My Advice for Emerging Association Professionals

Here’s a post I wrote for MemberViews Monday, a collaboration of bloggers in the association world who have teamed up to share their experiences and knowledge with other association professionals. The first topic in this series hosted by MultiView blogs is Advice for the Emerging Association Professional.

I never expected to work in associations. Frankly, they weren’t even on my radar. But I was leaving one career and in search of another. I took an association job just to have some stability and income while I figured things out. Little did I know, back in 1999, what a rewarding and fascinating profession I was about to enter.

Looking back, I wish I had asked for advice. It took me several years to find my way. If we were to have a “learn from my mistakes” conversation, it would go something like this.

Never stop learning. You will succeed in this profession if you live to learn. This is the most important piece of advice I can give you. Don’t shortchange yourself. Make time for learning even if it’s on your own time. Your older self will thank you.

Be observant. Listen to and watch people. You have to understand human behavior, both individual and group, if you want to motivate, manage and lead staff and members.

Give yourself time to think. You need time every week to plan ahead, set and review goals, and let your brain work its way around challenges and issues. 

Develop a DIY professional development habit. Set aside time to read association management blogs and publications, participate in Twitter’s #assnchat (Tuesdays at 2:00 p.m. Eastern), and attend association events. If your boss doesn’t give you the time or budget to do these things, do it on your own time. Put aside a small amount of every paycheck, even if it’s only $10, toward professional development. It’s an investment in your future, just like your 401K.

Join your state SAE even if you have to spend your own money. You’ll meet a network of peers that could become lifelong friends.

Look for mentors. Find people in your office or at another association who are active in your SAE or ASAE. They might not consider themselves mentor material so don’t even use the word “mentor” around them. A conversation with them could develop into a mutually satisfying relationship.

Find association peers. If you’re surrounded by colleagues who are only there for the paycheck, don’t be discouraged. Don’t follow them down their boring, soul-deadening path. Find people either in your office or other associations who are around your same age and career level. Twitter makes this so much easier now. Arrange monthly meet-ups. Make them your mastermind group.

Make friends all over the building. Avoid eating lunch alone. Don’t isolate yourself in a departmental silo. Learn about the work your colleagues are doing. How can you help them? How can they help you? What member stories can you share? What can you teach each other?

Pause and reflect before reacting. Expect stressful times. You might start the day expecting to work on specific tasks and projects, but find yourself dealing with other pressing problems, issues and people that weren’t on your list. You will constantly juggle a variety of deadlines and demands.

It’s natural to react quickly and emotionally to these stressors – those same reactions save us in life and death situations. But in the workplace, you must develop the habit of pausing before reacting, and thinking rationally, not emotionally. It’s not easy. Yoga helps, but I don’t expect you to practice yoga as a professional development tool – although it’s not a bad idea.

Become aware of your reactions to your own behavior (self-judging), other people’s behavior, stressful situations and change. If you learn to pause and reflect before reacting, you won’t stress yourself out so much and you’ll be a positive influence on the people around you. 

Don’t be a workaholic. Never put in crazy hours because you think you should, except, of course, for those special times in the meeting, magazine or budget cycle that require it. You and your brain need time off to recharge. You know the people who are always boasting about how busy they are and how late they stayed in the office? They’re not paragons of virtue to emulate. They’re doing it wrong — “it” being life.

Never be defined by your job. If you develop that limited mindset, retirement will be rough. Yes, your job is a huge, rewarding part of your life, but it’s just one part of your life. Make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the relationships and experiences that add color and passion to life. Find people, causes and hobbies to love. You’ll be a happier and more interesting, creative person and professional.

Advice for emerging association professionals
Photo by Andre Mouraux (Flickr CC license)

New Association Benefit: Social Dining

Have you heard of GrubWithUs? I hadn’t until I read this Fast Company article. GrubWithUs is a social network that arranges dinners with strangers at restaurants. You pay everything in advance, show up, have a most delightful time while getting to know several new acquaintances.

I would have LOVED something like this when I was single. Not so much to meet guys, although that wouldn’t have hurt, but as an easy way to hang out with new people for a few hours around a dinner table. I love that type of thing, especially when food is involved.

We had Meetup groups in Sacramento that did something similar, but the dinners usually attracted too many people. After a while, all the faces became a big blur — too much networking, not enough real conversation.

One of the top reasons people join associations is to meet and develop relationships with peers or prospects. Associations facilitate this by hosting conferences, volunteer opportunities and other events. Why not try the GrubWithUs model — small dinners for six to eight people? Here are some ideas:

  • During conferences and other meetings, like many associations do.
  • By geographic area for local members.
  • By conversation or brainstorming topic — pay for someone’s dinner and ask them to report back on ideas shared — market research!
  • By professional niche or interest.

Don’t focus on excuses to not do it – handling payments, staff time — you can find ways to make it work if you really want to.

The accounting department may have to become more nimble to pay the restaurant in advance, but it’s the 21st century, the age of PayPal, debit cards and taking care of business.

You might have to rely on volunteers. Thank them by paying or subsidizing their check, or giving them a promo code for an event or product.

Not everyone can afford to attend your conference to meet other members, but they will surely appreciate you making the effort to organize or facilitate member meet-ups.

Associations social dining members

Ignite Your Conference!

Last night I attended Ignite Raleigh. It’s been described as a technology variety show but that description doesn’t do it justice. Here’s how it works.

Lisa Creech Bledsoe aka twitter/glowbirdThere were 19 speakers. Each one gets five minutes and 20 slides. The slides automatically change every 15 seconds. They can speak about anything they want. They are chosen by the community. We voted for the speakers and topics we wanted to hear. Once we registered on the show’s web site, we received ten votes. We could give all ten votes to one speaker, or spread them out any way we chose. And if we changed our mind, we could take our vote back. The community chose 15 of the speakers and the organizers invited four speakers.

It’s a fast-moving show hosted by an emcee who kept it lively. At the end of five minutes, you are rickrolled off the stage. Some of last night’s topics:

  • A Day in the Life of a Meteorologist
  • NerdGirls Unite! Fact: Women Don’t Have to Be Lame
  • How to Save $100 with a DIY Home Energy Audit
  • 20 Little Know Facts About Sex & Pleasure
  • What Happens to Your Digital Identity After You Die
  • 13 Reasons Women Should Take Up Boxing
  • Everyone Needs a Dumb Guy
  • Mayberry Modernism: Why the Triangle is America’s Hotspot for Way Cool Houses
  • Ignite Night of the Living Dead
  • Why My Cat Can Get a Job Before You

Ryan Boyle aka twitter/therabAs you can see, it’s not a tech geek night, unless you call PowerPoint techy. It was fun and educational. It brought together about 500-600 people for a free night of entertainment.

Why would an association want to do this at a conference?

  • It’s a low cost (or free) night of entertainment for attendees where they can hang out and have fun with others.
  • We get to see another side of fellow members.
  • We also get to see members in the spotlight that might not normally get that exposure, a new set of faces.
  • It will be talked about. Believe me, this type of event gets lots of buzz – tweets, Facebook posts and lots of blog posts, lots.
  • It’s a great way to experiment with crowd-sourcing.
  • You can offer something to those members (perhaps younger, perhaps easily bored) who aren’t interested in your usual evening fare.

emcee Zach Ward aka twitter/zachwardWhat does it take?

  • Organizers – Ignite Raleigh was organized by the three man team of OurHashtag with the help of a volunteer coordinator.
  • A large room with a stage, screen and two mics (one for the emcee, one handheld mic for the speaker). The venue last night had some bridge chair seating in the front and in the balcony, but most of it was standing room only.
  • Voting tool – Ignite uses Uservoice on their web site.
  • Registration tool like Eventbrite – Ignite Raleigh was free and they closed registration when they reached the room’s capacity plus an additional no-show allowance.
  • Technical help to run the automated Powerpoint, sound, lights, video camera, livestream (optional) and photography.
  • Volunteers to check folks in, do crowd control and assistance, act as runners and shuffle speakers on and off stage.
  • An entertaining emcee – red tutu not required.
  • Sponsors to cover expenses – Ignite Raleigh ran short videos at the beginning of the night and at intermission and gave them lots of stage/on site love but not the microphone.
  • Brave speakers.
  • Cash bar for the audience.
  • Marketing in conference materials and through social media.

Instead of going to an association awards dinner, I would much rather attend an Ignite-like evening, and I’m a Boomer/Gen Xer (Generation Jones), imagine what your young members would prefer. This is a great alternative to your regular evening programming for those who frankly aren’t interested in what you’re offering, or can’t afford it.

UPDATE: After posting this I learned from Shelly Alcorn that the California Society of Association Executives will be doing an Ignite night at their annual conference. Can’t wait to hear how it goes!

Twitter’s First Association Chat

The first association Twitter chat (#assnchat) was held on Tuesday, May 12. Jeff De Cagna (@pinnovation) came up with the idea, spread the word and moderated the chat. I volunteered to go through the tweet twanscript (oh, sorry, couldn’t resist!) and post a synopsis. Although we did not solve all of today’s association problems, we did have a good conversation about some of the issues our industry is facing and how we can begin to tackle them. Here is an outline of the topics discussed — it’s a bit rough but will give you a sense of the conversation.

Online communities as a threat to associations

  • Information – members get news and information more quickly from online peers and sources and have access to experts online.
  • Networking – associations are not usually the conduit for members’ networking online.
  • Online as alternative to the status quo of associations
  • Some associations don’t think their members are using social media, but you need to survey members to determine if that perception is in fact true, you may be surprised at what you learn.
  • Even some participants are questioning their future membership in industry associations because of the benefits (professional development, networking, information, news) received freely online.

Solutions to the online threat

  • Do associations really know what members want? Or do we and/or our boards assume we do? Ask your members, “what could we do that would make you a member for life?”
  • Demonstrate value above and beyond what people can get elsewhere. What’s indispensable?
  • How does the association enhance/augment a member’s social networking activities with other value? Association as a starting place to meet peers or the glue that holds folks together — online or face-to-face can enhance those relationships, should have both channels, members can participate in ways that work for them.
  • Be in the social networking outposts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) while linking to a home base for members on your web site – one supports the other. Enable associations to become the conduit for people to find each other. But why should members pay for this when they can do it themselves online? Because associations are better at organizing face-to-face meetings and events?
  • Successful associations will focus on building community, being relationship brokers and serving as a conduit.

Content as a membership value

  • Associations as holders of content (experts), “legitimizers” of content (still true?), conduit/forum for members to deliver their own content/expertise
  • Who creates content?
    • Members as knowledge/content creators – associations must encourage and facilitate that; enable members to become creators, but allow others to comment, etc. Association as curators.
    • Some associations do not have the staff resources to create content, must rely on members/others.
    • Social media can be used to co-create with contributors (not necessarily members) to build trusted markets of exchange.

Members-only content

  • Still viable? Some say no, not a useful construct.
  • How to determine what lives behind the member wall? Associations first need a social media strategy to determine that.
  • Don’t build a wall, create a fishtank – provides transparency with the membership and the profession, shows how members engage with association. Create a filter to “clean” the process as you go — new blood in staff and leadership, new initiatives, trying to break new ground. Pressure to make changes is greater outside the fishtank than inside.

Why aren’t associations changing?

  • Fear of change and the unknown, risk-averse, bureaucratic nature, slow moving, slow to critique or envision alternate futures
  • Lack of understanding drives decision makers to want more assurances, research and risk management
  • Members want safe networking with peers and safe experimentation with leading edge tools — safety as a form of deep support (AAA and AARP – their value propositions are built on safety)
  • Need to create a safe, trusted environment in which people can make sense of things, access advice and experiment
  • Education is necessary during periods of change

Membership dues revenue model – viable in future?

  • Are associations in danger of following in the footsteps of the newspaper industry? Yes, because we won’t give up what holds us back – closed membership.
  • Where then does revenue come from to support advocacy, operations and other member services?
  • If content is open to all, what are members paying dues for?
  • Social media as possible revenue source — advertisements, sponsored webinars/podcasts/videos, tie-in with events, user-generated content
  • Or, more likely, social media won’t be arevenue source but a way to build new capabilities that create revenue. Associations as a unique, personalized experience, as deep support for member.
  • Extract the value of the interaction between activated network and content.
  • Possible revenue source – product/content development
  • Perhaps a membership model that grants access to info/events based on participation level, those who give more, get more.

Tools for communication

  • Yammer for internal communications – have to have an email address from the same domain to use Yammer, otherwise you can’t login; great for cutting across departmental silos.
  • Cubetree
  • Tweetgroup – groups and attachments, wonderful application with desktop client
  • iPhone apps – American Bar Association has one for its magazine, American Booksellers Association

Questions for future chats

  • Does anyone see associations struggling to deal with the way different generations want to interact? Face to face vs online?
  • With high demand on staff in small associations, how do we get our members to support and feed content creation?


AddyKujawa, alisonharle, BeccaFlach, CharmsS, DeirdreReid, desabol, eventpublisher, j8nd, jcrosby4, Jeffhurt, jeremygriffin, jmoonah, joerominiecki, JoeStella, karenaltes, kevinpatrick, kristildonovan, maggielmcg, MissLynn13, pinnovation, rharris, rjohnston, sgiarde, unklbuck

The next #assnchat will be Tuesday, May 19 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern (11:00 a.m. Pacific). You can follow by going to Tweetchat or Tweetgrid and following #assnchat, or in Tweetdeck you can create a search column for #assnchat.

New Members and Twitter Rookies – Why Do They Leave Us?

Nielsen Online reports that more than 60% of the people who sign up for Twitter leave within a month. This finding provoked lots of conversation on blogs and listservs about whether Twitter is a fad or here to stay. Some used the study to validate their perception that Twitter isn’t worth their time.

I’m not surprised by the low retention rate. New users of Twitter leave for the same reasons new members leave associations, online communities, chambers and other groups — they never learned how to use Twitter or their membership effectively, therefore they don’t see or get the value.

  • They enter the “room” and can’t find anyone to talk to. They don’t know how to find the right people to follow.
  • They fall in with the “wrong crowd.” There are a growing number of spammers, multi-level marketers and idiots on Twitter. They follow everyone, hoping someone will follow them back. They’re only after numbers and provide nothing of quality. Many new users follow them or people who only broadcast, never interacting, like celebrities. The new user remains lonely in a crowded room and hears nothing of substance.
  • They don’t look to see how others use Twitter effectively. They don’t know what to say and, believing all the hype about Twitter, they talk only about what they’re eating for lunch. Nobody cares. Or they use Twitter as a therapist and whine about their life or crazy siblings. Nobody cares. Or worse, they become broadcasters themselves, talking only about their company or product. Nobody cares. Don’t answer the Twitter prompted question — what are you doing? Instead tell us what you’re thinking about, what you learned toda, or what you read that’s worth sharing. Aspire to be interesting — easy to say, hard to do.
  • They don’t know how to manage the barrage of tweets. They don’t have time to read it all. Besides, so much of it is crap. Yes, it is, if you follow the wrong people and don’t have tools, like Tweetdeck, to help you manage your updates.

    (photo by mhalon/Flickr)
    (photo by mhalon/Flickr)

These poor souls never learn how to use Twitter as a knowledge and networking tool. They don’t get any value from it and they leave. Who can blame them? I’ve written about this before — it’s the same challenge with new members. If we don’t teach them how to use their membership appropriately and effectively, they’re not going to get the resources they need or develop the relationships they desire. We won’t meet their membership expectations and we’ll lose them after one disappointing year.

There is a great opportunity here for organizations to be their members’ social media coach and teach them how to effectively use not only Twitter, but also RSS readers, Facebook and LinkedIn.

If you know of someone who’s struggling with Twitter, tell them about your experience – how you learned to use it and what you get out of it. The web is full of resources about Twitter. I think one of the best directions you can point them is Darren Rowse’s TwiTip blog. He and his guest bloggers focus on how to use Twitter effectively. Or, for a more amusing (but helpful) introduction, show them the Twitter Rule Book.

Twitter has turned out to be more educational and rewarding for me than I ever expected, and my passion (there, I said it) for Twitter reminds me of the same passion some of our members had for my old association. Once they figured out (or were taught) how to “work” their membership, their opportunities to learn and develop relationships were unending. Many of those members learned from others – they had unofficial mentors. Maybe it’s time for us early adopters to be Twitter mentors to others, to share how we use it and help them find the same rewards we have. Reach out and save a Twitter Qwitter!

Do Right By Your New Members, Teach

We all want to help new members avoid being “that guy” — the one who doesn’t know the unwritten rules and doesn’t understand what to do as a member, usually resulting in a bad experience or unmet expectations. Yesterday’s post recommended that the first step with any new member is to ask questions to learn about their needs and expectations — to listen.

The second step is to teach. Many of your members (vendor, supplier, associate, affiliate) joined in order to make new contacts that will lead to new sales. To help them avoid the “that guy” label, you must take the time to teach them how to successfully network and develop business in your organization.

What you teach will depend on your organization’s culture, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Focus on relationships, not pitching your product. People are much more likely to listen to or buy from someone they know and trust. Your membership opens the door a bit, but it doesn’t get you inside; you need to do some work to get there.
  • Find ways to get involved in the organization and to work side-by-side with fellow members on events, committees, special interest groups, community service projects, whatever. Take the time to get to know them as people, not prospects.
  • Think about giving, not getting. Show up at a meeting with the mindset of “how can I help you?” and see how you feel when you leave. The other members will feel better about you, that’s for sure.
  • Don’t ignore your fellow vendors. So often new members concentrate only on developing relationships with their prospects — big mistake. A fellow vendor can make introductions, be a good reference, and send business your way — cultivate those relationships as well.
  • Learn about the industry. Keep up on issues, news, and trends that occupy your prospects’ minds. Demonstrate by your knowledge and actions (and your checkbook doesn’t hurt either) that it’s your industry too; after all, your revenue does depend on it.
  • Manage your expectations. You (or your boss) want results but relationships take time. Building a reputation takes time. Building trust takes time. Yes, it might take more than a year, be ready for that. Your dues are a business development investment.

There are plenty of resources out there on the right ways to network, yet you’ll find that not everyone seems to apply theory to practice. You know your group’s culture and how a member can best get ahead, give them that insight.

There are several ways to teach them:

  • Schedule a “marketing” meeting with them, not an “orientation” meeting, the label matters. Discuss marketing opportunities that would fit their goals and product. Give them some pointers on networking and relationship-building. Share member success stories that illustrate those guidelines.
  • Assign new members to veteran members. Ask the veterans to call new members, share advice and experiences, and invite them to the next event where they can introduce them around.
  • Make sure all your new vendor members receive networking/business development guidelines by both mail and email. Give this advice to them in as many ways as possible — one of them is sure to stick.
  • A few times a year invite all new members to a panel featuring two regular and two vendor members. Incentivize attendance — if they come, they get a deep discount off their next event registration. The regular members explain how to earn their business. The vendor members share how they developed the relationships that led to new business.
  • Be the social media coach for your members — hold classes on how to use social networking and media tools to market their businesses effectively.
  • Dedicate a section of your web site to the special needs of your vendor members. Feature interviews about the success stories of vendor members. Keep the content fresh — find new resources about networking and post or link to them. Publicize all your marketing opportunities and include testimonials lauding the value.

What else can we do? How are you helping your vendor members do business with other members? What are you teaching them?

Do Right By Your New Members – Listen

Cynthia D’Amour wrote today about barbequing members, not literally. Take a moment to read it. Did you cringe too because it sounded familiar? Cynthia says “the rules were not explained.” That’s a fairly common occurrence on listservs. Sure, there were listserv guidelines that told members to refrain from commercial posts, but how many people really read them, especially if you’re a new member and are still procrastinating about reading the gigantic manila envelope of orientation material you received last month. Plus the rules are usually written in that “policies and procedures” language that causes us to skim quickly, not really digest anything, delete and move on.

Another barbequing happens when a new member goes to their first event or meeting. Armed with business cards, he approaches a small group, introduces himself and starts his elevator speech while pushing his card into everyone’s hands. What’s your usual reaction when this happens to you? Ugh, another pushy salesman. Not the best first impression, is it? If you see “that guy” again at a meeting, you quickly avert your eyes and head in a different direction.

But “that guy” doesn’t know any better. Most members don’t. They join the organization to make some contacts and get new business. He was nervous, he did his best. Then nothing happens — he’s not feeling the love at meetings, his calls aren’t returned, soon he stops going, and when it’s renewal time, he thinks, well, that didn’t pan out, don’t think I’ll be signing up again.

What can we do to help our members succeed? Their goal is to get new business — how can we help them with that? We should have a plan in place for each new member that includes educating them on how to market within our organization, and this doesn’t mean just mailing them a list of advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

(photo by ky_olsen/Flickr)
(photo by ky_olsen/Flickr)

First, survey all your new members when they join. You have their full attention when they’re completing the membership application so add some questions to it. Even better, interview new members. Some associations have member ambassadors make these calls or visits — a great way for the new member to make at least one new friend.

Learn about your members so you know how to help them meet their membership goals, and how they can help the organization.

  • What are their membership expectations? What does their boss expect?
  • What are they selling?
  • Who is their target market? What type of companies or people do they need to meet? What type of job position?
  • How do they normally market their product/service?
  • Will there be others from their company willing to get involved in the organization and attend meetings and events?
  • When can they attend meetings/events — breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend?
  • Do they (or someone else in the company) have expertise they’re willing to share? Can they write content for your publications or web site, present a class or webinar, or provide podcasts or videos?
  • What other organizations do they belong to? How are they involved there?

These additional questions will give you insight on how to better serve and engage your members.

  • What methods of communication do they use and which do they prefer?
  • What types of social networking/media are they or their company involved in?
  • What are their most pressing business challenges? What keeps them up at night?
  • What kind of classes do they need for their professional development? What do they need to know to help their business prosper?
  • How do they spend their free time? What are some of their personal hobbies and skills?

Now that you have listened and learned about their membership goals, you can suggest a marketing strategy for them based on their probable involvement and other visibility enhancing opportunities — advertising, sponsorship, exhibiting, and content marketing (webinars/classes, podcasts, videos). You can also suggest other ways they can get involved based on what you’ve learned about them and their business.

But that’s just step one, step two is critical. To help them avoid the “that guy” scenario, you must teach them how to network and develop business at your organization the right way. And that’s the topic for my next blog post.

So what have I forgotten? Are there other questions that you ask your new members?

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