In a recent post in the Harvard Business Review Blogs, Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, explores what he calls the conundrum of the “Android Engagement Mystery.” The article is called Don’t Confuse Engagement with User Experience. It could be retitled: “Don’t Confuse Engagement with Member Participation or Utilization of Benefits” and it might as well be talking about the confusion over the meaning of “engagement” in the association sector.
Extrapolating lessons for associations from other sectors may require more of a conceptual leap than looking at peer organizations, and this is exactly why it is eye-opening. Perspectives on your current situation, root causes and overall patterns become clearer outside the familiar contexts and habits that can make even dysfunction appear as the norm– “the way business is done.” So here are the parallels I see:
First, let’s clarify what “Android Engagement Mystery” is. Simply put:
“The Android operating system has been outselling Apple’s iOS by nearly a 5:1 ratio… Yet by virtually every meaningful metric that matters, Apple’s users are reliably, revealingly and remarkably more engaged in ecommerce, browsing and apps than their Android counterparts.”
When using numbers as the metrics of engagement, associations become the “Android” equivalent. Does any of these statements sound familiar to anyone? “We have a much bigger share of the market than our niche, for-profit competitor. However most are nominal members paying $150 a year for a few of our benefits like the conferences, while they see our competitor as their go-to resource for strategic business problems and are willing to pay thousands for more custom services;” or: “Our membership has increased but there is an increasing drop in CEO participation and an increase of non-decision-making subordinates who are replacing their bosses in key volunteer activities and program participation.”
What kind of engagement are you after? Participation alone is not “engagement.” And not all levels of engagement are the same, depending on the outcomes they deliver for both members and the association.
Schrage clarifies among various levels of customer interaction:
The mystery shouldn’t be a mystery: Designing a great device is not the same as designing a great user experience. Designing a great user experience is not the same as designing greater engagement…Reality suggests that a great user experience doesn’t necessarily generate engagement any more than meaningful engagement inherently assures a great user experience. For example, Twitter (or LinkedIn) may represent a less enjoyable user experience than, say, Facebook but the nature of the engagement they facilitate might mean users spend more time, thought and care with them. In other words, user experience is not the same and must be measured/assessed differently than “utilization experience.” To make a vulgar comparison, just because someone buys a lot of books doesn’t mean those books are read. Just because someone has a lot of friends doesn’t mean those friendships are nurtured, cultivated or honored.
What is the outcome you want to achieve through engagement” Do you want members to have fun, social, Facebook- type experiences or targeted and purposeful Linked-in type of engagements with your association? Is your objective to retain and increase the number of members or to increase your value and relevance in their lives? To put it in in coarser terms: do you want to get as many annual subscriptions as possible of $150 each, or fewer but more meaningful investments of thousands per member for the indispensable value you deliver without which they could not succeed? Michael Schrage considers the second half of these questions to constitute engagement. I love his definition:
Engagement,” he says, “is how people choose to get value from the user experiences their devices enable. Engagement represents the purposeful choices users make to get what they want. Engagement is smack at the intersection of commanding attention and taking action.”
Engagement, therefore, is not defined by members’ participation or utilization experiences but by the way they choose to make use of these experiences to achieve a purpose—solve key challenges and addressing specific needs. The more purposeful and strategic the interaction, the higher its value for the member; the higher the perceived value, the greater the level of member engagement! Measuring engagement through a participation index is a helpful metric but not one related to the value members extract from your association in relationship to things that matter the most to them.
Members, for example, may enjoy the benefit of broadly and vaguely described “networking opportunities” and participate in a variety of networking events. However, it is not that difficult to locate other networking opportunities off-line or online; through other service providers or informal peer networks that abound today. For Sermo’s corporate members, however, the access they get to potential customers and end-users of their products is unparalleled and unique. Sermo is an online physicians’ network that hosts and moderates many in-depth conversations among them around medical cases. Corporate members such as pharmaceuticals, financial institutions etc. pay a premium to “listen in” on such discussions for the purpose of gaining incomparable understanding of emerging needs in their markets and identify new ideas and early stage discoveries that can drive their companies’ new product development efforts.
To elicit this level of engagement an association has to actively drive it. Staging events and benefits in time are not enough to convert participation into engagement. Associations, instead, must now focus beyond simply recruiting members on how to develop them and continuously increase their level of engagement and value they derive from it.
The most important lesson for association leaders here is that engagement today is dynamic rather than passive. It is not an experience but the perceived value that members actively endeavor to get out of the experience. Schrage’s argument below has applicability for associations:
I’d argue that driving such engagement is at the core of Apple’s user experience design sensibility. By contrast, engagement is what Android’s UX designs enable. The difference between “driven” and “enabled” goes a long way in explaining the “utilization gaps” the statistics identify. Put another way, Apple’s UX metric seems to encourage ROE — Return on Engagement — where Android emphasizes ease-of-use and opportunity. More vulgarly, Apple is an “active invitation” where Android offers a more “passive menu.”
The shift from “passive menu” to “active invitation” requires a commitment to continuously understanding, and delivering value to, what matters to members the most at any given time. It implies a shift to a different tone of conversation and type of relationship with members. Engagement around perceived value, in short, requires an engaging, and value-generating organization rather than a producer of menus of programs and events.