Reach Out to Members When it Matters Most

By: Martin Sirk

You'll never command 24/7/365 attention from your members, so why do so many associations try to engage with members every single day of the year?

Sorry to break the news to association CEOs and volunteer leaders: Nearly all your members have let you down!

Your members don't love you enough to abandon their golf dates or favorite TV soaps. They're unwilling to put those urgent company projects on hold in order to read your latest blog post. Their children's homework is more important than your member-needs questionnaire. And they aren't thinking about your annual seminar program as they floss their teeth or negotiate their morning commutes. But you know that already, don't you?

So why are so many association strategies built on the tacit assumption that the organization should aim to become the framework around which members arrange their lives? This assumption—or, should I say, presumption—has long been prevalent, but it doesn't take an MBA consultant's report to realize it is a false hope.

We consciously try not to make our members rely on us for everything.

As someone who thinks far too often about his own association, the International Congress & Convention Association (including during the teeth cleaning, driving, in the cinema, and so on), I think I know why so many CEOs and volunteer leaders get this wrong. One of mankind's greatest psychological failings is the drive to generalize from a sample of one, to extrapolate from personal feelings, to assume everyone else hears the same message from the same speech, book, movie, or conversation.

We, the CEOs and volunteer leaders, do genuinely "live our associations." For CEOs, they're our source of food and shelter, our pension providers, the places where we spend most of our time. Volunteer leaders, meanwhile, give up their ever shorter amounts of free time to serve their communities. Is it any surprise we try to make the average member as involved and engaged as we are?

Over the years I have concluded that my association can never be more than a small segment of its members' lives. So we strive to make that slice of time as valuable, enriching, and constructive as possible, but we don't try to dramatically increase the slice. Instead:

  • We've dropped the functions, products, and events that were not central to our mission and strategies.
  • We rationed our communications to make sure each message was genuinely needed and timely.
  • We devoted far more staff, money, and thought to making the core experiences—particularly our main conferences and our presence at key tradeshows—as engaging as possible.
  • We designed our database and website so that short, sharp visits enable members to extract what they need.
  • We consciously try not to make our members rely on us for everything. In fact, we direct them to other associations and sources of knowledge if they offer things that aren't practical for us to provide.

The most important single point of contact for us is our annual ICCA Congress. This is when our association takes concrete form, when the members are thinking about us from tooth flossing through nightcap quaffing. This is when the emotional bonds are made that will determine loyalty and retention rates, when our staff can make personal connections, and when we get to hear the unvarnished truth about our products and services.

Our most recent Congress is also where I had a conversation about this very subject with a couple association stalwarts, Terrance Barkan from Globalstrat and Brian Constanzo from the Entrepreneurs Organization. I'd made the very same mistake again, assuming that, like me, associations had learned to focus on these narrow bands of time. Terrance and Brian quickly informed me, however, that this was not the case, that too many associations continue to aim to be the central love of their members' existence. I hope I've been able to convince you otherwise—that it's OK for your members to love you one hour a day, one day a week, 10 days a year, and not 24/7/365!

Martin Sirk is CEO of ICCA, the International Congress & Convention Association, in Amsterdam. Email: [email protected]