How to Apply New Tools and Knowledge to Increase Engagement and Retention: Beyond Formulas and Magic Bullets

Why is it that all of us, in some way or other, get stuck looking at trees as individual entities, losing sight of the forest they are but pieces of? 

Take the genuine desire of associations (and other organizations) to remain relevant to their members/customers’ concerns and make a difference.  In the last few years these concerns have focused on engagement and generated a flurry of discussions, publications and methodologies.  So why isn’t there a proportionate rise in member satisfaction, retention and association growth as a result?

Perhaps this is because “engagement” is reduced to merely a tool for sales or “feel good” member experiences.  It has been equated with techniques, events, awards and strategies and boiled down to formulas, such as, interviewing 10 customers a month, visiting 3 members at their work place or inviting them to yours.

And here is the problem. Focusing on single lines of activity, such as sending birthday cards, visiting members’ workplace or spending a day in a workshop do not, in themselves, generate engagement. In fact they can obscure our view of the customer and dilute the goal of constantly figuring out how to deliver value that counts. 

It is true that for ideas to be implemented, they have to be translated into daily routines, specific practices and activities until they become second nature. And monthly interviews of a set amount of members per staff, observing members at their workplace or making a phone call rather than resort to generic e-mails are the right steps to execution and transformation. But they are not ends unto themselves.

Paradoxically, this type of “engagement” efforts, have reverted the focus back to the association:  its own plans and narrow, inside-out paths to what they consider “engagement. Yet what generates engagement is not the association compelling its members to see the value its staff and board have agreed on, but the members perceiving and experiencing value and choosing to engage with it.  So our job is not to come up with techniques for engaging but to understand what truly matters to, and engages members. But is even understanding enough?

I admit it. Like the multitude of others, I also write about engagement. All the time. Alone or in collaboration with others. And in collaboration with Andrea Pellegrino, I have been developing tools and frameworks for getting inside your customers’ minds to uncover what most matters to them, even before it is fully understood and articulated. One of them is a series of workshops we call “Day in the Life.” (Working title).

The idea is to enable direct, experiential learning with and about customers to get to what truly matters rather than what they say matters. Instead of relying on secondary sources and formal marketing methods, we coach participants in conducting member interviews and learning by observation and immersion in members’ world and point of view.  They then construct scenarios of how individual members actually experience value, problems and successes in a continuum of time, such as in the context of a day, week, month or year.  They apply this contextual and dynamic understanding to assess their organization’s gaps and sources of value and reimagine their products, membership models, value proposition etc. in the context of the Day-in-the-Life framework.

So far, so good. Yet visits and interviews with members and the “aha moments” participants experience in workshops mean little if there is not an on-going process for constantly generating and sharing such insights; learning from them; allowing them to drive decision-making, product development and strategy.  Listening passively and learning theoretically have little value unto themselves unless they are applied to change or improve something.

 The point is not to adopt specific tools or techniques as magic formulas for engagement and retention, but to build cultures and capabilities for continuous value creation through learning, testing, collaborating, adapting and innovating that result in increased engagement and business results.   This is what Andrea Pellegrino had to say in her blog.

 The same need for extrapolation, application and continuing learning applies to the way you use workshops, retreats and other forums. In our workshops, for example, we coach cross-functional teams in conducting ethnographic interviews and utilizing participant observation to gain a contextual and dynamic understanding of members.  On the basis of these insights they construct 3-dimensional portraits of individual members and construct scenarios of how these members experience needs within “a day in their lives.” But there is little value to that knowledge unless it is applied, for example, to:

    • Help you go beyond observation to empathetic and in-depth understanding of how customers think and behave and what it will take to resonate with needs as they experience and define them.  

    • Enable your team to start shifting their mindset from the organization’s to the customer’s perspective—from the inside-out to the outside in

    •  Begin a process of culture change

    • Look at your own organization, products and raw assets through the customer’s lens; identify gaps between your assumptions and members’ perceptions of value

    • Uncover unexpected and hidden sources of new value among your assets

    • Extract insights that will give you a new basis for compelling value propositions

    • Change the way you create and deliver value, such as the way you select, design, package and deliver products and services; evaluate their success, learn and innovate.

    • Re-think and renew your relationship with customers and stakeholders around a new, collaborative basis. 



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