The following blog post was written by Kevin Ordonez, Co-Founder of .orgCommunity, a responsive, subscription-based community for association professionals.
Writing a book is an incredible learning opportunity. When my business partner and I were working on Association 4.0--Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, we interviewed leaders at a broad cross section of organizations. It gave us the chance to hear how very different groups are handling some of today’s most hotly debated issues.
In an environment where information, education and community are at our fingertips, but time is in short supply, it’s not surprising that member recruitment and retention was a topic of many of our conversations. Several CEOs, who faced challenges in this area, were able to reinvent their approach. Their stories hold lessons for any leader facing statistics that are moving in an alarming direction.
The National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council (NASSTRAC) serves the truckers who move freight through the supply chain. Retail, manufacturing, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries are among the businesses it represents. The average age of truck drivers is 55 and the number of younger people entering the profession is declining.
“Our challenge,” said Executive Director, Gail Rutkowski was on the company side. “Businesses are not willing to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for their employees to join or renew membership. They see conferences as boondoggles. Leaders are afraid professionals will go to the meeting, network, and find a new job. It is very difficult getting shippers engaged for several reasons; young people entering the industry don’t see the value of face-to-face learning like the annual conference. They learn differently.”
Rutkowski was certain that if she could show potential members everything the association had to offer, they would want to be involved. Instead of trying to compete for this tech savvy audience’s attention online, she took a more direct approach. “People will ignore emails, but if you connect with them on the phone, it makes a difference. I call and talk with two to five members each week. Many are people whom I’ve never spoken with before. I’ve been able to get them involved and to agree to help us through these conversations, more than through any other strategy. I personally assist them to register for events and participate.
“Members often quickly recall the activity that made them realize the value of the association. For many that moment was their first NASSTRAC conference,” Rutkowski says. “They met people like themselves who were struggling with similar challenges. They solved some of their problems listening to excellent speakers or by connecting with individuals who have been where they are now. They realized they were not alone.”
To capitalize on this opportunity, the association offers numerous ways for attendees to connect with colleagues at the annual conference. They organize a newcomer breakfast, an ask-the-experts area for people to receive one-on-one support and networking receptions. A robust exhibit hall provides an opportunity for newbies to be introduced to a variety of carriers, third-party logistics companies, and technology providers. “Often, I hear that the annual conference format is outdated. Folks are too busy or Millennials don’t value the face-to-face interaction are the kinds of explanations offered,” Rutkowski says. “While there needs to be continual rejuvenation, I firmly believe that nothing beats face-to-face networking.”
Robert Voltmann, President and CEO at the Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA), calls this strategy biblical marketing. Knowing that his industry is collaborative by both nature and necessity, Voltmann has a unique philosophy regarding meeting members, prospective members, and potential partners. He sends TIA evangelists out across the country. TIA staff meets face-to-face with a significant portion of its constituents each year. “Staffers attended 56 events last year,” Voltmann says. “We talk to members and prospects and ask them what excites them and what keeps them awake at night.” While some executives limit the number of public appearances to those they can personally handle, Voltmann has complete confidence in his staff to represent the organization.
Voltmann has a preferred employee profile. “The staff are all disruptors,” he notes. “They didn’t quite fit where they were because their associations wanted to keep doing things the way they were doing them.” Voltmann is energized by constant course corrections. He’s excited to help his members greet the unexpected and succeed.
Go Beyond Tradition
The Health Information and Management Society’s (HIMSS), former CEO, H. Stephen Lieber, took a different approach to building membership. When he joined the organization, he began shifting the focus away from traditional members to reaching, influencing and serving as many people who are engaged in health information and management as possible. “This is one of the fundamental changes associations must go through,” Lieber says. “We need to move away from limiting terminology that causes people to work in old models and outdated mindsets.”
HIMSS began reaching beyond “member” to “audience” by offering resources and benefits not exclusive to dues-paying professionals. It was an evolutionary process. The organization adopted the belief that to achieve better health care through technology, non-member leaders and clinical and management professionals must understand the value that technology brings to the table. Respecting various audiences and monetizing them doesn’t need to be a conflict, according to Lieber. Rather, it is an imperative to driving organizational profit and creating revenue to achieve goals.
Reinvent the Future
The following are some of the ideas that summarize what we learned from these CEOs and other association professionals about building membership and keeping associations relevant:
- Know when to quit. Be quick to abandon initiatives that are not working.
- Don’t copy, innovate. Consider where you have your greatest success and build from there.
- Put a face on it. Pick up the phone (Yes, use that antique dust-catcher on your desk.), get on a plane, go to a meeting, and shake a lot of hands. Meet your members, and learn firsthand what it takes to engage their interest.
- Put out the welcome mat. Not everyone is an extrovert. Find ways to give new members an immediate sense of belonging. Help them make connections and network.
- Enlist your entire staff. Make everyone on the team a goodwill ambassador.
One-size-fits-all does not work in the association world. Each profession or industry has characteristics that make it unique. Don’t abandon a rich cultural history. Integrating your defining traits into any strategy is critical to success. Associations that understand how to celebrate the past and reinvent the future stay fresh, contemporary and inviting for both current supporters and new kids on the block.
About the author: For more than two decades Kevin Ordonez has been dedicated to serving the association community as a vendor partner, volunteer, speaker, author and consultant. Throughout his career he has focused on leveraging all things digital to advance the cause of associations, helping them integrate strategy, manage change and use technology to achieve their objectives.