Happy Fabulous Five, Spark!

Floral design - Flower

Today marks five years since I launched Spark Consulting. As I look back on the past five years, I have much to be grateful for. Leading that list is all the people who’ve contributed to the success of this Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

First, I have to thank all my wonderful clients. Spark would not exist without each and every one of you. I particularly want to thank the American Chemical Society, my very first client, for being willing to take a risk on hiring the new kid in town, and Ross Simons for making the connection between a brand-new consultant and her first lead. Over the years, many of my clients have referred me to their colleagues and/or hired me again for additional projects. I can’t express how grateful I am for their confidence in me and my work.

Back in late 2011, I was working for the Children’s Hospitals Association. I’d been there for a few years and was starting to think about my next move. At the time, I was thinking it would be my first CEO position, leading a small association. I’d been in the biz for 14 years at that point, had my CAE and an MA, had worked in a wide variety of functional areas in association management leading a variety of different types and sizes of teams, and had even served as an acting CEO for a small association. I started applying for those types of positions, despite the fact that when I mentioned I was looking for my next gig, the nearly universal response was, “So you’re launching your own consulting business, right?” I want to thank Shira Harrington (Purposeful Hire) for being the one who helped me understand that being a consultant would be a better path for me.

Maddie Grant, Lindy Dreyer, and Jamie Notter came over to my house on a cold winter afternoon and helped me figure out what I wanted to call this new consulting business, how I wanted to frame the work I wanted to do, how brand Spark and myself, and brainstormed my clever URL (in which a discussion about “GetMeJamieNotter” led to “GetMeSpark”).

When I was starting out, I was fortunate to be invited to join a Mastermind Group that served as my kitchen cabinet, pushed me to define my goals, and helped me think through how to overcome the barriers to achieving them. Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Shira Harrington, KiKi L’Italien, and Sohini Baliga kept me on the right path during those critical first two years.

One of the most useful things I learned studying for the CAE 14 years ago was to know what you are – and aren’t – good at, and make sure to surround yourself with great people who know and can do what you can’t. I’ve been fortunate to work with four outstanding vendors on the tasks I can’t do for myself: Bean Creative for my website, ImagePrep for all my graphic design needs, Andrew Mirsky (Mirsky Law Group) for all my contracts and other legal needs, and Moran & Company for bookkeeping, accounting, and tax advice and planning.

My original career goal, back in college, was to be a university professor. I’ve always loved research and writing, particularly long-form essays. One of the most personally and professionally fulfilling things I’ve been able to do since launching Spark is the Spark collaborative white paper series. I now have the freedom to research and write, diving into topics that interest me and that I think are important for our industry.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a host of fantastic contributors for the nine existing monographs: Jeff De Cagna, George Breeden, Tom Lehman, Jamie Notter, Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Peter Houstle, Anna Caraveli, Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, Shelly Alcorn, Polly Siobhan Karpowicz, Tracy Petrillo, Sherry Marts, Joe Gerstandt, Jess Pettitt, and Joan Eisenstodt.

I also want to thank the many association executives who were willing to share the stories of their organizations’ work, struggles, and triumphs in the case studies that illustrate many of the concepts the white papers discuss.

Thanks also go to Alison Dixon (Image Prep), who’s done all the beautiful layout and graphic work on the white papers, and to copy editors Ed Lamb and Joe Rominiecki, who’ve done their level best to save me from my typos and grammatical errors.

The association consulting community more broadly has also served as a tremendous source of inspiration, help, and advice over the years. Many association consultants have generously given of their time and expertise to answer my questions, point me in the direction of resources I need, or just generally help me to buck up when things aren’t going as I’d like them to with the business. We may be competitors, at least on occasion, but we are a community and we help each other out, and that’s priceless.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have to thank my spouse, Jim. When I came home from that fateful lunch with Shira nearly six years ago, I was nervous. As far as he knew, the plan was to land a CEO position, with the attendant salary, benefits, and security. I knew I was about to announce that I might want to throw all that over in favor of the risk, excitement, and uncertainty of launching my own business. This change in direction would have a dramatic effect on him and his life as well, and I didn’t know how he’d respond.

When I told him what had happened over lunch and what I was thinking, he responded: “I think that’s a great idea. I think you’d be a terrific solo consultant. You should definitely do that.”

“Well damn,” I thought. “If he’s that confident, what in the hell am I so worried about?”

Five years later, here we are. It’s been a thrilling, challenging, amazing, terrifying journey so far. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.

Photo by Peedee on Unsplash

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

Recapping the Outside-In Engagement #Assnchat

Anna Caraveli (The Demand Networks) and I had the opportunity to guest moderate #assnchat on Tuesday, July 14, with discussion focused around the issues we raise in our new whitepaper, Leading Engagement from the Outside-In (download your free copy at http://bit.ly/1GPNUM6).

In case you missed it, here’s a recap of the high points of the conversation.

Q1 How do you currently learn about your audiences? How do you share that knowledge internally?

People up brought up a lot of the usual suspects: demographic data collection, emails, calls, surveys, focus groups, online profiles/subscriptions, and event evaluations.

Partners in Association Management had a great response:

Q2 How are you capturing and sharing learning from less formal interactions?

Brandon Robinson asked:

We all agreed that it did, and Lowell Apelbaum added:

Partners in Association Management also keeps something they call “back pocket lists”: good ideas that couldn’t be implemented at the time someone came up with them that they reserve for a more suitable time.

Q3 What do you know about the outcomes your audiences seek? How are you helping them achieve those outcomes?

This question launched some observations about different generations in the workforce and the association having different goals, with Karen Hansen also pointing out:

We also talked about the whole “what keeps you up at night?” question (which is one of Anna’s favorites), and Lowell Apelbaum observed:

Q4 How do you discover what your audiences really value? How do you use that information?

People had lots of good suggestions here, ranging from pilot programs to trial and error, asking them, tracking behavior, observing what they spread/share/talk about/promote, and Ewald Consulting went kind of Zen Master on us:

That’s deep, man.


Q5 How do you facilitate building authentic relationships w your audiences? Between members?


Lots of great chatter here, too, but Karen Hansen had a simple, powerful response:

Treat members like human beings?!?! Radical concept!

Q6 How do you develop new products/programs/services? How do you collaborate with members on this?

Lowell (who was really on a roll today) had another great response for this one:

When we got to question 7, we kind of heard crickets:


Q7 How do you encourage collaboration between audiences and association? Among members?


Opinion was pretty much universal that this is a big struggle for associations. Kait Solomon pointed out:

Q8 How do you currently define engagement? Is your definition adequate/satisfactory?

Where Kait also observed that “engagement” has become a buzzword, and I quoted Ed Bennett, who recently pointed out that if there’s no ring involved, we probably need to stop talking about engagement and focus on what we really mean: conversation, talking, listening, relationship.

Q9 What do you do with members once you engage them? What’s the next step/goal?

I’m going back to Lowell again:

Our final question, which is the challenge I’m going to leave you with, too was:

Q10 What is one action you could take today to start your association on the path to outside-in engagement?

Not sure how to answer that? Check out the whitepaper at http://bit.ly/1GPNUM6 to get some ideas!

Leading Engagement from the Outside-In

I’m excited to share the launch of the sixth whitepaper in the ongoing Spark whitepaper series, Leading Engagement from the Outside-In: Become an Indispensable Partner in Your Members’ Success.

Co-authored with Anna Caraveli (The Demand Networks), the whitepaper tackles the question: if engagement is so critical to associations (and we would argue that it is), why aren’t we doing a better job of it?

Of course, associations have always been “about” engagement, and in the past several years, we’ve had a renewed focus on engaging our members and other audiences. The thing is, most of us aren’t really doing it well. Could that be because we’ve been thinking about engagement all wrong, focusing on what we want members to do and how we define value? Leading Engagement from the Outside-In describes a radical shift in our understanding of engagement, one based on an approach that encourages us to view the world from our audiences’ perspective, focus on the outcomes they want to achieve, build authentic relationships, and harness the power of collaboration to co-create the value our organizations provide.

Speaking of, I’ll be blogging more about the whitepaper in the coming days, but in the meantime, pick up your free copy at http://bit.ly/1GPNUM6, no divulging of information about yourself required.

Don’t forget to check out the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too: