Accelerating Engagement Online and Beyond

Member engagement is the fuel associations use to reach toward their mission, but many organizations are unsure how to tap into that vital resource. Learn how to accelerate member engagement with programs and opportunities that build on one another for ever-increasing value to both your members and your association.

An association is essentially a conglomerate of small businesses, all targeted at a highly focused market, with a consensus-based governance model slapped on top. The great challenge of association management is determining the proper mix of businesses and effectively moving people among them.

Organizations that take this to the level of an art form focus on providing highly enticing initial offers of value to their best prospects and then accelerate them through a progression of their offerings. Let's explore this using the example of people posting bra colors in Facebook updates.

(Stick with me, I promise to tie this in!)

In January of this year, updates like these started showing up in Facebook profiles: blue, pink, beige, blue with little white flowers, red. Someone, and no one knows who, started a meme for women to post their bra color in their status update without any explanation. The purpose of doing so was to raise awareness of, and support for curing, breast cancer. Before you knew it, the meme took off like a Breck shampoo commercial on fast forward, with hundreds of thousands of women posting their bra color to their Facebook status.

Free Ideas on Free!

Consider these ideas as new entry points to your Engagement Acceleration Curve.

  • Webinars providing quick-hit information on cutting-edge topics.
  • Ten tips on a hot topic or practice, available as a free email subscription.
  • Ye Olde Electronic Newsletter (funny how quaint this seems today—but e-newsletters can still be quite effective).
  • Free trial of your members-only content.

Always remember: You must have a clear next step in engagement planned for any free offering and make sure you know how you will draw the people who take advantage of the free content into that next step.

Once the meme hit the news, fundraising professionals questioned the efficacy of the "campaign." There was no call to action, they said. There was no next step that people were encouraged to take once awareness on this issue was heightened. And they were quite right: There was no call to action. The meme was about awareness for awareness's sake, as could only be conceived by someone outside of an organization.

Yet a funny thing happened: The Susan G. Komen for the Cure fan page on Facebook went from a few hundred fans to more than 100,000 fans. In one day. That is not a typo. What happened? Women posting their bra color were primed and ready to do something more meaningful, and Komen was in that space with a mission and brand perfectly aligned with the self-forming parade that had just occurred. Bingo! Komen could not have done this on purpose, even with a massive campaign.

What we are really talking about is finding people who are best aligned with your mission and purpose (and making it easy for them to find you!) and engaging with them in common pursuits. Those with close alignment to your goals will happily increase their level of engagement with you, as more than 100,000 people did with Susan G. Komen for the Cure on Facebook. Let's talk a bit about what engagement is, how you can recognize it when you see it, and why it is important to associations.

Engagement: It's Not Just for Marriage!

The term "engagement" is often bandied about in the association world. More engagement is considered better, yet we rarely state what that actually means or why it truly matters.

I define member engagement as the following: Engagement is the result of a member investing time or money with the association in exchange for value.

The more of these precious resources members invest in an association, the more engaged they are. Someone who speaks at a lot of conferences and writes many articles for association publications is highly engaged. Another person who invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship money is also highly engaged, even if she does absolutely nothing else.

Engagement is about value—the value for the person doing the engaging as well as the value of that engagement for the association.

Why does engagement matter? Engagement is evidence of success and provides fuel for your mission and future growth. Members and others investing in the association demonstrate perceived high value. Properly structured, such investment will give the organization the financial and human capital it needs to achieve goals and maximize contributions to its mission.

Consistently healthy associations create more engagement opportunities in areas with strategic value for the organization. Having a surfeit of articles to publish is nice but doesn't really matter if your organization has been losing money for the last three years.

Adding to the Curve

When you are planning a new addition to your Engagement Acceleration Curve, here are two questions to consider:

  • Which products, services, events, and content should feed directly into this offering?
  • What is the natural follow-on to this offering, and how can we make that connection?

Each offering should snap into your curve, like a Lego brick into a castle, to contribute effectively to moving people along to higher levels of engagement. If an offering doesn't have connections on both sides, it will either have limited uptake or serve as a terminus where people leave the organization.

Successful organizations create engagement where it matters.

If you accept that engagement occurs when someone invests time or money with the organization in exchange for value, you can then consider opportunities to do so before that person becomes a member as well as after. In fact, membership could be just another station along an engagement progression path, rather than the ultimate destination.

Examples of pre-membership engagement include

  • Viewing content on your website, blog, Twitter feed, Facebook fan page, and so forth;
  • Paying attention to a PSA or press coverage;
  • Sharing content from your website or other publication;
  • Buying a product;
  • Attending a conference or event;
  • Applying for a job via your career center.

Examples of post-membership engagement could include all of the above, plus

  • Writing or speaking;
  • Volunteering for a committee or task force;
  • Serving in a leadership role;
  • Receiving recognition such as fellowship or other achievement status;
  • Spending significant money on sponsorship, advertising, exhibit space, and so forth.

The important concept here from a strategy perspective is to plot out what lower-value engagement activities and options will feed into higher levels and how you can progress people through them.

Imagine professional baseball without the minor leagues. Moving all players from high school or college straight to major league teams (aside from the rare exceptional talents) would be very hard to do well. The minors provide an important talent channel for the majors. While I'm not suggesting you develop a minor league association, you do need to consider how people will progress through your organization as their relationship with you matures.

Organizations with an efficient flow from low- to high-value engagement will tend to be healthier from both revenue and mission-fulfillment perspectives. This engagement flow can be visualized as a curve, so that as the number of people engaged in an activity decreases, the value of the engagement for all parties increases. I call this the Engagement Acceleration Curve.

Engagement Acceleration Curve

The Engagement Acceleration Curve (at right) illustrates the progression from low- to high-value engagement with the association by its constituents.

Click to enlarge

You should design your curve so that it accelerates people from low- to high-value engagement activities with your organization, like a downhill skier gaining momentum as she starts down the slope.

This example for a hypothetical association shows how you can progress smoothly from free content, available to the most people, through various stages of engagement until you reach the highest levels, which in this case includes lifetime recognition by becoming a fellow of the organization.

This type of curve is certainly not new and is commonly referred to as a power law in mathematics, where frequency varies according to some other attribute. I gleaned the idea of using it to represent accelerating business value and relationships from Alan Weiss's consulting community. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, used power law curves in his book The Long Tail, although this conception is a bit different in that you use the "hits" of free or inexpensive content and services to move to the "niche" offerings for which you actually charge. We'll come back to Anderson again in a bit.

The power of visualizing engagement like this is that you can quickly map out the offerings of your association and determine how well you are progressing people from low to high engagement with your organization and mission. In practice, marketers can use this to guide their communications so that people can be targeted for the next offer in your curve. At the left of the curve, trading a bit of value in exchange for an email address and permission to communicate is a fantastic step that then opens up many long-term possibilities for building that relationship.

Feeding the Curve With Free

Chris Anderson, in his book Free, argues that entirely new business models are now possible given that the cost of providing content and services online is so low. Think of your own website. Serving up an additional page or even providing full access to your members-only archives has no meaningful marginal cost. This is a radical change in business, commerce, and society. And it makes for some powerful new ways to attract your prospects and engage with them.

This is not to say that the creation of content itself is free. As the amount and velocity of online content continues to grow, it's essential to publish high-quality material of unique value to your target audiences. This enables you to rise above the cacophony of the mediocre online. However, with that base investment, it will cost you essentially nothing to offer your content to more people via online channels. That is where the power of free kicks in: It lets you leverage your content investment to a much greater degree than ever possible before.

If we go back to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, as of this writing it had 188,000 fans on its Facebook fan page. This is about 187,700 more than it had just a few months ago. This is a massive injection of new people into the beginning of its engagement curve. The fan page has numerous additional offers for visitors to take advantage of, each of which progresses them along to a slightly higher bit of engagement. Options include signing up for a free email newsletter, buying a sponsored product, registering for a charity walk, and more.

You get the idea. Use free content and services as a highly attractive entrée to what your organization has to offer. This is one of the great opportunities that social media provides to associations.

The absolutely most critical aspect of free is to have a very clear strategy on what you want someone to do next after they access the free value. Without that, you are wasting the investment of providing the free value, and significant opportunities are lost with every person who becomes an ephemeral drive-by rather than an increasingly engaged contributor to the organization.

Closing Gaps

Significant gaps in your curve will slow down or even halt progression to higher-value engagement. Taking the example presented in the Engagement Acceleration Curve above, if the association had no products to offer it might have a harder time graduating people from free content to becoming actual paid members. Filling in that chasm would create a greater flow to higher-level activities, improving the association's revenue and contributions to its mission.

Click to enlarge

The figure "Mind the Gap," at right, illustrates the problem of a gap in your offerings. Rather than accelerating down and out, people will become trapped in the gap because there is no easy path for them to continue to build engagement with you. If the Komen fan page did not have any specific next actions built into it, the organization would have wasted all of those potential supporters. Instead, Komen gave many opportunities for them to continue to build engagement after becoming a fan. When you consider lifetime value, this quickly adds up to a significant impact.

You will know the gaps in your curve largely by identifying programs, products, or services from which few people tend to progress. This illustrates a key lesson: Data are critical to both understanding your curve and enabling you to create targeted marketing to connect the various elements of it.

Some organizations create gaps by design. Strict membership requirements will often stop people dead in their tracks if they do not qualify. In cases such as these, consider developing additional offerings of higher engagement value for people who cannot follow the main path. Just because someone can't become a member (and there are often valid reasons for such requirements, as limiting as they are) doesn't mean you have to stop engaging with that person at a certain point. It is only a zero-sum game if you choose to make it so.

Closing a gap in your curve can be the most strategically valuable act you take. This can unleash people pent up behind the gap and allow them to rush into greater engagement with the association, maximizing value for everyone involved.

Bridging Mission and Action

Strategy is the bridge between mission and action. Viewing engagement with your organization through the metaphor of a planned progression helps you to not only provide a diversified set of offerings in a logical sequence but will also help to retain and increase engagement rapidly with each person who comes into contact with your organization. This makes engagement a strategic bridge from your mission to the actual products, programs, and services that you offer.

The key to successful engagement is to have many opportunities before and after membership that accelerate people from low to high throughout the course of their relationship with the organization. Each level must be designed with the intent to graduate people to higher-value actions and activities to maximize the health of the organization. This definition and visualization of engagement acceleration makes it easy to spot specific areas where a focused investment can pay off handsomely.

C. David Gammel, CAE, is a consultant, speaker, and author who helps his clients bring their mission to life. He is president of High Context Consulting and the author of the new blog,, for those who embrace entrepreneurship in the pursuit of goals that matter. His book, Online and On Mission, is available from ASAE & The Center. Email: [email protected]