customer Service! 
Don’t underestimate the value of excellent customer service at every level, from the CEO to the mail clerk. Retention is even more important than recruitment – it’s a much lower cost, higher value transaction. “How can we serve our members better today than we did yesterday?”

Little Things Mean a Lot! 
Get the invoices out on time. Track who’s paid and who hasn’t paid. Proof read all written communications. Test your emails to make sure your links work. Double-check to make sure your return address (snail- or email) is correct in your marketing materials.

What Do You Mean You Don’t Want Me?

Last week, the ASAE annual meeting proposal notices came out. Some of us got in, some of us didn’t, and some got a little of both.

Now there are half joking – but that also means half serious – conspiracy theories floating around about certain people or groups being intentionally excluded.

I think we have a mote and beam problem here.

How many of our organizations are open about our selection criteria for our conferences?

  • Does being a frequent presenter count for you – or against you?
  • Do we consider old scores?
  • What does having a “name” in your field get you?
  • Are there unwritten rules?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

sxsw takes an interesting approach: people vote on the sessions they want to see (ASAE has incorporated elements of this in the past, too). Sure, that can turn things into a popularity contest, but popular vote isn’t the whole story, and it helps attendees feel connected to the event.

What can you do at your organization to be more transparent about why people are accepted or rejected for volunteer service, conference presentations, magazine articles, etc.?