Monday, April 20, 2015

Meeting Innovations...How a "Silent Party" Changed Networking

If your annual meetings are anything like ours, you have an incredible array of social functions and general sessions that engage the senses and emotions of attendees.  Our goal is to deliver an experience that far outweighs the educational content.  Yes, content is important and is a chief part of the agenda, but we want our members talking for years about the experience.

I was told once, early on in my career, that no one will ever remember what they learned at a conference, but they will remember the experience and memories you provided for them.  I took that message to heart.  In the planning stages of any meeting we ask ourselves, "What is going to be the "X" factor at this meeting that people will say years from now, 'Remember in 2014 when they did…?'"

As with any conference, networking is a key function at our meetings.  At every event you can hear the buzz of people talking over anything and everything having to do with business and personal life.  Each event fosters that networking atmosphere...except for our final night dinner.  Our final night dinner, like most, is a fun-filled evening that ends with a live band for dancing and entertainment.

The challenge we have always faced is that you can never get a band to play low enough so people don't have to try to talk over the band in order to be able to network effectively.  Our final night dinner always played out the same once the band kicked off.  With 190 people at dinner, a third of the group would leave and go back to their rooms as soon as the band started playing...due to the band being too loud.  Another third would go into the foyer to network, and the final third would stay in the room with the band and enjoy dancing.  The band fragmented the group, simply because of the volume, and by 10:00 pm the room would be almost empty…except for the remaining 10-20 die hard dancers.

Enter the "Silent Party"

When we started planning this year's spring meeting, we discussed at length how we always get a lot of feedback on the volume of the live band and that networking is impossible.  Many didn't like it because a lot of key people would leave and go back to their room, thus limiting the networking opportunities.

This year, I proposed to our Programming Committee that we try the "Silent Party" concept that I had experienced on a cruise last year.  For anyone not familiar with a Silent Party, it's pretty simple.  You have whatever type of music playing over the house sound.  When you kick off the dance party, there are two DJ's at the front of the room, and beside them are sets of high quality music headsets...playing dance music on two completely different channels.  Those who want to dance can come up, grab a headset, put it on, and dance the night away.  It is awesome because you can switch back and forth between the channels, so if you don't like what's playing on one channel, you switch to the other one.  The DJ's have mics that they use to talk to the dancers to keep them engaged in the music and the experience.

The beauty of the Silent Party is that it solves everything.  Dancers can come to the dance floor and enjoy
a fun and exciting experience.  Those who don't dance can stay in the room, listen to light music, and not need to scream just to talk, plus they can have a few laughs watching the dancers with headphones on.

RESULTS of the Silent Party?  Where a live band drove off 70% or more of the crowd by 10:00 pm, we still had 80%+ of our dinner group in the room at 10:45 pm.  People were actively engaged in networking, having fun, and enjoying the evening because we removed the obstacle that stood in the way….the live band.

This is not to say that we will never have a live band again, but it proved to us that we don't need live entertainment to have a great night.  Another lesson learned is that some of your members, who love to dance, will not buy into the concept because they like the live music atmosphere, and some will not want to wear headsets.

What I will tell you is that if the goal of your dinner is to foster networking, then you should give the Silent Party, or something like it a try.  People who always leave early thought it was one of the most innovative dinner concepts they have ever seen.

The moral of this story is:

- Know what your "real goal" of an event is.
- Pay attention to what your attendees are saying in your surveys.
- Think outside the box in solving the problem.

We thought our goal was to provide entertainment on the final night…we had it wrong. Our goal is to foster an environment that creates an opportunity for everyone to participate…the Silent Part did just that.

Monday, April 6, 2015

So You Think You Are In The Membership Recruitment Business?

When you look at your association, do you really know what business you are in? When you look at many association's business models, you would think they are in the membership recruitment business.

Everything they do is about recruiting new members. Yes, they pay some attention to current members, but the raw focus is, "How many members did we recruit this year over last year?"  Yet, nothing in your bylaws or governing documents say that recruiting more members furthers your mission.

Is recruiting more members important?  Absolutely.  However, I believe we are in the membership engagement business, NOT membership recruitment. Many associations sacrifice retention and engagement to put a full court press on recruitment.

The picture you see at the above right is the visual trend display of our association's growth of total membership, versus our growth of total net reserves.  In that same time frame, our per member revenue (membership engagement metric) has risen over 35%.  Current members are spending more dollars with the association because we have been focused on building high value. That value in programs is far beyond government advocacy and annual conferences.  I know many associations who give you a blank stare when you ask them what their value proposition is for those members who don't like the government process and don't attend meetings.  They have NONE.

Hear me out. It is critical that your members who don't participate in government advocacy and meetings  have just as high a value proposition as those who do.  Having that value will drive dollars spent by members with the association.  As more members get engaged, and word gets out that your association is doing things to transform their companies, other non-member companies will want to jump in.

Here is the cool part.  Because your have such a strong value proposition and strong retention rate, you can put focus on your mission, protecting the way your members do business, and taking risk on member's behalf.  So how do you grow your association through nice, steady increases in membership that drive strong retention, higher per member revenue, and strong growth in your net reserves?

If your current membership is engaging in your member programs, meetings, and volunteering, you have a great story to tell those who are not members.  If your member engagement is lacking, why would a non-member want to be a member if current members don't even participate?  For this reason, I believe associations should put focus on value and member engagement FIRST, and everything else will follow.  This leads me to my simple math equation for effective association growth in membership, revenues, and financial strength:

Board Innovation (BI) plus Staff Execution (SE) times Wow Factor (WF) equals Maximum Member Engagement (MME) plus Financial Security (FS)

For associations to sustain themselves long term, they must have maximum member engagement and financial security.  If you lack either one, your association will perform average, at best.  If you don't have a good level of member engagement, many will say that you don't represent enough people to speak for your industry.  ...or "your benefits and services appear to benefit just a few, and not the full membership", or "why join, your current members don't see any value?"  If you don't have financial security, then you don't have the financial resources to take risk for your members and invest in the necessary programs to meet your mission.

So what are the three things necessary to have Maximum Member Engagement (MME) and Financial Security (FS)?  You can make a list a mile long if you would like, but it really boils down to 3 categories which all others fall into:

Board Innovation (BI)

Board innovation comes from having a business savvy mindset from your Executive Committee and CEO that filters down to your full Board.  This group must lead the way for the rest of the board to get outside the box and think creatively about how they can engage the members in new ways.  They must create programs and meeting structures that hit at the heart of their member needs.  It's critical for the board to, at least every two years, analyze the question, "What can we do together for our members that they can't do for themselves effectively?"  Answering this question is the key to maximizing your value proposition. Remember, non-members come to an association to help solve major problems. Do you know what their problems are and are you solving them?

Staff Execution (SE)
Once the board has a sound direction for the association to take, the next phase is staff execution.  This is a blend of staff working with the key volunteers (when needed) to execute each program, service, committee work, and meeting, to empower your members to accomplish the association mission.  When people see real change and results happening within the membership and their own experience, they become excited and tell others.  Members want to see excellence within their staff, they want to have a confidence that the staff is passionate about their association, and that they take pride in doing it with excellence.

WOW Factor (WF)
This speaks for itself.  In everything that your association provides for your membership, does it exemplify excitement, passion, and an emotional experience that draws them into your association?  This is everything, from the way you answer the phone at your association offices, to the entertainment you provide at your conferences.  Members should "feel" your membership…not just purchase it.

Bottom line, do you have an effective membership engagement strategy?  If not, you should start today.  The future of your association depends on it.