How to Lead TRUE Engagement: New Release

Announcing the launch of a new white paper by Anna Caraveli and Elizabeth Engel, "Leading Engagement from the Outside-In: Becoming an Indispensable Partner to your Members’ Success."  Download for free

What does it take to engage and what does engagement look like? Why are some organizations successful in capturing, engaging and sustaining members/customers and others fail miserably? These are some of the questions Elizabeth Engle and I explored together and became the foundation of our new white paper. 

Our conclusion was that organizations engage customers by becoming engaging. How can you engage others if you are not truly engaged with them? And I don’t mean simply saying that you love them and putting them front and center in your mission statements and marketing material. I mean being constantly focused on them rather than, say, your next board meeting, policy development or curriculum design.

You don’t engage in something because you were impressed by the announcement or were persuaded by relentless marketing, do you? Not deeply anyway. Not in the way that would compel you to commit time and resources and convert from passive observer to enthusiastic champion. “Engaging” then means that you are able to discern what truly matters to your members/customers and provide value that is indispensable to its success. It is all about your ability to be constantly  attuned to your customers' every thought and experience vs. your upcoming deadline or marketing message. It takes putting customers at the very center of your business and mindshare to be able to always identify, establish and maintain the real connecting link to what matters the most to them, at any given time.  We call this the “outside-in” perspective.

In outside-in organizations, membership is everybody’s business. Nowhere is this axiom of association management more applicable than in discussions about engagement. It’s common for engagement to be relegated to the membership team. This is particularly the case when engagement is viewed as some sort of time-limited campaign or project that needs to live in a particular functional area. Leading engagement from the outside-in requires commitment at all levels of your organization to transform your culture from a focus on departments, product lines, silos, and territory to a focus on the member and her needs. Your goal is to bring value to members in ways that are beneficial to them while also creating additional value for the association itself, regardless of how that meshes with your organizational chart. This may require getting some of the wrong people off the bus. Outside-in organizations cannot tolerate behaviors like hoarding information, us them thinking (“Why does she get more money and staff and I don’t?”), territorialism, or putting the good of self or team ahead of the good of audiences and organization.

How do you engage from the outside-in? The numerous examples and case studies we are offering can help point the way.

The Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut refocused its awards (a traditional association program) entirely on the needs of the members. The event does not include long speeches or association business but rather is directed fully at recognizing member excellence, which members then feature prominently in their own advertising.

 The National Fluid Power Association has, with its members, co-developed its industry statistics reporting (another traditional association program) into a rich interactive online toolset.

American Mensa helps people who often feel like outsiders “find their tribe,” through informal, highly idiosyncratic special-interest groups that are initiated and run by members. Mensa changed its internal culture to get comfortable with this level of SIG autonomy to preserve the “juiciness” that draws members in the first place.

Instead of continually creating new programs, products, and services, the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools focuses on brokering relationships and increasing the value of those relationships for all stakeholders.

 The Drug Information Association used interactive Communities of Practice to transform membership from a commodity to a partnership. The Association for Corporate Counsel has shifted its perception of its business and goals from “producer of programs and events” to “facilitator of members’ success.

The Supply Chain Management Association Ontario devoted substantial resources to developing a deep, multifaceted understanding of members and other stakeholders, including their goals, outcomes, challenges, needs, and wants, and is in the process of shifting the strategic and operational direction of the association to align with what they learned.

 The National Grocers Association has expanded its definition of relationship beyond “association to member” or even “member to member” to facilitate strategic, high level connections between members and their suppliers, which increases members’ ability to innovate and compete.

 Those suppliers are, at most, a peripheral audience for the association, but in-person meetings with suppliers are a critical member need, which they could not effectively accomplish on their own.

 The Society of Hospital Medicine energizes its community around creating a revolution in healthcare, focused on coordinating a holistic approach to all aspects of patient care.

 The Community Roundtable has created a strong value network of respected peers and high-quality research. Members are in a continuous loop with The CR and the larger community of raising issues and trends, researching them, feeding results back into the community, and refining and building on responses to those results to raise the next set of issues and trends.

What are common themes in all these examples?

  • People become engaged by doing. Look for ways to invite members and other stakeholders in as co-creators of the value your association provides, not mere passive consumers of it. People are seeking vital community, and building the dynamic relationships that support it is the real business of our organizations.

  • People become engaged around the outcomes they seek, not the outcomes you seek. The organizations with the most engaged members have successfully identified a critical goal for their audiences and built value around that. Those solutions form the core of their value proposition. And the more strategic the solution, the higher the level of engagement.

The cases and approach to true, outside-in engagement are detailed in our white paper which you can download for free.


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