Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why are Associations Not Using Social Media for Direct Response?

Associations love looking at case studies from for-profit companies that have been successful in growing their business using social media. The technology that many associations have been really looking at lately is twitter and when doing so they point to companies like Dell and California Tortilla as companies that are doing it right. To me what these companies, and many others, are doing is using a new medium to implement traditional direct response marketing.

I follow both of these companies on twitter and the majority of what I receive from them is reminders about special limited time offers and/or reminders about ways I can use their "membership" program to my advantage. I do not see how this is any different than using a direct mail package, an email or even a phone call or fax to get people to purchase something yet I get the feeling that many marketers feel like these companies are truly breaking new ground.

Am I missing something? I thought that part of the value of social media is creating community. Are these companies doing that? Or are they forming a community of people that are simply looking for a good price or a discount from a certain corporate entity? To me it seems like the second option but I would love to hear your thoughts. Regardless of whether what companies like Dell and CalTort are doing is actually building community and building engagement they are successfully growing revenues using special limited time offers in social media. Association professionals are watching this and seeing the method achieve results yet I do not see many associations doing what they are doing. Many associations are now using twitter and Facebook and other technologies to start conversations and inform their audiences.

What I don't see them doing is using social media to truly drive response. I have only heard of a few organizations that have used limited time discounts or special benefits in tweets and Facebook postings. I think it would be great if like California Tortilla an association had double rewards Tuesday where members would get 2 books for the price of 1. Or if, like Dell, they would tweet out special discounts on products and services that the membership would value. These types of things need to be done strategically but they are easy to implement with the technology we have today. Why are associations not doing more of this? I can't figure it out. Can you?


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Addressing Convenience: When What Works for You Doesn't Work for Me

One of the things we will cover here on the blog periodically is a series of terms that we—in "the association world" and the outside world—don't define well or think about very clearly. Concepts such as convenience, networking, and value mean different things to different people and often each person has a nuanced way of thinking about things. These terms are easy for us to use in project and marketing plans as shorthand code for something much more complex, which helps us write the document, but doesn’t help when we do have to review our operations. Basically, shorter sentences can come at the expense of true understanding of our challenges and opportunities to improve.

"Convenience" is something our members & customers will often cite as a reason for preferring something—typically formats for publications, membership materials, educational/learning opportunities, etc.

In a magazine circulation study we conducted this summer, a large trade association was trying to boost magazine paid subscription and find a way to integrate its relatively new electronic version into the mix. To some degree, these two objectives could be cross-purposes. For example, if you make electronic use easy, it facilitates pass-on, and reduces paid circulation as a result. Or conversely, if you push paid readership far higher through aggressive circulation marketing, you take market attention away from the relatively new electronic version and may be fighting a losing battle long-term if preferences are naturally migrating toward electronic. We all knew going into the engagement that it might be a lose-lose situation: we might study market needs, demand drivers, and historical trends, but reasonably conclude that no amount of effort might help the association accomplish its goals. Then again, not doing something is a decision, too, and purposeful inertia is a valid mode of operation, sometimes.

When we measured satisfaction with the print/electronic formats and stated media preferences, then cross-tabulated them, we found some interesting things:
• People who prefer electronic publications and information (phrased in the abstract) were less likely to be satisfied with the electronic publication.
• More importantly, this group was a minority of the membership.
• Regardless of their preference, when asked why they prefer print or electronic, overwhelmingly members indicated "convenience" in their open-ended comments.

In essence, members were telling us that they were wedded to one format or the other because they fit their lives very well. We drilled down into these findings with personal interviews to learn more. Those who prefer paper wanted something they could take home or keep at home and read in the living room or the bathroom. Those who preferred electronic wanted something they could read on the job, that would be easier to search, and wouldn't pile up in their office. Media preferences and convenience didn't fluctuate widely by employee job function, age cohort, size of firm, or any other of the usual suspects that one uses to help explain findings in terms of audience segments.

We concluded the engagement with recommendations on messaging, database-driven circulation efforts, better pricing, etc. However, understanding "convenience" did serve an important function: it told us not to make electronic a focal point of the campaigns, and to recognize that it's a complement rather than a replacement for the print vehicle.

In your associations, how have you dealt with publication format preferences over time? Have you replaced print titles with electronic to "lead" the profession into the future? Did you do it for a single title or your entire array of communications vehicles? If so, how did you measure success of the conversion—total complaints, satisfaction with the new vehicles, exit surveys?

The iconoclast in me says that most mature consumers, including you and me, form preferences that are so personal and intrinsic that we rarely self-examine them, and we certainly don't articulate them well to others when they try to measure or describe them. As a result, research efforts can fail to accurate measure member/customer attitudes, and even if they do, the findings may feel inconclusive to us.

I would contend that it's important to ask the questions, and to probe below surface level concepts such as it is "convenient." Or you "did fine." You'll understand your readers and non-readers far better, and you'll probably find that the best choice between print & electronic remains "both."

It may be more efficient to use only one format to deliver your content, but it's less effective. In an environment where perhaps 60% prefer e- and 40% prefer print/mail, is it a good business decision to bravely disenfranchise a large proportion of your audience? You might have made the move, resurvey five years later and find the preference is now 80%/20%, but this doesn't validate the decision. The apparent shift could reflect a change in preferences vs. a steady loss of former members who continue to prefer the format you eliminated? Other research we've conducted shows that format preferences migrate very slowly, if at all, depending on the industry or profession. It's not the stampede toward electronic that we all probably expected 10-12 years ago.

Even if research may lead to "analysis paralysis" in cases such as this, I think that would have been a better outcome for some of our association than to make wholesale changes that carry a huge opportunity cost in the form of lost members and others who feel less connected without seeing your logo in their mailbox from time to time.

-Kevin  45 years old, ASAE member for 19 years, prefers print and electronic

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Our Goals Are to Gather, Learn and Share

As I am looking back on all of the educational experiences I have heard about, paid to attend, participated in for free and facilitated through College of Marketing in 2009 I am amazed at all of the great education that is out there that is relevant to what I do for my clients and my colleagues in the association community. There are so many people out there helping to educate the association community with all of the latest strategies and tactics that an association marketer might want to take advantage of.

In order to provide top-notch, expert information for the association marketing community at an affordable price we have big plans for 2010. Some of the activities we have already confirmed are as follows:

1. An even more robust schedule of face-to-face seminars that includes presentations from some of the true experts of the association industry.

2. A growing number of webinars that are held both live and are pre-recorded. Our plan for early 2010 is to be able to strategically package webinars together so you can receive access to a large amount of expertise at a fair price.

3. Keep the conversation on the College of Association Marketing LinkedIn community lively and educational so it is increasingly valuable to our community members.

4. Continue to share knowledge, resources and expertise through this blog which will allow you an opportunity to comment, critique and share your thoughts as well.

5. Emails sent out after an event that include some highlights of the event and also a snippet or two of video so that if you are unable to attend you can still gain some value from the event.

6. We are also moving ahead in other key areas including several white papers and more presentations outside the DC area including state society of association events.

As we reach the end of 2009 we want to thank you for your support throughout the year. If you have any ideas you would like to share and have suggestions on topics, activities or other things we should consider doing do not hesitate to comment here or email us at any time.

Happy Holidays and here’s to a happy, healthy and prosperous 2010.


Friday, December 25, 2009

How to Maintain a Solid Commitment to Mediocrity

As I was reading Scott Briscoe’s recent post on Acronym titled Is Mediocrity Really The Worst Option, Scott’s comments that “you should never expend resources on something you know is mediocre” really caught my attention.

For quite some time I have been hearing about how workers, both for-profit and non-profit, are struggling with too much to do and therefore a lack of work-life balance. In many ways I believe this is due to a lack of data to effectively drive decision making in combination with a severe lack of prioritization. I have noticed that many staffers spend quite a bit of time on projects that do not have a positive ROI (ROI not necessarily meaning money, but any sort of result) and this worries me.

It worries me because many times this focus on activities that do not move the association forward in some way detracts from a staffer’s ability to focus on activities that would have a more positive outcome and/or detracts from their ability to work reasonable hours, have a personal life, and avoid burnout and stress. I am sure there are other reasons why association staff are focusing on projects and activities that do not have the impact as others they could be working on. If you have experienced any yourself, please share them here.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Finding Resources for Membership and Associations in General

Sometimes I'm impressed by the fact that NOT reinventing the wheel is both efficient and helpful. As we launch this blog, I am well aware that there are so many others out there, all offering great advice for associations--we are maybe the 150th in line in terms of chronology and value for now. In a recent communications survey I conducted with CalSAE, one of the evocative comments when we asked about blog reading & posting behavior was "Seriously, who has time for this??" and I can relate. The key is to become a "go-to" source of information you can actually use, which means sometimes directing you to overlooked information sources that are pertinent to your work.

In the interests of repurposing content, I found these articles in my digital "paper trail" in the Avectra Academy newsletter. I'm including a link to our articles regarding non-member data collection and retention. Of course it's a bit selfish to tout only our contributions: you should sign up for this newsletter and others like it to tap into a great stream of resources and how-tos, courtesy of the largest firms serving our association industry. Along with RSS feeds and the ASAE listservs, these newsletters are great ways to ensure that content flows to you. Some things you may notice it in real time becuase it's fascinating today, but other content is nice to have in your email archives for easy search--to address those information needs that pop up next month but until then weren't even on your radar screen.

I am often surprised by how many of my friends are like the CalSAE member, who may inadvertently cut themselves off from resources that really can be assets in the workplace to avoid information overload. For example, a suprisingly small proportion of ASAE members subscribe to their listservs (where I practically live, and which their surveys still document as the #1 or #2 service for many). Some don't get it and don't subscribe; others use them and then unsubscribe becuase the volume of real-time emails IS a lot like "drinking from the firehose." I personally use it on a digest basis because I don't need 120 extra emails a day; I'd rather get 12 emails at midnight compiling everything by functional area and then keyword search later in my email archives. Ditto for e-newsletters. It's a bit of a paradox, but I think the ubiquity of the Web has made us complacent and somewhat inefficient when it comes to identifying and using resources. If you don't believe me, think back to when the last time was that you spent less than 1 minute searching for relevant, substantive content on the Web and actually found the exact professional resource you were looking for? (With the help of Boolean search techniques [and/or, " "] great for finding song lyrics, but certainly not case studies of effective association web strategies.)

Bottom line, you can look forward to future posts here that share more resources through links and/or footnotes on key topics. We feel your pain and appreciate the need for accessible information since we have certainly been there ourselves!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Members are Much More Than a Checkbook

I recently wrote about how critical it is for associations to continuously evaluate how they are communicating to members and make sure to change things that are not effective. To add on to that I think it is critical that associations talk to their members on a consistent basis, not just when they want them to purchase something. Over time the typical member communication strategy has become something like this:

1. Member joins or renews—thank you for joining or renewing package goes out
2. Annual Meeting comes up so members receive numerous promos asking them to pay to attend the Annual Meeting
3. A new publication or video or webinar gets released so members receive numerous promos asking them to purchase whatever it is you are selling
4. Your foundation has a critical issue it wants to focus on so members receive a number of communications asking them to support your foundation
5. It is now 90 days before their membership expires so they start to receive renewal notices asking them to renew their membership

Since they have joined/renewed the only communication members have received that is not asking them to pay for something is probably the print and electronic publications that the association produces. Associations have come to treat their members as checkbooks, not people or organizations. This has to change and even though it takes more time and effort to talk to your members on a consistent basis while not asking for money your members will respect your more and therefore their loyalty to the association will increase and their likelihood of renewal will as well. Is the time and effort you need to figure out a more member centric communications plan important? I think so.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Member Communications—The same ol’ same ol’ does not work!

As I have had the good luck to work with more and more associations I have had the opportunity to view member communications from small associations, large associations, trade associations and individual societies.

I am regularly amazed at how the member communications of so many associations have not changed in years. The same number of communications are being sent, the same media are being used, the same timing is being adhered to, the same messages are being used, etc, etc. There is no way that what any association did 10, 5 or even 2 years ago is effective being done in the exact same way that it was at that time.

There are so many new needs of our members and so many more ways to communicate with members now than there was even last year. Why are we not spending as much time as possible on member communications which has a huge impact on our organization?


Friday, December 18, 2009

"Everybody Loves the Smell of His Own Brand"

As I read the sports pages AND the business pages regarding the Amazing Tiger Woods Implosion, it makes me think about how as associations we manage our own brand (BTW sorry for the bad Austin Powers reference in the title!)

I think Tiger will be okay—they do project a loss of 2/3 of his endorsement income so he'll only make $30 million a year, by one estimate—which financially makes him the size of a larger association if one includes his tour earnings once he returns. This is of course a spurious comparison, but I do think about the parallels between image management and branding for the big guy, the small guy, and the association, and how we might consider the parallels when we assess our brand awareness and/or go about "rebranding." A few of the things that strike me, because I love numbered lists:
1) There is ALWAYS a personification that shapes our association brand images. Whether it's a college or sports team with an anthropomorphic mascot, a Kardashian, or each of us dutifully following career counseling advice to manage our lives as if we were "Kevin Inc." we are recognizing that as people we embody a brand. In associations, as in life, our audiences form strong connections with the acronym, organization name, the mission/vision, and the person/people who lead us. I know none of us really misses the symbolism and importance of having the right companies, agencies, or expert represented on our Board, but sometimes we miss the negative impact and opportunity costs generated by our volunteer recognition practices. In some associations I've worked for, you'd have a hard time telling who the Executive Director is. Instead the association appears to be led every year by a different guy who serves as spokesperson and top individual in the hierarchy. The result is a bit of jarring discontinuity and a general fuzzy sense within the marketplace of "Who are those guys?"

2) People are naturally looking for more authenticity from companies, just as members and donors do from their associations, but I believe authenticity can actually conflict with the power of our brand. I enjoyed hearing James Gilmore at ASAE Annual speak on the topic, but I fear that the structure that tends to bake in authenticity—a representative democracy-type structure, servant leaders, and a pluralistic nature—all inhibit us from consciously changing our brand to be something more evocative and compelling. Unlike political campaigns and parties or corporate leaders who put a premium on "staying on message," we will always have staff and leaders who "prefer the way things were" and will act and speak in ways that don't stick to the new script. Especially when they serve as de facto faces of the association with specific audience segments or rotate into serving as the spokesman that also spells trouble for continuity in the brand image — even conflict in what the human voices expressing the brand say it is for some period of time.

3) Associations should do a better job of assessing brand value and positioning. Interbrand and AC Nielsen measure and publicize the annual brand equity of top firms. It's a commonly-accepted business axiom that the brand is a valued asset, perhaps the single most valuable one. Since it can convert a plastic tube or glass container filled with colored liquid into a $1.75 lower-shelf shampoo OR a $280 per ounce fragrance behind a locked perfumerie counter, the brand is a powerful thing for manufacturers and products that drive profitability and also define the business model, public perception and positioning of the firm. But I do wonder why as associations we don't attempt to measure ours—at least what we stand for and what our members and customers believe about is, if not necessarily the value of the brand itself. In a less-competitive environment, that may be a lower-priority information need … to paraphrase Baz Luhrmann "The race is long, and in the end, it's only with yourself." But it's still something we should try to understand, shape and improve.

To bring it back to Tiger, we have far longer "careers," our defined market is a lot smaller, and we tend to embody far greater stability. A mega-celebrity in our culture is like the candle the burns one-fourth as long and fifty times brighter across society. But it doesn’t mean we can't learn from what their publicity and marketing arms do best and adapt what we can, particularly when it comes to maximizing the benefit of the personal aspect that is baked into all of our organizations.

 -Kevin Inc.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Amazing Grace": How Sweet Thou Aren't

Free months of membership? Thanks! I'll take it!

I recently became aware that my membership in an organization of which I am member had expired over 3 months ago. I had no idea that my membership had expired because for some reason I never received notification and I also never stopped receiving benefits. The entire time that I was expired I continued to receive access to the member’s only sections of their website, copies of their print publication, members-only pricing on events I signed up for as well as being able to continue to serve in any volunteer roles which I was serving. My question to that organization is why? Why would any organization allow a member to continue to receive benefits after they are in effect no longer paying for access to these benefits as their membership term has expired?

When I ask associations why they “grace” members months of membership the answers I tend to hear are as follows:
1. This is the way it has always been done
2. Lots of our members end up coming back at some point any way so why would we shut them off
3. Our processes are not set up to get a renewal notice until real close to their expiration date so it would not be fair to shut them off at expiration.

To me, unless you can guarantee that 100% of the members that you give free months of membership end up coming back I see no legitimate reason to enact this practice. I feel this way for a few reasons as follows:

1. You are rewarding your members for renewing late in the hopes that they will come back. Reality is that they will not all come back so those folks that do not come back get a period of membership for free.
2. You are losing money because you are not getting dues for this free period yet you continue to pay to serve these soon-to-be lost members.
3. You are training your members to renew late and unless you maintain their original renewal date you will end up giving even current members months of membership for free.

I don’t understand why many associations are so hesitant to start the renewal process earlier and then shut off members who have not paid when they expire? To me losing access to the things you are no longer paying for is the definition of expire. Shutting folks off when they expire allows you to use it as the stick to make people renew on time. For example, what if the association I described above had locked me out of the members-only sections of the website the minute after I didn’t pay my dues when my membership expired. I use the website regularly so the next time I would have gone the website and tried to log in I would have realized my membership had expired and I would have renewed right then and there instead of waiting the 3 months after I had officially expired to renew my membership. I did renew eventually but a lot could have happened during the 90 days I was expired and still receiving benefits that could have led to my not renewing. Is this something that associations can risk? As a membership professional, I think not.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Data Mining for Dummies"

Today as I work through a data-mining proposal, I am going down "memory lane" as I rethink of my own experiences managing & doing these projects, and in turn to the varying approaches and degrees of success that association membership, marketing, and conference departments take with this critical function. I'd like to share with you a few case studies and lessons learned.

I am somewhat odd, in that I actually started my professional career as a computer programmer/analyst in the Consumer Price Index. The old personnel line in the federal government was "we can't afford techies, so we train them." Apparently my background as a failed PhD candidate in economics and editor of my college newspaper gave me a nice combination of left-brain/right-brain aptitude to make me worth training and quickly promoting: I have to say that I learned and did more in database analytics in two short years than I ever did again in many years of association-related work.

What does this have to do with associations? Plenty, I should think. The CPI gave me a great tool set and a perspective that works to some extent with every association I worked with as staff.
  • At CPI, infrastructure, mission, and support network all contributed to and benefited from data mining. Our explicit mission was to collect and data on product characteristics and their prices to develop and report a series of monthly indices, so our small army trooped around retail outlets to collect 200,000 price quotes a month; forty of my colleagues would review their work through exception reports; a smaller team of us were engaged in ongoing quality initiatives to ensure that we were measuring inflation properly. On any given day there would be 3 or 4 staff accessing the central database running simulations of alternative methodologies or writing academic-quality papers, and many more reviewing the individual data points to question odd changes or to accept/reject new models and other substitutes in our sample.
  • At NAHB I/we did large dataset analysis in support of their Housing Economics journal as we monitored patterns in housing sales, design trends, etc. but the thought of applying this brainpower to marketing didn’t really work for our very large annual meeting or our grassroots/federated structure of membership.
  • At ASHP, I worked with many pharmacists on staff who grew up reading the professional literature and many were editors for our AHFS drug information product—a several thousand page annual subscription service that served as a guide for drug use in most hospitals in the world. Yet I was the first person to convert their aging AS/400 database into something we could use to segment the audience to drive marketing plans, budgeting, results and penetration analysis. With a database of 180,000 names but only 30,000 members and maybe 15,000 other customers, we needed this service—we just didn't have it.
  • At CRS, we used Pledgemaker to manage a database with 350,000 active donors; another 700,000 former donors;  millions of historical donations; and 40 million contact records created by our acquisition program. Unlike membership organizations, in disaster relief operations, there are donors who lie dormant for years but when a tsunami or earthquake or colossal famine strikes, these donors are assets who don't find it strange to be contacted and who generously give again if you're among the first to contact them. Once we hired staff, purchased FirstLogic and SAS, created a duplicate donor file for analysis, we were able to do far more, saving $250,000 a year on data processing bills, spending some of that money to collaborate with an outside firm to create scoring models for each acquisition campaign to save several million more and improve performance. 
When ASAE released 7 Measures of Success and rightly named data driven decision-making as one of the 7 Measures, I was glad to read it and not surprised at all to see it not have much of an effect at all. I still vividly remember being asked to speak for the Texas Medical Association at Digital Now! a few years ago, as they couldn't travel that year to tell their own story. In my case I have simply been a marketer and association exec who brought his toolkit of aptitudes with him to each new position, just as you do. I often meet and work with staff who quickly identify themselves as "not numbers people" and I totally understand.

However, today there is almost no excuse to NOT have this capability, somewhere inside or outside your organization. We already invest so much in expensive AMS and in the maintenance of our data. In case studies such as TMA, ASHP or CRS there is an incredible return on investment from analyzing and leveraging this data, even if it only occurs occasionally, through data exports and using outside analysts to do the queries, reports, and analysis. Your stored knowledge of your customer base is such an incredible asset waiting to be harvested, it seems a shame that so many of the success stories reflect the contributions of odd staff with "extra skills" in their background rather than a conscious, purposeful effort to harvest the past and thereby predict future behavior.

In future posts I will do much more to explain our methods, philosophies, and illustrate key examples to help others do their own in-house data mining, but for now I wanted to begin with a history lesson...


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Successful Non-Dues Revenue/Association Sales & Marketing Program

We conducted our most recent College of Association Marketing program on Association Sales and Marketing in mid November and we wanted to share some of what we presented during that program. (I am a little late in posting this, but then again starting a blog was one of my New Year's resolutions for 2009 so being a month behind is better than my normal track record!)

Scott presented on creating a sales culture within your association, I spoke about marketing for non-dues revenue generating programs within your association, and Lewis Flax now a consultant and formerly with IEG, the big sponsorship consulting firm, addressed overall strategies and concepts for maximizing revenue working with firms who want to sponsor, advertise or exhibit. This program was the second time we delivered it in 2009; I jumped in this time to provide more of a DM & marketing perspective on things, as I have seen many and fee-based webinars on "non-dues revenue" but most of it has skewed toward sales and away from the may ways we need to promote our own products to our members and significant others who read our publications or live on our email and mail lists.

Here are a few of the key points that Lewis, Scott & I made in the program:
1) Work in partnership with your corporate supporters. Take into account their strategic goals and how you can help achieve them.
2) Build sponsorship programs that aren’t afraid to grant exclusivity and other features that sponsors want. Your goal is to be fair in extending opportunities to your community of suppliers, vendors, etc. then be free to confer the advantages to the firms that decide to participate at your stated price and within your conditions.
3) Creating a true sales culture requires ongoing, sustained effort. As with membership, to some extent sales is “everybody’s job” even when one department or person is responsible for closing the deal and maintaining the ongoing relationship. The sponsor, exhibitor, advertiser, or content provider signs a deal with the association; the association needs to honor the deal, cooperatively and enthusiastically.
4) Non-dues revenue marketing requires effective use of all 4P’s to members and other potential customers: good pricing, placement, promotion, and product development.
5) Many of our associations underperform in these areas: often it’s hard to “sell to our friends” and we err on the side of under-pricing, soft-pedaling our messaging, and properly enlisting partners such as chapters and influential members to spread good word of mouth and serve as effective distribution channels.
6) Designing and delivering effective services is critical to non-dues revenue: assessing and improving quality is critical. So is assessing user experience and audience perceptions to know which “sales objections” need to be acknowledged, addressed, and overcome wherever possible through our pricing policies and promotion.
7) This is just as true for subscription products, catalog merchandize items, or certification programs as it is for conference attendance; our challenge is to master marketing across a very diverse product line and leverage our core strength—deep knowledge and strong affinity with the industry and/or profession that we serve.

Of course, this was just the tip of the iceberg of what we discussed in the program, but "stay tuned" over time and we will share more as we begin to use this blog as a tool for sharing what we learn from the roundtable discussions and lectures at COA, through our normal client and volunteer work, and what I hope will be pertinent observations gathered from the news and the outside world in general.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Helping Make Business Development Work for Our Members: Insights from BNI

I just attended a BNI event in McLean Virginia Thursday morning. Now, I probably lead a somewhat sheltered life as a consultant, focused primarily on my own business and the association sector, but each time I attend one of these (three so far the past two years) I am impressed by the fervor people have for the organization.

If you're unfamiliar, BNI is "Business Networking International." They have quite a few chapters around the U.S. The typical meeting features a round-robin introduction from everyone, a similar sharing of leads and introductions from everyone, a "dog and pony" from one of the members, quick reports from various officers, and a preassigned someone stands up and shares some thoughts on effective networking and business development. Someone manages the clock with a timer & a bell, and every meeting seems to draw about 30-35 people.

Now, I am probably never going to join a local BNI group, as my work lies within a very well defined community where the national and statewide associations serving it are where I spend a lot of my volunteer time and meet many people just like me. But here are a few things that I think associations, especially trades, could learn from BNI:
1) Practice effective chapter management. There is NOTHING innovative about BNI's program or its meetings. They just work and attendance is strong on a weekly basis.
2) Be demanding when you have something that works. They take attendance, and they require regular attendance. In effect, if you don't plan to come, don't bother joining.
3) Facilitate extroversion. I feel very shy when I come to these meetings, but they know they have quite a few visitors every time. So members are trained (or predisposed) to tackle you as soon as the meeting breaks.
4) Ensure business development is an integral part of your mission. BNI is very "over the top" when it comes to networking, but that's because it's their sole mission, but it's particularly critical in trade associations (or IMOs, over a longer timeframe. Professionals look for your help particularly when it's time to find a new job. Fewer transactions, same principle).

#4 is my ultimate point. So often in associations we provide a litany of services: professional development, print/online publications, advocacy, training, etc. But where I see associations frequently fall short (in the eyes of their members, through the research we conduct) is in delivering "real bottom line benefits" or serving as a "source of new customers or clients." But how often do we gloss over this last point, and fail to build actual lead generation into our trade promotion and outreach campaigns? There are some associations that do run 1-800-FIND-A___ lines, and who collect online leads and redistribute them to their members. No matter how flawed the program (or how onerous it feels to manage) THESE programs are easily understood and well-appreciated.

In the associations I've worked for this business development lead generation occurred through local programs, networking and the random personal exchanges that constitute everyday life, but I'm not even sure the chapter staff and volunteers fully appreciate the value of what they deliver. Networking can feel like an end unto itself, and we all feel more comfortable--impartial and fair--by not getting in between our members competing for business.

I have always felt that's a well-intentioned but mistaken philosophy. Being impartial and transparent is critical, but as associations, the more we do to be visible places that end-users would logically contact to find a florist, or a business valuation expert, or a demolition company, the better we fulfill our entire mission... only as long as we immediately share that lead with our members. In baseball every closer needs a good setup man or two. So do our members--especially in this economy.   -K