Finding the Roots of True Engagement

Outside our visible transactions with a favorite service provider—frequent purchases,  the formal classes we attend at a university or our association’s annual conferences and journals-- there is a secret web of personal motivations and values that drive our loyalty to them.  Sure we may love our association’s mission or the prestige of our university but what converts us into committed members, customers or donors lies in the informal, personal, unique experiences and relationships that resonate with our motivations and give us outcomes that make a difference in some aspect of our lives:    

-- Specific occasions that provided opportunities to be noticed by your bosses

--Speedy delivery that made all the difference in staying ahead of competitors

--Immediate, real time access to up to the moment research data as you operate on a patient

-- Breaks in-between sessions at conferences that allowed you to get inside gossip about competitors

-- Unique access to future customers through speaking opportunities

--Peer- to –peer learning and problem-solving during breaks and at the end of formal seminars or lectures

--Member-generated, online peer groups

--New roles through which you develop new competencies, such as teaching or public speaking

--The sense of community you get at chapters’ and regional events

It is interesting that in the majority of cases, none of the things that made a difference to and engaged members were included in what the associations perceived as valuable. The assumption was that the formal, association-designed programs and avenues of participation for members represented the greatest value the association could offer. Sure there are vague references to "soft" stuff-- “opportunities for networking,” “exercising leadership” or “experiencing a sense of community”--but these were “incidentals” to the "real" thing. Engagement, for most providers—for-profit and non-profit—is a means for enticing customers to buy their programs or products. And this is why most engagement programs fail.

What if we reversed the mix and the “incidentals”--personal, member-generated paths to engagement and value creation-- were to be the main focus and value proposition, while menus of programs, products and benefits served merely as tools for achieving the outcomes that resonate with members’ deepest motivations and purpose? 

Customers become engaged when they get outcomes they value.  The better the outcomes, and the more indispensable you are to your customers’ success, the more they are engaged. The problem is that associations are suspicious of any personal or “commercial” motives.  “Good” members are supposed to volunteer for the good of the profession or “to give back” and not for themselves. In fact, there is a great deal of suspicion of members who have “ulterior” motives in joining or volunteering. 

              --  She is out for herself—trying to get clients

               -- They are creating their own member-driven online community that competes with ours

-- He is coming to this event just to advertise his expertise and come across as a know-it-all.

-- You can’t trust members who are consultants.  All they care about is building their business.

-- All they want is to get the latest gossip

What if we deliberately helped these members get outcomes that motivated them-- get clients, expand their online communities and showcase their expertise-- in ways that generated value for both members and the association?  

In the course of helping associations repair tense and dysfunctional relationships with chapters, I interviewed many chapter leaders who were angry with the association but effusive about the benefits they had figured out how to extract for themselves from the association.  They included gaining confidence and skill in public speaking; getting exposure to potential customers; taking on leadership roles that earned them praise from their bosses and promotions; gaining influence as adjunct instructors in universities.  In the course of pursuing personal benefit they created value the association could have greatly benefitted from if it noticed and leveraged it: new corporate relationships, significant innovations to association’s programs/products, liaison with customer groups that the association could not reach, discovery of pockets of demand the association was unaware of, new content and curricula, unique sense of community, etc.

Yet, members with explicit "personal agendas" were seen as “selfish” and “hard to manage” because the association measured their success only through quantitative measures: number of events; frequency of board meetings; numbers of attendees, ticket sales etc. 

Is an association getting the best value from its members by restricting their participation to prescribed paths and seeing their value only as consumers of their products? 

What if the association evaluated members and volunteers on the basis of the value they derived and created?  What if it acknowledged their purpose of identifying new needs and markets; experiencing a sense of community; gaining visibility, gossip, access, business development, reputation-building, competence development etc. and facilitated them?  And what if it looked for common ground-- areas in which individual motivations and skills meshed with the association’s goals and needs? 

 In his book “The Hidden Value of the Customer,” Bill Lee argues that engagement programs fail because companies have a limited goal: “to induce them to buy more stuff.”  Yet “by focusing so single mindedly on such a narrow goal, companies shortchange both the customers and themselves” and miss value that is far greater than product sales.

The Veterinary Information Network (VIN) leverages members’ intangible assets and creates value exchanges between and among association and members at all points of its network and all facets of a member’s day and career.  For example, it has tapped the expertise of selected member specialists to develop a carefully vetted group of “VIN consultants,” editors and community managers, thus creating what its (mostly generalists) members consider the most valuable benefits they get; what makes VIN indispensable to their success:  access to and advice from specialists as well as constantly fresh research data; moderated discussions, and content oversight of its online, specialty communities. 

VIN motivated and engaged these consultants by setting them up as stars in their field—giving them visible platforms for their ideas; helping them exert influence and gain thought leadership;  offering them opportunities to create new content, cull cases and insights from veterinary practices around the country and study the outcomes of their advice. As VIN grew and prospered, consultants started to also receive modest compensation.

Lee cites numerous examples of companies that derived far more value from customers by enlisting them as partners than they would have gotten from sales alone. To expand to global markets effectively and without astronomical costs, for example, Microsoft developed its Most Valuable Professional program (MVP). “The idea is to locate and reward top influencers and technology community leaders in these markets—who might be thought of as ‘customers plus’—and begin to engage them in appropriate ways to help inform the market about what Microsoft programs can do.”

The new customer value and engagement require a two-way relationship. This means that associations create value for customers, not by pushing their products and perception of value, but by giving them opportunities to directly advance their own interests. Identifying common ground, where members’ interests are harnessed to the association’s interest is what strategic engagement is all about. And it is forged in the personal, human, informal realm rather than the domain of formal products and events. 


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