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Associations: Let’s Date First

April 4, 2011

Box of ChocolatesAt ASAE’s recent Great Ideas conference, a recurring theme focused on how associations can recruit and engage young association professionals. It’s had me thinking about what makes me join associations.

What I came up with is that it has to do with the same principles that apply to dating. That might be an unusual conversation to open in a professional setting, but read on and see what you think. (By the way, I’m happily married and not looking to date!)

I wouldn’t date anyone that asked me through spam messages

Seriously – would you go on a date with someone who was inviting pretty much anyone that met basic criteria in the hopes that someone would say yes?

I’m much more likely to say “yes” to an association if

a)     a trusted friend makes the recommendation
b)    someone actually asks me, directly

In fact, if you’re somewhat relevant to what I do but only reach out to me through mass email marketing, I won’t actually say no by unsubscribing (letting you move on). I’ll just do the equivalent of screening my calls, by setting your messages to be marked as read and skip the inbox. You’ll think you have a chance, when (sorry) you really don’t.

I don’t actually want you to solve my problems

But I do want you to be there for me. Listen to me, encourage me, support me, even commiserate with me – but don’t try to fix things for me! I want you to make me stronger so I can solve my own problems.

I keep hearing associations talk about how they need to adapt their services to provide members with solutions to some major issue – like the economy.  To which I ask, “Does that line really work for you?” First off, I think that’s a pretty big undertaking and I’m not sure an association can truly deliver on that type of promise. Second, I guess I’m more of a modern-day Princess, ready to wield my own sword against the challenges I face. I’m not looking for a knight in shining armour, but I would appreciate having an association that can sharpen my sword for me between battles. A foot massage wouldn’t hurt either – after all, sword fighting in heels deserves special treatment!

Charm only goes so far

Flashy events, pretty newsletters and great parties might attract me initially. But I need real substance, such as high quality education, a strong return on investment and opportunities for my career, to stay involved or “get engaged”.

Can’t we just be friends?

Why is the goal always “engagement”? Sometimes, it’s nice to just be friends. For example, there are lots of associations that I think I would be interesting in following that are not in my direct field, but I’m not going to pay the full membership fee to join. I would, however, happily pay a modest fee to have some form of limited access. By recognizing tiers of engagement, associations could redefine membership, broaden their networks, and create new pricing structures that contribute to their financial sustainability.

I wouldn’t get engaged without dating first

If we can be friends first, or go on a few dates, I might be more likely to consider getting engaged. Too many associations are asking for big commitments too quickly, without giving me an opportunity to see if that’s really what I want.  The risks of this include that I won’t join, or that I’ll join something that isn’t a good fit for me and then I won’t renew.

I’m not like anyone (or everyone) else you’ve ever dated

I want to be able to personalize my relationship with you. Just because the last person you dated liked going to events and social networking, it doesn’t mean that I will. And that means I won’t see value in our relationship if that’s what you’re offering.

I’d like us to build a relationship that works for us. Instead of offering me a bunch of benefits I’ll never use, why not give me membership credits that I can use for the type of relationship that I want? If I’m going to a conference, I can apply my credits towards an event or advertising discount, or maybe as a certificate for your bookstore, or maybe for webinars. This way, I will see true, customized value in my membership.

Can we do some things that don’t cost more money?

As nice as it would be to go out for fancy dinners all the time, my wallet can only go so far. It seems to me that the cost of being involved in associations continues to add up. It starts with membership, but then the programs, events, silent auctions, raffle tickets, and travel costs continue to add up. Consider the cost, in Mommy dollars (or feel free to convert to your preferred currency), of some typical association fees:

  • $50 Lunch Session Education Fee = Enough gas for 128 round trips to soccer games
  • $400 Membership Fee = 1,161 Pull-Ups
  • $600 Conference Registration Fee = 95 weeks of swimming lessons
  • $2,000 Average conference expense claim = 10 weeks of group day care (honourable mention to 1,550 Justin Bieber downloads from iTunes)

Instead, maybe associations could offer something equivalent to frisbee-in-the-park activities, like a monthly downtown tweet-up around lunch time, where you can still spend time together face-to-face, but don’t need to spend anything else. These free activities won’t deliver an immediate revenue stream. But if they keep members involved (or even engaged?), they might just strengthen the organization.

While we’re on the subject of money, let’s talk about silent auctions. I’m not going to bid on anything the value of a mortgage payment. Even if I did want to bid on it, I don’t want to spend my networking time watching to make sure that I’m not outbid. Either offer affordable items, or let me buy tickets that I can use to enter a raffle for the items I like.

You said you’d call

It goes a long way to making sure that I’ll come to more events if someone follows up with me after I participate in something. It’s even more important if I have volunteered. I know, I’m a bit high maintenance (there’s a reason my husband calls me his city girl with an outdoor wardrobe) – but I want to feel like I matter. A quick note, card, message, balloon bouquet will make all the difference. I also want you to surprise me after the official courtship period is over so that I stay engaged – so I don’t end up singing “You don’t bring me flowers, anymore”.

For my industry research project for my MBA, I studied the motivation factors for high performing volunteers in a professional association. I found that the opportunity for personal or professional recognition is important to 77.2% of respondents, and that feeling appreciated is important to 71.4% of respondents.

On the flip side though… don’t call (or email) me too much. That’s creepy.

Associations depend on having solid market research to gauge what is important to members. I want to share my opinions and thoughts with associations that I am a member of, and will do so more thoroughly and promptly if someone reaches out to me directly. Last month I received 44 requests to complete surveys.  The only ones that I replied to were ones that were sent to me by a person that I know, and that knows me. I’ve invested in those relationships and want to help them be stronger.  I’d love to reply to more of them, but there’s only so much (survey) monkey business I can do.

Hey, that’s my line!

One of the best parts of bring in a relationship is sharing ideas. That’s how they develop into something really amazing. I love sharing my thoughts, time and energy with an association that I’m a member of and I don’t necessarily need recognition for it, but I don’t want someone else taking credit for it either. There’s a fine line between thought leadership and thought stealership. I think that when associations try too hard to “own the content” they ultimately make it faceless, and when they do, they make the relationship less personal.

I’m not alone in wanting to share my ideas and expertise – the same research I mentioned in the previous section found that utilizing personal expertise to address industry issues was very important to 65.7% of the respondents. I want to have a relationship that encourages me to share my best ideas instead of holding them back, that helps me to make those ideas stronger and that celebrates our achievement.

Building a relationship

I guess what this has all been about is that I get engaged with associations when I can have a good, meaningful relationship. What makes you get engaged?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Judy Kucharuk permalink
    April 4, 2011 9:29 am

    Excellent post! I agree with it wholeheartedly. I appreciated the conversion of miscellaneous costs to “mommy dollars”. When I consider costs of attending conferences and events, I carefully weigh the consequences of my spending and often find myself converting/comparing the cost to something else in my life.

    Great article, thanks for sending me the link 🙂


    • April 4, 2011 9:57 am

      Thanks! You’re so right about the opportunity costs of attending conferences and events. I also consider the results I could achieve from staying in the office as part of the cost of attending events. I find though that I usually have a productivity increase after attending meetings that helps support the ROI argument in favour of attending.

  2. April 4, 2011 5:07 pm

    Fantastic post and some innovative ideas. I am also most engaged with a personal phone call or invite. A personal thank you helps too.15 years ago yikes…I was asked to be on a board of directors of a speakers association and this launched my career. It was the personal invite that did it. It made me feel important.


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