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.

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?

Mobile, Social and Search – The Plan for 2010

The two important things happened to marketing and communications in the last five years.

  1. Communications became a two-way street – the audience became the community
  2. We expected our community members to find us. Now, they expect us to find them, wherever they are.

The social part of this has been beaten to death for the last five years; I don’t have to go into that. But as the recent owner of my first smartphone, I finally internalized the game-changing nature of our always-on, always-everywhere world.

The ah-ha moment for me was a New York Times article last year, where a 20-something remarked that if the news is important enough, it will find her.

Guess what – she’s right. But it took me a while to realize it.

For the past month, Congress was voting on health care legislation over several consecutive weekends.  Naturally, as a health care association, we cared about this a lot.

In the old days, I would have been anchored to my desk at home, following the action. But with my phone these past two months, and with the right Twitter feeds loaded, I could do my work and continue with my weekend life.

I went to my daughter’s soccer game. I did some errands. I went to the high school football game. I picked up my car at the garage. When the climactic votes arrived at night, I got home to follow it on CSPAN, because still nothing rivals the immediacy of live TV.

During the course of this work, our organization’s Twitter reach grew. We are re-tweeted and our followership has grown. Our influence has grown, too – thus fulfilling one of our key objectives with Twitter. All because of mobile.

  • People learn from each other today through social media.
  • People find each other today through mobile.
  • People discover you through search.

It all works together. The destination site, the portal – they’re history. So while some people may bookmark us and consider our site a destination in and of itself, I am no longer trying to get everyone to do that.

More people will learn about us when we show up in their world or in their community. If we interest them, they’ll follow us back to our site, where they’ll discover what we’re all about. Then we have a chance to enroll a new member, retain an existing one, sell a product, service or education program, or influence people.

That’s what we’re in this for.

Core Competencies for Communications Professionals: Join us at ASAE Annual

Photo by TOMTEC, via FlickrFor the past year, the ASAE and the Center’s Communications Section Council has been working on a list of core competencies that communications professionals in associations should master today.

As I mentioned in a post a few months ago, we were updating a document that was only four years old, but already badly out of date. Two things have changed dramatically in the last 10 years: How people learn about the world around them, and how everyone can now be a publisher as well as a consumer of information.

It would be easy enough to update the toolset for this brief moment in time, but tougher to craft something that would have a longer shelf life than a loaf of bread. What we concluded was that the basic skills still occupy a very large amount of shelf space: writing, pitching stories, research, planning, speaking, etc. Without those skills as a foundation, no one could be called a complete communications professional.

By the same token, many of the newer social media technologies are also fundamental to our skill set. But how do we capture these when the tool set is evolving so quickly? (One shouldn’t assume everything around today that’s new will persist.)

First, by acknowledging the volatile nature of the business. I mean, there’s no way the golfer Stewart Cink would have a half million followers on Twitter a year ago, even if he had won the British Open in 2008 instead of this year. Tiger Woods, maybe. But Cink? He’s hardly a household name. But that’s how quickly our business has changed.

Second, take our best shot at identifying the dominant tools today – and we defined dominance as those which seem to command the great volume of conversation. The operative term here is core competencies. Others arise every year, but in our judgment some aren’t core yet. Next year, who knows?

Finally, recognize that as the tool set grows, few things are going away, with the possible exception of faxes. Everything else still has a place – a different place than before, but still a place.

So here’s our effort. What do you think?

After you review it, we want to hear from you. We have two questions, to start with: Is there anything you would change? And how can ASAE use this document to develop new education and training programs?

Two ways: You can comment here.

And/or, you can come and talk to us at the “un-session” we’re holding at the ASAE and the Center’s Annual Meeting on Monday, August 17, (corrected) from 12:15 to 1:00 p.m. in Room 802A of the South Building of the Toronto Convention Center.

We hope to see you there!

How to Destroy Members’ Trust in One Easy Step

Photo by rogiro via FlickrI’ve run into two instances recently where vendors or association managers demonstrated a tin ear to the fragile nature of trust.

First, my example. We were trying to start an experiment with a small social media vendor. Along came the proposed contract. For the most part, it was standard-issue, except for a clause which gave the vendor “an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license” to do whatever the hell it wanted with user (i.e., member) content.

What? I am NOT going to be the guy who has to explain to Dr. Marcus Welby why his comment on health system reform ended up on, say, a movie celebrity gossip site. (Not that the vendor would have done that, but it would have been theoretically permissible.)

So I said no way; we can’t do that. The vendor initially didn’t want to change anything, so we started to walk away. Well, the vendor relented, and we started talking. Soon we understood each other, and came to a verbal agreement that suited our needs and theirs. (We’re still buttoning up the paperwork.)

I didn’t think much more about this incident until a colleague shared recently that someone else in her association came up with the idea of selling user-generated content to others. (Not sure who would buy it, but that’s a conversation for another day…) To enable this idea, they came up with Terms of Use language similar to the above. She was arguing strongly against the clause, but getting nowhere. I found myself taking her side, and quite passionately at that. Something really burned me about this. What was it?

I have to admit that until then, the consultant-speak about the primacy of trust seemed liked a lot of hoo-hah to me. A nice book, something nice to think about, but the be-all and end-all of business? Not so much.

But consider what associations are all about. Our members (and presumably staff) share a common interest, and maybe even a passion, about something. The members send in their money, we do some work together, and hopefully we do something that makes a difference. It’s a relationship of sorts – not a terribly intimate one, but a relationship nonetheless.

How do you violate any relationship? Blow up the trust you’ve built. In the two examples above, members would sign up for something. They would get a screen of “Terms of Use,” and if they’re like me, they put a check in the box and blow by that puppy in no time flat. (Reverse-engineer software? Puleeze. No problem, Bro!)

Then the comment by our Dr. Welby ends up on that hypothetical gossip site, and he’s mortally embarrassed and offended. Do you really think he would feel better if I told him, “You should have read the Terms of Use before you wrote something, doc.”

I didn’t think so.

The better solution: Have members proactively opt in to allow their content to be sold or shared. This gives them control over their identity and their content, and preserves their trust in you (it may even build trust). Establishing this as an opt-out decision treats them simply as a limitless revenue stream. In times like this, an opt-out strategy can be tempting, but it’s a losing proposition.

Why? Being a member of an organization is different from being a customer. The relationship is different, even with money involved. There are many ways to screw up trust, and treating members like ATMs is only one of them.