Here are the eight simple steps to deliver what members need.
- Collective Needs – Not Individual Demands
Individual members can be difficult. Personal agendas disguised as a sense of member entitlement can tear associations apart. The member mindset that says ‘I pay your salary so you should do what I want,’ can create divisions when an association serves individual preferences. An association’s bias for favourites can serve to disengage other members, but even those who appear uncommunicative can still care – and may just need a different approach. It’s difficult to create value for all when an association relegates the greater good behind individual demands.
Associations must serve the collective need of the overall membership, not individual member demands. This builds unity, pride and trust. Once associations hold themselves accountable to their mission and vision, members have an incentive to unite behind it because it reassures them that their needs are being addressed. When members see associations standing up for what’s right, it becomes easier for them to put aside their individual demands. This provides the perfect justification not to pander to individual agendas – that the association is committed to the greater good of all members. A rising tide lifts all ships. Focusing on collective needs becomes a catalyst to deliver more value in membership, which then scales to become a powerful force to attract future members.
The more reasons associations create to make members feel proud, the better the individual behaviours align with the collective.
- Organisational Values – Not Personal Bias
Individual members can be particularly sensitive to any bias or perception of self-interest in associations and their governing bodies. These perceptions are the cause of considerable membership angst and the genesis of many member action groups. Associations can come undone by the negativity caused by such groups in the market – whether it is deserved or not.
Holding everyone accountable to a set of organisational values upholds a clear standard of behaviour, and requires that no-one can act in a biased or discretionary manner. This sends a powerful message. Externally, it eliminates the perception of self-interest that members can find exasperating. Internally, it provides the clarity to correct the behaviour of any directors, managers or staff acting outside of the agreed values. The very definition of integrity is an adherence to a clear set of values, which is what members look for. It reassures them that their association is (first and foremost) serving their needs, not its own.
Associations that hold themselves accountable to values, communicate that they are committed to fulfilling their purpose – serving members. In turn, this increases their power to hold members’ behaviour accountable to the association and educates them that membership has responsibilities as well as privileges. One of the responsibilities of membership is to behave with decorum.
Organisational values can transform member angst into member support.
- Confident Innovation – Not Business as Usual
As Gary Hamel said, innovation is the only insurance against irrelevance. But innovation cannot thrive in a ‘business as usual’ mindset.
The starting point is to fix the no-brainers, and deliver what members need the most. Sometimes, members may not even know what that is. Before launching the Model T Ford in 1908 and selling 16 million cars, Henry Ford said ‘If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse’.
To share a personal example, when we were looking to launch a new digital resource, we knew it would help members because that’s where the future of the market was heading. Even though some members had not yet embraced online selling or were unsure whether they would want to pay for a new service, we innovated and launched it anyway because it was a no-brainer. We knew it would help members and it was incumbent on us to lead the market into the future. It took a strong communications and educational campaign to explain its benefits, but the outcome was 100% uptake. Members willingly paid for it, and got fresh leads and new orders from the outset. The results they got created trust in us as a successful innovator and market leader.
‘Innovate or die’ might sound like a mantra for the corporate world, but your members will thank you for it. Dealing with the no-brainers upfront is a great way to get started.
Every association knows its own sector in the same way – what is the one thing your members need more than anything else that you could be delivering?
- Deliver Value – Not Price
It’s never about price. It’s always about value.
The digital resource example is a case in point. Before members could see the value, some were adamant they would not want to pay for this. So how is it that they did, and gladly? They realised that for a little extra price, they were getting a whole lot of extra value. And who did they thank for delivering them value – their association! This is a classic win-win.
Members across all sectors want to keep their costs down, and usually try and demand that their associations do the same with their prices. This is not unique to any one association or sector (although it can seem so). It is relevant for all. Focusing on price is a trap – to keep prices down, associations don’t invest in delivering the new value that members may pay for. This perpetuates an image of a low value commodity – and when members don’t see new value created, they complain even more about price. It’s a vicious cycle.
Even more than saving money, members want their association to help them make more of it, or deliver value in other ways. This can be through information, education, training, advice, connections, advocacy and more. So long as the sum total of the financial and non-financial value created adds up to significantly more than the price of the service, then members will buy it gladly. Never be afraid to charge a fair price, if you are delivering value. That doesn’t mean price gouging!
The membership fee is the most evident and often most sensitive price point. So, is the membership fee model dead? This is the wrong question. A better question is whether the fee provides sufficient value. Does it deliver against competitive choices? In a free market where members can get the services they need from alternative providers, the membership fee must offer value for money. A low price alone won’t retain or acquire members. A greater risk for associations is being too dependent on membership fees as the prime revenue source. Without another revenue source, associations can come unstuck – when the fee doesn’t reflect fair value, members drift towards competitors and are often lost forever.
Over and above the fee model, it doesn’t matter where the income comes from, so long as it is in line with mission and vision – call it a portfolio approach. The key is value delivery and a service orientation. Value delivery is competing effectively in the network economy. Service orientation is allowing members to choose what they need, when they need it – and ensuring that the entire association is geared to deliver it. If members can cherry-pick additional services from their association, it gives them even more reasons to join and stay. The more value an association adds in offering optional services, the more power it creates to charge a decent market price on the obligatory membership fee.
Revenue diversity has multiple benefits beyond the obvious financial ones. If an association has introduced new services that members are willing to pay for, it is clearly meeting a need. If it is meeting new needs, it is maintaining relevance – which makes it even more attractive to members.
This may seem counterintuitive but delivering value through revenue diversity so you don’t have to rely on the fee enables you to sustain the fee itself.
- Communicate Clarity – Not Confusion
When things get tough, members don’t want to hear that their association is strong, powerful and flourishing. Just because an association claims it’s strong doesn’t mean it is working hard for members, solving their problems or creating opportunities for them. Messages like this can portray an association as more interested in itself, than helping members – a prime catalyst for member disaffection. Members want to know what their association is doing for them!
Members need to hear that you are listening, that you are focused on their problems and what exactly you are doing about it. They want specific details in order to understand and evaluate how well you are serving their needs.
Think of communications like a virtual progress report for members. Convey to members why every action taken by their association is beneficial to them, and how it helps them by linking back to the mission and vision. Make every message crystal clear, so that they understand why you are doing what you are doing, how it helps them and what your actions are. Communicate in the language of members about things of importance to members. You don’t have to get this perfectly right, and members can easily misinterpret things. But each time you are not as clear as you could have been, learn to be a little clearer the next time. Just because you’ve sent a message doesn’t mean it has been received so use an omni-channel approach to reach members in their preferred mediums. This includes everything from email, newsletters, social media, magazine articles, brochures, trade advertising, partner communications, welcome kits, conference speeches, town hall gatherings and of course, face to face meetings.
It doesn’t take long for members to appreciate good, honest intentions. It doesn’t take long for clear messaging to help members understand the issues – and drive confidence, trust and engagement.
- Communicate Truth – Not Doublespeak
A Victorian association executive, who wishes to remain anonymous, admitted that the policies his organisation had created were designed to obfuscate. They were written to keep members at bay, so they wouldn’t ask too many difficult questions. The aim supposedly was for the association to shield itself from accountability. He said the same about their board reports. Rather than being concise documents to inform the governing body, they looked more like scripts from Yes Minister with verbose obfuscations, circumlocutions and ludicrously complicated sentences designed to keep the board in the dark.
Honesty is an engagement strategy. Never be afraid to tell the truth, or show vulnerability. Best-selling author Brené Brown says that invulnerability is a fake shield that executives use to protect themselves from blame, judgement and criticism. What’s this got to do with association management, you may ask? I was invited by a forward-thinking global hotel group to give a keynote presentation on vulnerability to 60 of their general managers. If one of the world’s most successful service-oriented companies wants to promote vulnerability to its customer-facing leaders, you can be confident this is the future of engagement. They know that invulnerability doesn’t work. When executives buy into the ego of having to be perfect, it’s hard to admit vulnerability – so they have to keep pretending they are perfect. However, members (and employees) can see through this. Here’s the logic: we know people are not perfect, and therefore if they pretend to be perfect, they must be playing a role. If they are playing a role, the inescapable conclusion is that they are inauthentic – fake. And who wants to engage with fake?
Telling the truth sends a powerful message. It reassures members that you are genuinely on their side, no matter what – and that you are real. It is this authenticity that creates the trust that drives engagement. The link between truth and engagement is not well known, but it is a powerful force. Let me give you an example.
In September 2008, we had organised a large expo that filled the (then) Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre to the brim. Markets were strong and exhibitors were filled with anticipation. On September 15, five days before the opening, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Global Financial Crisis was here. With the world in shock, and confidence shaken, buyer orders at the expo were significantly down. At the cocktail party with 1,000 customers in front of me, I said sorry. I told them I knew how much effort they had put in to the expo, and how much they had expected to sell, and that for many of them it had been painful financially and disappointing. They were expecting excuses and doublespeak – what they got was truth and vulnerability. 1,000 customers gave our team a huge round of applause. Some of their businesses were riding on the orders they expected, and yet not one customer blamed us for what happened. They knew we had done all we could as an organisation and they thanked us for our integrity. We reassured them that we would redouble our efforts, and for years afterwards, people would tell me that this was a reason they stuck with us. They knew we were real and that they could rely on us.
Communicating truth doesn’t just create engagement – it can retain customers (read members) and generate revenue for the future.
- Customisation – Not Generalisation
Communicating one general message to the market is becoming increasingly insufficient because ‘the market’ is now less of one homogenous identity, and more the greater sum of its individual segments.
Associations cannot be all things to all people. A clearly articulated value proposition will outline where an association needs to operate – whether it can serve all segments or needs to customise. Some segments may conflict with others, so there may be difficult decisions to be made in determining the optimum footprint. Once this is clear, associations need to communicate with members across all segments as if the conversation was a personalised, one to one discussion.
A generalist message cannot engage specialist segments – it is too superficial. Members need solutions to the specific problems facing their specialist segment. By necessity, association messaging must be customised to provide meaningful and relevant engagement.
Technology is simultaneously a cause of this and the solution to it. Technology enables the complexity that creates new opportunities for specialisation. This breaks down general markets into niche segments, each of which has differing constituents and needs. Technology also provides the solution to communicate with each of these segments in a bespoke and mass customised basis – clear, simple messages designed exclusively for each segment.
The foundation for this is a contemporary CRM system filled with highly customised rich data on all member segments, needs, demographics, product and service history, engagement and sociographics. It is at this deeper level of customisation that associations can engage with members in meaningful and relevant ways – and enable it to provide a matrix of customised services appealing to each segment.
- Consistency – Not Irregularity
On one hand, members can complain that they don’t get enough information and feel uninformed. On the other, they can get annoyed with too much communication. How can you strike the right balance?
Consistency and timing are the keys.
- External Consistency – This requires a rigorous attention to detail. The brand and logo usage needs to be consistent, the same colours, the same background, the same positioning. The communication style needs to be the same tone. The spelling and grammar need to be perfect. All marketing campaigns need to be fully integrated and consistent. In other words, everything you put out into the marketplace needs to be seen and recognised as you immediately. No variations to the agreed campaign – unless of course this is a mindful, carefully deliberated change of strategy. Why? The consistency drives awareness, and the professionalism drives trust.
- Internal Consistency – Make sure everyone sings from the same song sheet. When a member has a question about an important service or policy, he or she should get the same answer from everyone, whether that it is the receptionist or the Chair. Socialise the key messages with the entire staff and the governing body. Members often approach board directors personally, so make sure they know and support the specific brand messages. To communicate important changes, get a consultant in to refine the messaging and embed them with everyone. Or at least, send a sheet with FAQs (frequently asked questions) to all staff and volunteers so everyone is informed and can speak with some authority.
- Timing – Integrate all the communications from all of your departments, and schedule them so they don’t conflict with one another. Don’t send an email newsletter, invoice, conference program, policy announcement and Workplace Health & Safety update all on the same day. It’s not so much the quantity of communications that annoys members, it’s their timing. Spread it out.
Then bang home your messages! The members need to hear them, and there is a lot of noise out there getting in the way. Just because an association makes an announcement or sends a message doesn’t mean it has been received, let alone understood – or acted upon! It will take multiple ways, multiple channels and multiple contexts for your message to cut through.