When "Engagement" Becomes a Trap: Beware what you Engage with

Last Friday I had an interesting conversation with the CEO of a large, manufacturing association whose growth and retention rates had been phenomenal and consistently on the rise in the last decade.  Yet, on Friday, he was explaining how his industry had changed recently through consolidation and global competition. For the first time since he assumed his position as CEO, members were beginning to leave.

The conventional approaches would have this CEO redouble his association’s effort at member engagement and unleash a stream of “engaging” new products and information on relevant topics, such as  new global threats, industry trends, future forecasting, etc.

The problem, however, was that many of the members leaving were already engaged. Some, like the Vice-President of his board who announced both his resignation and his company’s decision not to renew that very morning, were poster children of what ideal engagement should be like.

 The VP’s company, the CEO explained, had sent over 50 of its most promising executives to the association’s flagship leadership programs, generating over the years, hundreds of thousands of dollars for the association.  Company executives assumed volunteer leadership positions and became informal spokespeople for the association’s value.  The company sent staff to all training and educational programs the association offered, participated in events and other activities and offered glowing evaluations of their experience with every aspect of their membership in the association. So what happened? Why wasn’t that level of engagement automatically translating into retention?

“They still greatly valued and appreciated our mission, products and benefits,” said the CEO.  And this is where most associations often stop.

  • We cannot be in a crisis. Members still value us and engage with us

  • They clearly responded that they value our programs and endorse our mission in the surveys. All we need is a little tweak.

This is how engagement for its own sake can become a trap by creating an illusion of normalcy and lulling you into maintaining the status quo.

Apparently, in our CEO’s case, the products and experiences members still valued were no longer directly conducive to their ability to compete and survive.  Perhaps instead of developing their next generation of leaders, they needed to rethink and reinvent their supply chains in unstable and volatile global markets.  And perhaps what was “keeping them up at night” was not the dearth of good educational programs at all but, say, access to suppliers; help with identifying and forging the right industry partnerships; speedy and real time access to the right information, 24/7.  While they praised the value of the association’s products and found them engaging, the unstated caveat was: "if they had time; could afford them; did not have  other things on their minds;  did not have to invest all their time and resources on the development of specific solutions to new dangers..." This "if" would have demoted them from strategic partners to interested members in the graph of the engagement continuum, provided below. Sure they recognized their value, but this was a lesser level of value than, for example, a solution to a pressing problem that delivered outcomes that made a difference.

So should this CEO try to increase engagement through more and different versions of the association's portfolio of products or re-think its entire portfolio and the type of business the association was in?

The point is that engagement is not a goal unto itself. Engaging members through volunteer activities, for example, is a weaker foundation for retaining them than engaging them through help in identifying investors, accessing hard to access but critical relationships or constructing a solution to a problem.

 In the value and engagement continuum I developed in my book, The Demand Perspective: Leading from the Outside-In, the degree and quality of engagement is measured by outcomes as perceived by members.



   Levels of Value and Engagement

Nominal Members. Viewing levels of engagement in terms of a continuum, we would place nominal members are at the lowest end of this continuum. They may be members because their employer pays for their membership, but they use many of the association’s benefits.

Interested members may attend events out of interest but don’t really have much practical use for what they learn in them. Hence, they are less likely to remain members than those in the next level.

Active members participate in more events that fulfill an actual need for an individual or organization, for example, to meet a company’s training needs, obtain certification, or upgrade skills. However, the relationship is limited to a product or defined course of action. Members still buy on a commodity level and could buy comparable products from another provider. Hence, they are less sustainable than the solution seekers at the next level.

Solution seekers are buying into a larger package of programs, services, unique experiences, emotional connections, value-added elements, or any combination of components that, together, comprise a unique solution. Buying a pair of shoes from Zappos is not a matter of buying shoes online, for example, but a matter of buying speedy delivery, exceptional customer service, and no-hassle returns. It translates into the ability to order at the last minute and even have a little more free time with your family.

Strategic solution seekers buy larger-scope and more strategic solutions of great significance to their companies’ success. These solutions likely include strategic advice and higher degrees of customization. The more strategic and unique a solution, the higher the value it delivers and, hence, the higher the chances of retention.

Strategic customer partners go beyond purchasing products and solutions and actively contribute to your growth by partnering and codeveloping, engaging members and external allies, and advocating or influencing on your behalf.

See how where your members might place along such continuum and find out what it will take for your customers to move from one level of engagement to the next one. 

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