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.


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!

The “Splinternet” is Bad News, and I blame Apple

Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research has written a must-read post on the splintering of the Web, saying that the golden days of the standardized, open-source Web are over. He says we should prepare ourselves for a world in which platforms function well enough within their ecosystems, but are deaf to the rest of the universe around them.

Mobile devices and online networks are the most obvious examples. iPhone apps don’t work on a Blackberry, and vice versa. Facebook apps only work on Facebook. LinkedIn exists by itself in a corner of the world. Their citizens seem quite happy with this state of affairs.

I say it’s bad news, and Apple shares a large part of the blame.

From its beginnings, Apple has refused to play the open source game. It almost died in the 1990s when its closed-end desktop system nearly became irrelevant (except to graphic designers and school systems), but it saved itself by introducing a game-changing, closed-source music ecosystem, then by launching its closed-source, category-killing smartphone. See a pattern?

The irony is that Apple fan boys, who used to demonize Microsoft for its all-Windows-all-the-time dreams of world domination, look the other way when Apple rips pages from the same playbook. Apple will play with you, but only on its terms. Arrogance, anyone? (The same applies to RIM, Facebook and all the rest.)

But Apple’s shareholder value is through the roof, so others are emulating it. Those of us in marketing and communications must now develop on dozens of platforms, each mute to its neighbor, just to engage a critical mass of our markets or communities. Apple didn’t invent this trend, but the turtle-neck wearing guy from Cupertino made it not only acceptable, but admirable.

This is a betrayal of the ideals that made the Web such a revolutionary force – connectivity and community. Instead, these new platforms behave like toddlers on a play date – engaged in their own activities, unaware of the kid next to them. You can’t blame toddlers; their minds haven’t developed enough. Parallel play is all they can do. But these technology companies know better.

You might argue that this development is only the next stage in the 40-year-old fragmentation of communication platforms, but it’s worse than that. It’s a huge step backward for the information economy, isolating people from information and each other, and foisting exorbitant new development costs on to business. These rising costs can only exert a downward pressure on economic growth and prosperity. (Please: Don’t even try to sell me on the idea that the iPhone’s elegance is an excuse for this betrayal.)

Bernoff says it’s too late; that we can’t ask for a return of the standardized, interoperable web. I’m not willing to give up yet. If closed-source efforts at world domination were bad coming from Redmond, why are they so virtuous coming from Cupertino?

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.

Forrester: Social Media Is Now Mainstream Media

Photo by Matthew Field, via FlickrForrester Research today released its third annual social technographics profile of online adults around the world, and there’s only one possible conclusion: Social media is now in the mainstream – at least the consumption of social media.

Social technographics is Forrester’s lens through which it analyzes what people do with social media. Do they read it or look at it, do they create it, do they share it, or are they doing something else?

In the latest survey, 73% of all US adults are “spectators,” which means they read it, or look at it, at least once a month. Half of adults are “joiners,” which means they participate in a social network like Facebook. This is double the percentage from just two years ago.

Curiously, the number of people who regularly write blogs, upload video and music, or otherwise create content remains at 24%, compared to 18% in 2007. This does not disprove the importance of social media. To the contrary, it ratifies a hypothesis of Clay Shirky’s, which is that inside any collaborative effort, there is always a tiny group of people running the engine.

These findings echo the recent social technographic survey my association conducted on our members, Massachusetts physicians, around the same time that Forrester was in the field with its survey. Even among our members – median age around 50 – social media is a regular part of their existence.

Shel Holz wrote earlier today that NOW is the time to get into the online conversation with your communities. Couldn’t agree more.

But be careful. There is still much wisdom in the notion that you must start small, get it right, attract a following , and then grow.

As Shirky told the ASAE and the Center ‘s annual meeting last week, it’s a lot easier to start small, get good and get bigger, than to start large, be bad at it, and then try to make it better.

I would add, it’s not only easier, but probably a lot faster, too.