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.

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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.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Association of the Future

One of the most interesting sessions at the Great Ideas Conference last week was “The Association of the Future” – but maybe not for the reasons you might think.

It’s a project of ASAE and the Center, where young staff and volunteers invent and try to improve a fictitious association in a kind of test kitchen. Its mission was to improve the professional development opportunities of young professionals.

It had a four-part mantra: Members come first. No silos. Listen and then talk. Go techno.

So far so good.

After developing their initial model, the members’ early feedback was that the volunteer opportunities for this faux association weren’t meaningful. OK, stuff happens. So the staff went to the drawing board and came back with solutions sounded decidedly old school, including:

  • Restructure councils
  • Invent new councils
  • Create ad hoc groups and task forces
  • Develop partnerships with other organizations.
  • Develop new incentives and recognition programs

These recommendations all rely on tweaking governance an infrastructure, instead of questioning whether they were actually addressing what members want and need.

To several of us in the room, these were surprising and disappointing remedies, especially since the people doing the work were millennials and Gen Xers, supposedly immune from these old-school tactics!

Not surprisingly, the “member” feedback was less than enthusiastic. Among other things, they said they were overwhelmed by the number of suggestions. The “staff” admitted they used a throw-spaghetti-on-the-wall approach – see what sticks. As an experiment, this might be defensible. But in real life, it usually isn’t.

Was this project a failure? No! It was actually incredible instructive. It demonstrated that:

  • Reinventing yourself is deceptively hard work
  • Your age and generation guarantees nothing
  • It’s really easy to lapse into the familiar
  • It’s hard to re-examine fundamental assumptions, even if the association is new and it’s not even real
  • Crowdsourcing might have produced a different result. Doing things the same old way usually produces the same old result.

The staff and volunteers who presented this session have to be commended for their courage in subjecting themselves to this kind of public autopsy. I love the way they took it as a learning opportunity – one that we can all learn from as they move forward.

Roger and Don – and Innovation

The blogger Dan Blank last week used a scene from this season’s great final episode of Mad Men to illustrate the tensions in media today – and he could have been talking about associations, too.

To recap Mad Men … for those not yet smitten … it’s 1963, just weeks after JFK’s assassination. As we know from our vantage point, the world is poised to change.

Roger Sterling and Don Draper are two of the lead managers in a New York ad agency. Roger inherited the agency from his late father, and he’s been coasting through life lately. Don is a scrapper, self-made, brimming with ideas and energy, who senses something is changing but not sure how.

Their agency was recently bought out by a bloodless British megafirm. But Roger and Don have had enough of being drones, so they quit the agency in an exhilarating coup, took some of the best talent with them, and formed a new shop.

As they leave the old agency office suite for the last time, they turn around. Roger says, “How long do you think it will take us to be in a place like this again?” Don shrugs, “I never saw myself working in a place like this.”

Roger doesn’t know the old privileged world that he loved is already dead. Don, as usual, can’t hit the reset button fast enough.

In associations, we see similar tensions. The old fuel of associations (trade shows, magazines and meetings) still brings in dollars, but it’s not enough anymore. Just like newspapers, TV, music, and books (only a matter of time), the money is bleeding out of the association business model. The new world – which includes the virtual world – has yet to completely manifest itself, but we know something different is coming. We just don’t know what.

We can either pine for the past (Roger) or get jazzed by the future (Don).

My money’s on Don. He’ll have it figured out before anyone else.

Which one are you?