Four Things I Learned About Learning at XDP

20170523_074444ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership has just closed its Experience Design Project conference, which it called XDP. It was an experiment to reinvent the professional conference in front of potentially the most discerning audience of all, event and conference professionals.

While some logistical issues could be improved, they were quite minor in the context of the big picture. I say it was a tremendous success – not only because of the event itself, but because of what I learned from it. The top four:

1. Death by PowerPoint isn’t inevitable.

I count myself among those who can talk a good game about how the standard adult learning experience (PowerPoint) needs to be changed, but tend to slip into the default mode when leading a learning session. I didn’t believe I had the skill set or the confidence to try something different.

What I learned is that there is no single antidote to the PowerPoint death ray. At any given moment around the room, each of the five sectors in the room was applying new learning approaches in five distinct ways. Like all participants, I attended three of the five sectors. They were all different, and each of them worked.

2. The answer is in the room.

I was one of about 100 people who volunteered to lead tables of 8 to 10 association professionals and vendors throughout the day. The responsibility rather intimidated me, until it was stressed at the orientation that we didn’t have to be the experts; that “the answer is in the room.”

That was liberating! Our job was to facilitate conversations, not direct them. We were there to foster learning, not to teach. The wisdom comes from the participants.

You know what? That’s exactly what happened. The people at my table were highly engaged all day long, and they shared awesome wisdom for each of the challenges we were asked to discuss. Results may have varied a little among the tables, but from what I heard, the overall result was positive

3. There’s still a role for the leader in the front of the room.

Anarchy in the room is not the answer. The way I see it, the leader:

  • Frames the problem
  • Poses the questions
  • Provides feedback and curation

That’s a very different role from the traditional teacher. It requires a different intention from the leader, as well as a different set of skills and intentions.

4. Have some fun. Play with it.

ASAE and its event partners came up with brilliant technology and design ideas for this new conference. My first impression upon entering room was, “Wow.”

In our own group, we had fun developing solutions to problems, including creating a networking event at which people design the most ridiculous Mr. Potato Head ever.

What was the point? Improving the participant’s experience. Would it work? Who knows – but it sounded like it would be fun, and it has to be better than Death by PowerPoint.

Kudos to ASAE for undertaking this bold initiative. I’d love to see this approach adopted more broadly. Are you up for it?


In Crises, Spare Us the Phony Gestures

Outside Marathon Sports, May 1, 2013
Outside Marathon Sports: May 1, 2013

In the days following the Boston Marathon bombings, many companies and organizations posted something along the lines of, “Our thoughts are with …”

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful here, but does anyone really care what your “thoughts” are?

If someone you love was injured, I don’t mean to be insensitive. But if a company intends such expressions to be a gesture of compassion, solidarity or community, “sending thoughts” is one of the emptiest gestures it could make.

They take almost no effort, and imply no commitment to action. Substitute “prayers” for “thoughts” and it’s more meaningful, if in fact you’re actually praying – which I don’t see many “companies” actually do. These sentiments carry more weight when they come from people, not companies.

So what triggered this rant?

This morning, I came across Marathon Sports’ latest newsletter to its community. (The sidewalk outside the Boylston Street location of Marathon Sports was the site of the first bomb.) These people were deeply shaken by April 15, and full recovery is some time away.

Last Wednesday, the store resumed its weekly community runs for the first time. About 300 people from all over the Boston area were there, compared to the usual 40 or 50. It was clearly a meaningful, emotional moment.

What seemed to matter most to the people of Marathon Sports? Action. Those who showed up did a lot more than simply “send their thoughts.” They got off their rear end and did something. It’s wasn’t a very big thing, but it did matter.

Companies can DO things; that’s what they’re built for. They can donate money. They can provide services – especially services that align well with the crisis at hand. They could also give their employees paid time off to volunteer. That kind of stuff matters.

But spare us the phony gestures. A concert later this month at TD Garden by Aerosmith and others has “net proceeds” going to The One Fund. (That’s what the website and today’s newspaper ad say – you can look it up.)

Net proceeds – really? I’m not asking for the workers at the event to work for free; I’m demanding that their employers not seek reimbursement for it. That might actually mean something.

If you want to make a difference, do that.

If you want to build your brand – do it elsewhere. Don’t do it on the back of a real tragedy.

Normalcy, Resiliency, and “Boston Strong”

Boston-StrongToday, my community is trying to regain some sense of normalcy. On this sunny, mild Sunday, I did some yard work, watched a little bit of baseball, and we bought groceries.

Much has been made of “Boston Strong,” and I do believe in it. We do not, as a whole, wallow in self pity. We are scrappy, and yes, sometimes we are arrogant and self-important. We are large enough to know that we occupy an important place in the world, yet small enough to feel connected to each other. That gives us strength.

Even when you’re many miles away, as I was last week.

On Sunday, the day before the Marathon, my family and I embarked on a week-long road trip up and down the East Coast, visiting potential colleges with my daughter.

My first notification of the disaster was a robo-call from the state’s public health agency shortly after 3:00 on Monday. (I’m on the call list because of my job at the Massachusetts Medical Society.) Within an hour, our family determined that all the people whom we knew would be at the scene were safe.

Even after that, it was hard to concentrate. When we walked through the lobbies of one college building after another, the TVs showed CNN, without the sound. Still, we watched. Luckily, most college tour guides say the same thing; otherwise we would have been in trouble!

Back home, Steve Adelman, the new director of our physician health services subsidiary, wrote several items for our blog. With very light editing, I published all of them from the road. Each time, he said precisely the right thing, at the right time.

The week dragged on. I followed everything from my iPad. On Tuesday, I went for a long run in Williamsburg, Va., as both a prayer and a salute to the brave and the fallen. On Wednesday, I spoke with a senior manager from the AMA about potential ways to acknowledge and thank those who responded.

Thursday night, I wrote a draft of our Friday e-newsletter, focusing on the heroism of medical and emergency personnel, and the availability of mental health services going forward. I went to sleep knowing about shots fired near MIT, not suspecting it had any significance.

On Friday, I knew. At 6:15 a.m., I was awakened by a robo-call from work, announcing that our offices in Waltham and Boston were closed for “security reasons.” I immediately called my boss, wanting to know what I could do. She spoke of car chases, gunfire and hand grenades thrown into the street.

Life became surreal, a feeling that was amplified by the distance. But technology helped.

We activated our crisis communications plan. I tweeted about our building closure, and repeated it on our website, blog, and Facebook. Steve Adelman wrote another blog post. I was glued to the TV in our friends’ kitchen outside Philly. I posted notices about cancelled state hearings, and relayed anything else relevant to medicine and health care.

I yearned to be home, where my friends were, where my community was suffering. But thanks to technology, I was nearly as effective 350 miles from my office as I could have been 12 miles away, at my home. It was one way I could help.

Riding in the car on I-95 that day, I posted updates and tweets. My colleagues and I planned what we would do with our newsletter, which we publish Friday afternoons. We decided to wait and see what would happen, especially sensitive to the raw emotions everywhere.

That night, from a friend’s living room in Westfield, N.J., my family watched the inspiring climax of the ordeal. Together with my colleagues back home, we rewrote and published the newsletter around 9:45 p.m., and fed the material to our social media channels. My family drove home Saturday to a changed community.

I have no personal stories about near misses. But like any area resident, I have many “could have beens.”

One week before, we had dinner just a block from the first explosion. We visit that area all the time, where there is always something fun to do.

Two days before the race, my daughter and her friend visited their track coach, who was working at the runners’ festival at the Hynes Convention Center. She and her friend visited the finish line, fantasizing that perhaps one day, they will experience the glory of Marathon Monday.

If we hadn’t been visiting colleges, my daughter and I would have almost certainly been on Boylston Street Monday afternoon, outside Marathon Sports, where the first bomb exploded. Like most runners, we like to hang out at running stores, window shopping and browsing. More important, my daughter’s coach works there, and like all good coaches, he is a mentor and inspiration to her. He wasn’t hurt, but he is shaken.

Normalcy? Maybe that’s not the right concept. I think Juliette Kayyem, writing in the Globe last week, had a better idea. She said the week was about building resiliency. She wrote, “True resiliency is a function of competence, not psychology, and the ability to learn from the past.”

Maybe that’s the essence of “Boston Strong.”

Reflections on ASAE 11: The Sexiness of Unsexy Innovation

Exactly one week after ASAE’s annual meeting, the line that’s sticking with me came from the final keynote speaker, Peter Sheahan: “Nine times out of 10, it’s the unsexy stuff where innovation happens.”

That’s the game I’m playing right now.

A few months ago, I was given an additional title: Chief Digital Strategist. No one ever had the title before, so I have the privilege of defining what that means. Right now, I’m focusing on bringing order to chaos, helping everyone prioritize what they need, and securing the resources to get it done.

As the weeks progressed, I noticed something else that was really interesting. I got a sense that our real problem wasn’t time, money or myopia. I realized that we weren’t paying attention to the basics. These included:

  • Clean data about our members
  • Confusing workflows on our website
  • Email address acquisition and maintenance
  • Landing page optimization

I know – how geeky!

But these issues are putting a serious drag on our efforts to grow and improve. How? Well, if our member data isn’t clean, we can forget about meaningful personalization on our website, let alone effective market segmentation. And if the current workflows on our website confuse people, we’re losing money and customers. And if we don’t keep our lists up to date, those emails that we labor over are only half as effective as they could be (or worse).

Don’t get me wrong – we’re definitely working on our future. We’re currently choosing a new content management system for the website, with requirements that will provide an entirely new experience for our members. That’s exciting new stuff. But if we fail to address the basics, we’re digging ourselves into an deeper hole.

Is this work innovative? Probably not in the most common sense of the word. Many organizations figured out this stuff a long time ago. But we are now having conversations across business groups that we’ve never had before. We’re making promises and keeping them. We’re hoping to build confidence and trust in this new approach, one step at a time. If this works, we’ll all be very successful.

And that is very, very sexy.

Google+ Could Be Just the Thing for Physicians

One of the biggest quandaries for health care communicators has been physicians’ enduring reluctance to broadly adopt social media.

The big issue is control – or more precisely, the lack of it. The uncontrolled environment of most social media channels causes most physicians to hesitate and wait.  In medicine, there’s a term “watchful waiting,” and that’s what happening here.

It’s one reason why Facebook has not been the doctor’s professional social network of choice. Its stubborn blindness to piracy is well documented. But as many writers have pointed out, Facebook’s control and privacy problems are also fundamental to its structure.


In our offline lives, we share different things with family, work colleagues, and friends. Most of my extended family doesn’t care much about social media, and the people I work with aren’t very interested in my daughter’s track meet. That’s just how life works.

But Facebook lumps all our relationships into a single, undifferentiated blob. This is basically why doctors are nervous about Facebook. Some have addressed this issue online by creating separate Facebook and Twitter accounts for their personal and professional lives.  But creating multiple online personalities can be a pain in the butt, and the risk of making career-threatening mistakes is high. Rather than experiment, a lot of doctors just ignore it.

Enter Google+. The big breakthrough here is that it gives you control of your privacy, on your terms. And it’s easy. No more trying to decode Facebook’s ridiculously obtuse privacy settings, and no more multiple accounts.

The key is in the Google+ idea of Circles. For everyone person who connects with you, you have the choice of adding them to a particular Circle in your life. Google sets you up with the basics: friends, family, etc. You can add your own.  No one but you sees those Circles or their members.

When you want to share something, you get to pick the circles you want to share it with, share by share. The minions of Mark Zuckerberg are not making the decision for you anymore. It’s entirely up to you.

So doctors could have these kinds of circles:

  • Colleagues: For asking about clinical advice, or just to vent about the latest health policy injustice.
  • Patients: To share good articles that are relevant to the people they treat.
  • Family and friends: When they just want to complain about the Red Sox, or share photos of the kids.

I wonder where medical societies would fit in?

I don’t profess to be an expert on Google+, but I know a possibility when I see one. This won’t take over the medical world overnight, but it bears watching.

UPDATE (Aug. 18): Two physicians recently expressed similar thoughts on KevinMD: Google+: Physicians Can Optimize Their Online Footprint

Enduring Impressions from Digital Now: Community, Coherence and Culture

It’s funny what endures after a conference, especially great conferences like Digital Now.

This morning, about 24 hours after the final session, what’s stuck in my head is the video that Tom Hood played for us at the very end. It shows an all-staff strategic planning session, where the people are engaged, purposeful and inspired, creating their future together.

As I embark on facilitating a coherent, digital strategy for my organization, this video provided me the vision of what I want for my people.

Everyone wants to make a difference; I am certain of that. Of those who say they don’t, most have simply been beaten down by the past.

You could dismiss this video as a mere marketing tool for a consultancy, but you would be missing the point.

And I totally LOVE the opening sentence.

You want some of that? I thought so.

Other thoughts from one of the best association conferences on the planet:

  • The mobile imperative is self-evident. But we have a chance to learn from the mistakes many of us made only five years ago, when the social media imperative inspired us with the same power.
  • Like any new initiative, mobile projects must be done with care. There are plenty of eager, resourceful vendors who will help you get to mobile quickly and competently. But you need to start with a plan that makes sense.
  • Strategic coherence is another idea that sticks with me. The session on this concept discussed organizations whose great vision and ambition is undermined by an incoherent strategy.  A coherent strategy means simply: We do what we’re best at, and knock those things out of the park. This usually means just three to six major programs. Do more, and it’s debilitating. (Here’s another funny take on that idea.)
  • That’s not to discount the brain-stretching that happens when we’re exposed to a vision of what’s possible. Tomi Ahonen, James Canton and others did that for me. Thank you.
  • We’re association executives first; we’re the people charged with making innovation work in our communities. Success stories are really helpful, but we have to make it work in our associations.
  • Why? Our cultures. All culture, like politics, is local. And you know the saying: Culture eats strategy for lunch. We have to keep that in mind when examining the mobile imperative too.

Pulling it All Together: The 360 Degree Marketing Communications Strategy

We’ve seen several distinct stages in the association sector’s journey into and through the world of social media.

At first, the evangelists spread the good news, and a few eager souls experimented. Early adopters followed their example, and soon, the growth from seed concept to mainstream was amazingly rapid – three or four years, depending on how you count.

At each stage, there were successes, failures, and lessons learned. Most of us are continually refining our objectives, strategies and technologies. And we’re learning from each other, which is absolutely AWESOME. As somebody said at an ASAE Annual session in Chicago, we’re all figuring this out together.

I'm speaking at the ASAE & The Center 2010 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, CA!These days, we’ve seeing another branch of the conversation emerge and begin to dominate: How does everything fit together in a single, cohesive marketing communications ecosystem?

For every association, every community, and every audience, the details of the answer will be different. Each of our communities has different inclinations, biases and preferences. There are great limitations to what we can crib from each other. But there are some universal principles, I think.

  1. There is no magic pill, and no killer app. No single channel will get every job done.
  2. Nothing goes away; every tool has value. This is a corollary to #1. I used to think that perhaps fax was an exception to this principle, but if you’ve recently bought property or had a major medical engagement, you can’t avoid the fax.
  3. They all have to work together. Each of our tools can, and must, work together. Remember that our members and audiences don’t relate to us through our technologies, but through the experience we provide them. So our platforms and channels must support the same brand proposition.
  4. The marketing funnel is still relevant. It’s evolved some, but it’s still relevant. I think marketers’ biggest mistakes occur when we apply the wrong tools to the wrong parts of the funnel.
  5. Know thy communities. Unfortunately, there is no short cut to obsessively learning about your members and your members’ communities. Your community of engineers acts very differently from my community of doctors. Even different communities of doctors have differences.
  6. Experiment and learn – quickly and cheaply. An old principle, but it still applies. There’s still no playbook, no “Ogilvy on Advertising” to rely on. We’re collectively writing today’s equivalent of that book as we go along.
  7. Communicate to your outposts, and bring them back home. Our members are playing all over the digital landscape. Find them, and show them the way back to your website and your blog.
  8. Prioritize and focus. You can’t do everything well, so don’t even try. Your member research should tell you where to focus.
  9. Measure, measure, measure. It’s the only way you’ll know if you’re succeeding.
  10. Warning: This WILL disrupt your business. This project will make silos teeter, and encroach on long-existent turf. Be prepared to deal with this. Do it well, and it will be an exhilarating experience!

My colleagues Jaime Nolan, Nan Dawkins and I will discuss these and other issues at our Learning Lab at the ASAE Annual Meeting this coming Sunday, at 1:30 p.m.

Our combined handouts are here. (.pdf)

My own slideshare set is here.

We hope to see you there!

Business as Usual is Easy. Breaking Silos is Hard

This post originally appeared in the May 2010 edition of the College of Association Marketing newsletter.

More and more, producing breakthrough results in your marketing and communications campaigns depends on your ability to destroy the silos in your organization.

Yes, YOUR ability.

Every new communications channel requires us to confront the silos in our organization. For example, when we all were publishing our first websites 15 or so years ago, we knew we had to present a unified face to our members and the public. Mostly, our initial solutions were to build sites that looked like our org charts – department by department.

Eventually, though, we came to see the limitations of the org chart website – our members don’t know our org charts, and they don’t care. However, they DO care about getting something done on our sites – register for a conference, find some content, whatever. Eventually, we learned to build sites that reflect the way our members use websites.

But to get there, we had to break apart our department-centric mentality. We had to show how members had trouble finding content. We had to prove to business leaders that they get BETTER business results by organizing materials they way our MEMBERS conceive it, not the way the staff conceives it. It was a victory for silo busting, but the war continued.

Next, when we started employing enterprise-level email marketing and newsletters systems, and we had to have similar conversations. If we tolerated the silo approach, everyone could send email whenever they wanted, and we’d become our members’ worst spammers.

With a careful strategy that acknowledges our collective responsibility for treating the email channels properly, we get better business results through the proper use of email than by spamming; more is not better. But that required an intensive focus on business objectives, strategies and tactics. It was a tough battle, but silo busting won again.

Now, many of us are trying to develop an enterprise approach to social media – moving past the stage of experimentation to business integration. This again means that the association’s various business units must talk together, and align on goals, strategy and tactics. It means treating the channel properly. Without these conversations, our social channels devolve into a cacophony rather than a conversation.

Business as usual is easy. Breaking down silos is hard. It means reallocating resources and budgets – the currencies of organizational power. But if you want to produce breakthrough results in your association, breaking down silos could be the most important thing you do. It disrupts the core of our organization’s culture, and gets us working together smarter and better.

There’s no magic pill. There’s only one way revolutions happen – one conversation at a time. For example, talk to the membership marketing director and learn her specific business goals. Show her what’s working, and not working. Be the pathfinder – show her how she can do better, working in a new way. Address the worries and concerns – and resolve them. Then move on to the next person.

Do this meticulously early in a project, and get the important people on board, and you’re not swimming upstream anymore. You are creating a revolution – and the rest of the organization is on your side.

The Social Media Revolution Continues

This brief video is an update of a really inspiring take on the possibilities of social media.

If you need to make the business case for social media in your organization, you could start with this.

The End of Publishing?

Maybe it’s all about the context.

This video is really, really great – stay with it until the end and you won’t regret it!

P.S. Thanks to Kent Anderson for sharing this.