Is Growth Necessarily Good?

For membership associations, total membership count tends to be one of the key pieces of data we report to our senior leadership, our Board, and often publicly. And up is always better, right?

Not necessarily.

First of all, to quote the Spark/Mariner Getting to the ‘Good Stuff’: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations:

More members may be better up to a point, but beyond that you risk bringing in marginal members whose commitment to your mission is incidental at best, whose contribution to your community will be minimal, and whose acquisition and renewal costs will exceed their marginal revenue. In other words, they’ll be a drain on your association’s resources.

(Joe Rominiecki talked about this concept recently in Associations Now, too.)

This is all focused on growing your market share, that is, getting more customers.

But there’s also the concept of growing your customer share, that is, getting your customers to have a larger relationship with you – to buy more stuff and be more involved.

Harvard Business Review recently highlighted this same trend in looking at “super consumers.”

“But my most involved members already are, well, really involved. They aren’t going to buy more, are they?”

Actually, they will. To quote HBR:

…superconsumers represent 10% of a category’s customers but account for 30% to 70% of sales and an even higher share of profits.

Admittedly, their study focused on consumer brands. But it reiterates a message associations would benefit from, one that I’ve written about before:

Assume you have 10,000 members. Your annual meeting regularly sees 500 attendees, at $500 a pop. Based on past attendance, your actual number of prospective attendees is about 1,000. And you have a $10,000 marketing budget.

Most of us proceed to blast undifferentiated messages out to the entire 10,000 members. Which means we can spend $1 per member trying to get people to our conference. What if, instead, we focused that $10,000 and our staff time ONLY on the 1000 prospects who are likely to attend? All of a sudden, we’re only managing 1000 contacts, not 10,000, and we have $10 per prospect to market the conference. What if those focused, high-impact messages aimed only at truly likely attendees could increase conference attendance from 500 to 700? At $500 a head, that’s an additional $100,000.

In other words, pay more attention to your super consumers, who are, again according to HBR:

…defined by both economics and attitude: They are a subset of heavy users who are highly engaged with a category and a brand. They are especially interested in innovative uses for the product and in new variations on it. They aren’t particularly price sensitive. (emphasis added)

These are the people who aren’t just members or attendees or readers – they LOVE your association and are willing to offer their time, expertise, and innovative ideas to make it better.

What are you doing to find them, to nurture them, and to let them know you appreciate them? Maybe if we all got off our “growth in (marginal?) membership, no matter what” hamster wheels, we could find out.


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

Innovate Like DARPA

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is known for innovation. Aside from being the people who invented the Internet (thanks, in part, to legislation sponsored and funding secured by Al Gore when he was a Senator), they also invented GPS, stealth technology, and drone technology, among other things. Yet they’re a relatively small budget ($3 billion) agency. How have they done this?

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review attempts to provide the answers, and tell businesses how to have moves like DARPA. They identify three key components: ambitious goals, temporary teams, and independence.

OK, I know what you’re thinking. “THREE BILLION is a SMALL budget? Plus, we don’t do cutting edge tech R&D innovation. How does any of this apply to associations?”

Creating “innovation teams” or “innovation initiatives” is definitely a trend in associations. But a lot of them go nowhere. And I think the reason may relate to some of what HBR identifies in what DARPA does – and we don’t do.

DARPA picks a particular problem. They don’t just tell people “go innovate…something. You know, anything. Whatever looks interesting.” No. They give their teams a specific problem to solve. To quote HBR:

The presence of an urgent need for an application creates focus and inspires greater genius.

What particular, pressing, defined problem your association is facing right now? “Come up with a cool idea about something” does not work. “We need to figure out how to keep our retired and retiring Boomer members engaged in ways that are meaningful to them and us” does.

DARPA also gives their teams limited time. It’s not “get to this whenever you like.” They have deadlines, and they are expected to meet those deadlines, which forces them to come up with and rapidly assess potential solutions to those defined problems.

Is there a sense of urgency to the problem you’ve identified? Does your staff respect deadlines and take them seriously? If not, why not? What can you do to fix that? What other tasks might have to come off people’s lists of responsibilities in order to make space for your innovation project?

DARPA uses ad hoc teams, with members from outside the agency. This allows them to get the best minds to address their problems and invite and incorporate fresh perspectives. Again quoting HBR:

In other words, the projects get great people to tackle great problems with other great people.

Who is allowed to have a new idea in your association? What happens then? What are you doing to generate diversity of perspective? How are you incorporating ideas from your volunteer leaders, members, and other audiences and stakeholders? From your competitors? Do projects have an end, where people can feel a sense of closure and accomplishment? Does anything actually happen with their great ideas?

What other tips do you have to share with your association peers about successful innovation?


Getting Lean

Is it just me, or is lean process trending?

I recently read a great Harvard Business Review article on the lean startup. According to HBR, lean:

…favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development.

It also includes the ideas of the “minimum viable product” and the decide –> experiment –> learn –> iterate cycle.

Per the HBR article, lean is built on three truths:

  1. All you have to start with are untested hypothesis, aka “good guesses.” And investing a lot of time in crafting a detailed five-year business plan based on “good guesses” is a fool’s errand.
  2. Your good guesses will never be more than that until you actually start interacting with your potential customers. So the sooner you start talking to them, the better. Yes, before you actually have a product to show them.
  3. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get a product out there, even if – especially if – it’s still in beta and plan to make improvements immediately and continually.

Lean also requires us to be transparent. No more operating in secrecy until you have everything just right – invite your customers in as part of your design and development process, with the goal of making your product better.

How does this all apply to associations?

Associations Now recently addressed that, with an article looking at lean process in associations. The AN article addresses the more old-school concept of lean manufacturing, developed by the Japanese after WWII, which focuses on eliminating waste and redundancy.

While I get that eliminating waste and redundancy is important, particularly in typically thinly-resourced tax exempt organizations, if we stop there, we’re missing the good stuff.

I think the most important thing for us to remember is that, at the beginning of any new program, product, or service all we have are good guesses. Admitting that publicly and celebrating it is the key to everything that follows. It grants us tremendous freedom, because it removes a lot of the ego involved in decision making, allowing us to have more than one good guess and to know right from the beginning that they aren’t all going to work out. If you’re just making an educated guess that you know you’re going to have to test, it removes all the pressure to be 100% right 100% of the time.

What could your association accomplish if you could be free to guess, test, and learn?


Association Alumni Networks

I was recently reading an article in Harvard Business Review on the changing employer-employee relationship. The main point of the article, to quote, is:

The time has come, we [authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh] believe, for a new employer-employee compact. You can’t have an agile company if you give employees lifetime contracts—and the best people don’t want one employer for life anyway. But you can build a better compact than “every man for himself.” In fact, some companies are doing so.

Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh propose taking lessons from start-ups and learning to work with and accommodate the “entrepreneurial” employee. They have a lot of interesting suggestions, and if you have time, I recommend reading the entire article, but one in particular drew my attention: Employee Alumni Networks.

Again, to quote:

The first thing you should do when a valuable employee tells you he is leaving is try to change his mind. The second is congratulate him on the new job and welcome him to your company’s alumni network.

The idea behind employee alumni networks is similar to that behind college alumni networks: they allow you to maintain long-term relationships with good people after your formal relationship ends, and for them to keep affiliation with you, even if they no longer have a direct financial relationship with you.

According to the article, 98% of Fortune 500 companies have formal or informal employee alumni networks. The benefits to the company include rehires, expanding your network of evangelists, new business opportunities, and collecting competitive intelligence.

The authors also stress that there needs to be a two-way exchange of value. They posit things like discounts, company swag, free insights or intelligence reports, and alumni newsletters for company alumni.

It got me thinking: why don’t we have association alumni networks?

When members leave, we tend to write them off. Why? Members leave for a variety of reasons that may have nothing to do with the association: they changed careers, they retired, their employer stopped supporting(financially or philosophically or both) association membership, etc.

What if, rather than treating them as disloyal pariahs, we could figure out a way to keep them engaged as an alumni audience?

Why wouldn’t your association want to get the benefits of rejoins, added evangelists, information sharing, and new business opportunities?

What could you offer to your membership alums? A LinkedIn or Facebook group? Discounts? A special newsletter? Association swag? Occasionally sending them a free publication?

I think this all gets to a larger question I plan to address in an upcoming post: why do we feel compelled to act as if “membership” is the only relationship people can have with our associations?

Do You SAVE?

First, marketing had the 4 Ps:

  • Product, aka what you’re selling
  • Price, aka what it costs
  • Placement, aka how do you get your product to your customers
  • Promotion, aka how are you selling your product

Then, marketing moved to the 4 Cs:

  • Consumer, aka who is your audience and what do they want
  • Cost, aka what it costs (that one didn’t change)
  • Convenience, aka where do your segments buy your stuff (because they may not all buy in the same place/way)
  • Communication, aka two-way interaction with your audiences

But, Harvard Business Review argues, really forward-thinking marketers are now into SAVE-ing:

  • S-olutions, which forces you away from thinking about your products and into thinking about the problems your audiences have and how you can help them address those problems, which is a step beyond “what do they want?”
  • A-ccess, is still about the where, but incorporates the Google idea of the Zero Moment of Truth, the concept of the “purchase journey,” and your organization’s skill in and availability for customer service and interaction
  • V-alue, which is intimately familiar to associations, as we talk constantly about the “value of membership” – turns out, people are far less price-sensitive than we tend to think they are as long as the value is apparent
  • E-ducation, aka content marketing, or non-sales communication

What are you doing to SAVE for your members?

Are You Creative?

If you ask a group of kindergarteners if they can sing, dance, draw, paint, act, etc., every single one of them will raise her hand.

If you ask that same group if they can read or do math, you might get a few hands, but largely, no.

If you ask a group of middle schoolers if they can read or do math, every single one of them will raise her hand.

If you ask that same group if they can sing, dance, draw, paint, act, etc., you might get a few hands, but largely, no.

We all know this. What happens? Do nearly all humans somehow become NOT creative in eight years?

No, say the guys who founded IDEO in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review.

What we have to do is “reclaim our creative confidence.” In fact, it’s critical to our ability to come up with new ideas and be willing to try them – in other words, to innovate.

They identify four fears that block creativity:

  1. fear of the “messy unknown”
  2. fear of being judged
  3. fear of the first step
  4. fear of losing control

Think these apply to associations?

Fear of the messy unknown is about being uncomfortable with ambiguity. We want answers – not only AN answer, but THE answer. We like budgets that account for every pencil we’re going to buy down to the penny and that balance with a respectable 5% profit (only we call it “revenue over expense”). Our volunteer leaders like projects that start and end within their term. We want to be able to measure everything, and share a dashboard with our members that shows how awesome we are because we grew 2% over last year. We want guarantees that “it” (whatever “it” is) is going to work before we’re willing to try it. We want to invest only in sure winners.

Why? Because we fear not failure, and not even necessarily judgement, but criticism. Twenty members might love the experiment, and fifty might be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for now, but if three complain, we have to shut it down. NOW. Board member? Only one person has to complain.

So if we know that we can only bet on winners and only make bets everyone agrees with and supports whole-heartedly, no wonder we can’t take the first step. Too risky.

In the end, it is all about control, or the illusion thereof. It comes from a good place – we want everything to be perfect for our members all the time – but it leads to a very bad place, known as The Land of We Have Always Done It That Way.

Where could your association go if you could learn to face and release your fears?

(Read the article – it will inspire you and maybe help you see a way out.)


What Do You REALLY Want to Know?

Data, data everywhere – but what does it MEAN?

We can measure a lot of stuff – opens and clicks and visits and time on page and community engagement scores and number of members and average tenure and number of attendees and satisfaction scores and followers and fans and shares and who’s talking about this and reach and RTs and responses, ad infinitum ad nauseum.

In fact, we can measure just about everything at this point, if we’re dedicated and have reasonable tech systems. So we drown in data, inundate decision makers, and produce analysis paralysis.

We lose sight of why we were tracking all this stuff in the first place: to make an impact. To drive decisions. To change our behavior and our organizations.

So the next time someone says, “Let’s start tracking this new metric!” make sure to ask why. Why do you want to track this? What are you looking to accomplish? What are you trying to decide? What impact with the data have on our organization? How will what you discover change your behavior?

Remember, the flip side of “you can’t change what you don’t measure” is “measure what you value, or you’ll only value what you measure.”