Maria Mihalik is newsletter and supplements editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
Programs and activities that tend to cleave to the traditional—board meetings, sponsorship, and grassroots advocacy—can go from formulaic to fresh when staff employ creative thinking. Here’s a look at what emerged when three associations looked past the predictable to the possible in these areas.
Not even under “other duties as assigned” would most association professionals expect to find themselves dumpster diving, shopping at a dollar store, or dancing in a meeting during office hours.
Maybe they should.
Unconventional though they may be, activities like these, experts say, are just a few ways to provoke our brains into seeing situations in a different way or opening us to experimentation—key pathways to creativity. And creative thinking is essential for association staff who are charged with solving just about any kind of problem.
Today, as associations push to better meet constituents’ needs, that problem can be how to revitalize a program that, while critical, has chugged along on the same tried- and-true formula for years.
Board meetings, sponsorships, and grassroots advocacy, we’re looking at you.
We found three associations who rolled great ideas into these operations, and asked experts to share some as well. See if they don’t just inspire you to come up with some great ideas for your own association.
Stacey L. Bryan, CAE, owner of meeting facilitation and consulting firm Bryan & Associates, can still remember how a former head of a large national association reacted to one of her ideas for shaking up a board meeting. “He looked at me with this look of horror,” she says.
Undeterred, she laughed then and laughs now as she recounts it. She encourages association clients to wade through the “messy process” of experimenting with board meetings to purge them of three progress killers: tunnel vision, groupthink, and reluctance to speak candidly.
Two of Bryan’s easy ways to tweak a meeting:
Appoint a devil’s advocate. Instruct one member to be negative for the whole meeting, naysaying and pointing out reasons why an idea won’t work. Then, watch others’ positive input rise.
Get theoretical. Offer up “what if” questions to redirect people who default to “this is the way we’ve always done it.” At one rambling meeting, for example, Bryan asked, “What if I could pull out an air horn when someone gets in the weeds?” She’d never actually do that, she says, “but one table said that if we had buzzers or bells to ring when the discussion was getting off course, that would work.”
Regardless of the idea, says Bryan, “there will always be a couple of people for whom it is totally out of their comfort zone. But just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not successful.”
Essentially, if it gets people talking, it breaks down barriers and people connect. “And that’s what you’re looking for with boards,” she says.
Developing deeper connections between board members is part of what the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers was trying to achieve when it dreamed up a change in the structure and function of their 24-person board.
“Over the past two years, STLE has really tried to make our meetings not just five hours of one or two people talking, so we created ‘surveillance teams,’” says Alicia Skulemowski, CAE, manager of governance and member experience. “The idea came from realizing we wanted to engage all of our directors but make their work meaningful, so we [positioned] them to review or ‘surveil’ our strategy and programs.”
The board now divides into three teams that work on assignments related to different STLE goals prior to the full meeting. So far, they have planned topics and guest speakers for idea-generating sessions, created new programs, and reviewed current ones for modification or removal.
Surveillance teams mean more work for everyone, but more satisfaction, too, when everyone shares what they discovered. “These teams have been really helpful in keeping the entire board invested in our strategy and growth, while also feeling like they are utilizing their expertise and skills as leaders,” says Skulemowski. The bonus? The board’s feedback has improved some programming.
While associations will always need sponsors, sponsors may not always want what associations are offering.
In fact, “companies are wanting and demanding a good comprehensive play,” says JP Moery, founder and president of the Moery Company. If they’ve been sponsoring keynotes at an annual conference, “it makes sense that they now want to be in front of this audience in different ways throughout the year. The dynamic is changing in a big way.”
For many associations, getting creative with sponsorship will need to involve opportunities in content and thought leadership. “It’s the number-one request we get” from potential sponsors, says Moery, “and the number-one thing [associations] say no to.”
What’s slamming the door? “They get hung up thinking about their department or vertical and not the entire enterprise. Or they won’t let a vendor speak [at an event] because someone made a sales pitch during a speech 20 years ago, or ‘advertorial’ is a loaded term for them,” he says.
The bottom line from Moery: Creative organizations will have a new revenue source when they devise additional ways for sponsors and vendors to reach members.
Take the American Chemical Society. ACS hasn’t just opened the door to sponsored content—it’s set a place at the table for it by creating a dedicated unit in its publishing division to produce and market it.
ACS is the force behind Chemical & Engineering News, a well-regarded multichannel news outlet. The native content marketing unit is known as the C&EN BrandLab.
BrandLab came about organically. ACS was already publishing lucrative advertorials—editorial pieces written by its advertisers—but the quality often didn’t match the rest of the content. The lightbulb moment came when the organization realized that C&EN could harness its reputation for stellar scientific storytelling and build a distinct business by collaborating with sponsors to write and distribute custom content for them.
Pieces fell into place quickly, in part because C&EN’s art and production teams could handle BrandLab’s projects, too. Executive Editor Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D., hired four other people and designed safeguards for editorial integrity. “Freelance writers are held to the same standards as editorial and work solely for the BrandLab side to prevent conflicts of interest,” she says, “and we’re crystal clear that the editorial has been paid for by an advertiser.”
Clients receive full service with their BrandLab projects, including concept development, design that reflects their brand’s aesthetics, final approval, performance analytics, and follow-up when needed.
There will always be a couple of people for whom [an idea] is totally out of their comfort zone. But just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not successful.
—Stacey L. Bryan, CAE Bryan & Asssociates
Since it launched a year ago, the unit is making money and making waves in the industry for sponsors with well-regarded articles, white papers, and other brand assets, including an e-book that just launched and “already smashed all records for downloads for us,” says Mukhopadhyay. She says that BrandLab’s direction moving forward is clear: “More and bigger projects.”
Associations often rely on their most passionate members to help with advocacy, but the National Pork Producers Council has an unusually strong group of supporters. And yet, most members of this group are probably unaware that they even have a connection to NPPC.
All they know is that they’re crazy about bacon.
Meet the Baconeers, NPCC’s multiplatform digital community of 150,000 fans who subscribe to the club’s motto that bacon “isn’t just food, it’s a lifestyle.” Baconeers come for bacon photos and memes, recipes, videos, contests, and more, all marinated in consistently saucy humor and presented without an obvious link to NPPC.
The idea for the Baconeers came about four years ago when NPPC was searching for a way to better connect to stakeholders outside of its core base of support in the agricultural Midwest and North Carolina. The key was obvious. “A love of bacon is something nearly everyone can relate to and is one of our industry’s most powerful assets,” says Jim Monroe, NPPC’s senior communications director.
The association struck creative gold when it approached public relations firm kglobal. Both entities worked together to cook up the Baconeers concept, but when NPPC realized the execution would conflict with its mandate to concentrate on congressional and industry engagement, it handed the content-creation piece over to kglobal.
In the Baconeers, NPPC found success. Membership is growing organically by some 20,000 fans a year, and “it has allowed us to really appeal to a far-reaching demographic, particularly on the coasts and in urban centers,” says Monroe.
Best of all, he says, “We’ve found that the Baconeers community is willing to stand up on issues affecting pork products,” from forcing restaurants to rethink banning bacon from their menus to fighting detrimental federal legislation. In a survey last year, 76 percent of Baconeers who responded said they would be willing to reach out to their representatives in Congress, and 84 percent said they wanted to receive trade updates.
Today, visitors to Baconeering.com will find content that includes calls to action, but it’s presented more as an appeal to a bacon-lover’s desire to “keep pork on the plate” than a legislative play-by-play.
“Anything we do here is ultimately tied to grassroots or grasstops advocacy,” says Monroe. But, “even when [Baconeers content does] address more serious topics, we still maintain that fun personality.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled “Creativity Where You Least Expect It.”]