I have a friend, Mike, who is a part-time lawyer and part-time university professor. He loves teaching and he has often told me he would happily stop "lawyering" and teach full- time if he could.
"Why don't you?" I asked him the first time he mentioned this.
"Because I have a JD (jurors doctorate) and not a PhD. Everyone else in the department is a PhD. The school keeps me around because they can tell prospective students they have a practicing lawyer on staff," Mike told me.
What does Mike have to do with you?
Associations used to be private repositories of knowledge where access to information was a benefit of membership. With the rise of bloggers and podcasters you increasingly had to compete for members' attention as knowledge became less scarce. Artificial intelligence is making knowledge even less scarce because anyone can generate content on any subject. If members were drowning in content before, they're soon going to be sitting on the bottom of the ocean.
If you're like most associations, AI seems like a boon that can serve your constrained staff and budget. And it can be. But keep in mind that *everyone* now has access to this tool. If you over-rely on it to generate content you will devalue your organization as you become indistinguishable from the new standard.
This Halloween, I'm heading down to New Orleans for a vampire themed costume ball. While I was doing research on where I might go and what I might attend, I realized that I could use ChatGPT to help. I quickly generated information on exactly what I was looking for.
This poses a problem for many content creators, including your association.
We've been trained to use search engines to interact with the Internet. Search has been a win-win game for users and content creators. If someone, like your association, creates content that delivers value, they gain the attention of users.
For example, if I search Google for a list of Halloween Balls, I will end up on the websites of the people who have created the most value around providing information on Halloween balls. Google wins, the content creators win, and I win. There's an entire digital marketing field built on this mechanism called search engine optimization (SEO.)
Artificial intelligence upends this formula. AI's like ChatGPT are trained on publicly available information: books, social media, articles, and *your* website. When ChatGPT processes this data to create a response to a query, it doesn't say, "Read more about this on this association's website." It just provides an answer.
In the new world, ChatGPT wins and the user wins, but content creators, like your association, are cut out of the deal.
There's a famous mansion in San Jose, California called the Winchester Mystery House. The legend is that Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifles fortune, was haunted by the ghosts of people killed by the rifles. She saw a psychic who told her that she had to build a house for the ghosts and she could never stop building it or they'd kill her. The mansion was under construction for thirty-two years and contains doors that go nowhere, stairs that vanish into the ceiling, and other architectural oddities.
That's the legend. The reality is that Sarah Winchester had an interest in architecture and a bottomless budget and built things that caught her fancy rather than that fulfilled a specific function.
"Join for networking," is a clause I've found at the top of many associations' membership offers. It's an interesting benefit to focus on, because I've never met someone who actually likes networking. It's sort of like saying to a potential member, "Come to a party where you don't know anyone."
So why is networking highlighted? It's because associations are communities and much of the value you offer is through being a community. What do you do in a community? You network.
Yesterday, I joined a meeting on membership and marketing with CalSAE. The facilitator posed a question to the group asking how people were using video like TikTok to reach potential members.
No one had a successful strategy.
One of the executives on the call insinuated that it was a distraction. "Members join for a reason. We should build our marketing strategy around that rather than whatever is the latest trend."
What belongs on an association website's homepage? It's the most important page on your site because it's the most visited page. The challenge is determining what you should say, how much information you should provide, and what the order that information should be displayed in. It's Tetris for experience design. Your organization is unique and has unique requirements, but in this article I'll provide some guidelines on how to approach these challenges in laying out your homepage.
In behavioral psychology there's a concept called "loss aversion." Loss aversion is the tendency we have as humans to prefer avoiding losses over equivalent gains. Of course we all prefer avoiding losses, but loss aversion says that our response to potential losses is more dramatic than to gains. The potential of losing creates more avoidance than the potential of gain creates seeking.
"They're not the only game in town anymore," a peer recently told me, "I bet they're having to learn how to compete like most private companies do."
We were discussing associations and the challenges of pitching membership. We live in a time of great abundance. The people that you'd like to become members have more options than ever. To pitch membership effectively, you must not only address their desires with a relevant offer, but you must also differentiate your association from every other alternative. Because of this, it's critical that your membership offer displays an element of uniqueness.
A common marketing mistake that association executives make is that their messages have low relevance to a member or potential member. The messages don't stick in their minds because it doesn't connect with their situation. Critically important marketing where this low relevance issue manifests is in your membership offer. Rather than being intrigued by a highly relevant offer, potential members see an offer that leaves them guessing to whether membership is worth the cost? To fix this, you need to be specific in who you're communicating with by thoroughly considering their context.
"It's odd that what the board recommended was different from what the focus group wanted," one of our clients told me in a meeting. We're in the final stages of development for their website and discovered that the content of several pages needed to be tweaked after a focus group review.
Many associations struggle with communicating the value of membership. The staff know that membership is valuable, but they can't seem to put it into words in a way that potential members "get it." This is a symptom of what I call the Mirror Fallacy, where fixating on our perspective impairs our ability to communicate effectively with others.
I attended a Rotary dinner last night and sat next to someone who once served as district governor. I asked her how governors are chosen. She explained the requirements and nominating process. The final step is to present yourself before a committee and answer questions. She said, "Some people are wonderful on paper, but they have no microphone presence. As district governor you have to be able to command the attention of an audience." When we think about leadership, we often think about this form: the leader as a dynamic personality that people look to. However, there are other kinds of leadership and a useful association acts as a leader to their members— despite not having all the answers.
Everyone wants more attention. I've yet to come across a client who didn't say that their website needed, "greater visibility." When I ask clients what greater visibility would do for them, they say that it would help them grow. While this isn't entirely false, pursuing visibility is not a goal that leads to growth. Instead, seeking to understand the reason that people join is what charts the path to expanding membership.
I had beers with a couple of friends last Thursday. One of them just launched a redesign of their business website. His last major obstacle was that he needed to write his "about us" page. Rather than actually write it though, he recorded a short audio file where he talked about his company's history. Then he uploaded it to Otter.ai, a transcription software to convert it to text. He fed the text into Chat GPT and told it to organize it and re-write it with a more professional tone. He tweaked that output and then posted it on his website.
This entire process took him around half an hour and required little skill on his part.
"We did see a big drop-off in sponsors and exhibitors saying, 'Well, I don't want to do this. I don't want to do a virtual thing.' Now they're actually calling us back."
Nicole Hodson is the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. In this interview, she shares how her team has made a rapid transition from putting on a physical conference to running a remote one.
"In a lot of ways, I think anybody who's a tinkerer has got this opportunity right now to just change everything..."
Carl Smith is the owner of the Bureau of Digital, an education and community organization that serves digital agencies. He launched his first online summit 3 years ago and in the time since has experimented with a variety of remote event tactics.
"The hard part is actually doing everything else. So there's the marketing as far as getting the word out, letting people know... And then just getting speakers lined up is also a bunch of work."
Charles Max Wood has been running remote conferences targeting software engineers for the past six years and shares the lessons he's learned in this video interview.
Imagine a member’s entire experience with your organization as a timeline.
At the start of the line, they hear about your association for the first time from a coworker. In the middle, they’re active members, perhaps attending your annual conference. At the end of the line, they mention to a peer that they were a member several years ago.
What is the specific second on that timeline where you can find out the most about what they value?
On the surface, a request for proposal (RFP), seems like a methodical and rational method to find a vendor to work on your project. You create criteria, assemble a pool of possible solutions, and choose the best one.
But there are three serious problems that occur when you apply this approach that make its effectiveness mediocre at best.
“We totally appreciate you being our voice,” a member and laboratory leader told Michelle Hoad as she stood in the lobby of their hospital. She was on her way home after visiting the government and had found a couple of minutes to swing by and personally update the member while she was in the area. Three years into her tenure as CEO of MLPAO she had built a network of leaders like that one, increased membership by 35%, and delivered on her promise to “change everything.” It wasn’t easy though...
Many historians argue that Genghis Khan changed the world for the better. Under the Khan’s control, all of Asia was united, crime was non-existent, trade flourished, technologies were exchanged, and citizens were able to freely practice whatever religion they wanted. Historians call it the Pax Mongolica- the Mongolian peace. However, his conquest of Asia was arguably the most cruel and bloody period in history.
Why does one person sign up with your association and another doesn’t?
One person says, “Yes, I want that,” and another says, “No thanks.”
Not everyone is a good fit for your association. But it would be a mistake to assume that all those potential members that don’t join are in this category.
There has been an idea rolling around the association space that members sign up for economic reasons.
The gist of it is that you need to look at all your benefits and calculate a market price for each to present as the value of membership in your offer.
If you’re like most association staff, you don’t have enough hours in the day and you’re almost hamstrung with a lack of budget.
But you know you could be doing a better job selling the value of your association... If only you had more time and money! Catch-22! Darn it!
Here’s the thing:
You don’t need hours of effort and you don’t have to break open your piggy bank. If you’ve got just five minutes to spend boosting recruitment, I’ll reveal five easy changes to transform your current member benefits page into a more effective pitch.
Pam Williams is the VP of Membership for AMA Triangle, a large chapter of the American Marketing Association based out of North Carolina.
She consulted with us as part of a membership drive, looking for ways to make their digital strategy more effective.
The 2019 Marketing General Membership Marketing & Benchmarking report has a section on internal challenges to membership.
The #3 largest internal challenge is “Difficulty in proving ROI.”
“How do we prove return on investment,” is not a great question for improving retention.
After a presentation, an executive approached me with an internal argument her staff was having. She said that they were going back and forth over whether they should make all of the content on their website freely available or whether they should put it behind a membership "wall" so that only members could access it? She wanted to know which option I advocated?
Should your association website have content speaking to your member’s customers?
As an example, if you’re an association of landscape professionals, should you write articles on lawn management or have a big button, “Find a Landscape Professional?”