Leaning in to Member Worldviews: How Smart Associations are Refocusing Value & Engagement

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Does your association give members orders about engagement and value?

“As the number of choices in every marketplace increases, the power of the consumer to indulge her worldview increases just as quickly. To go to market without understanding your audience’s various worldviews is like trying to pick a lock without bothering to notice whether it uses a key or a combination.”

Although Seth Godin is talking about marketing, this concept succinctly illustrates what we’ve been saying about why associations struggle so much with engagement and value.

Associations try very hard to provide and communicate value and are genuinely perplexed: “Why don’t members “get” it? Why can’t we convince them that this is incredibly valuable stuff? Why are engagement and membership declining? Why is awareness and use of our benefits so low? How can members not see how great we are and want to ‘engage’ with us?”

It’s simple, really: because your members don’t see their world from your association’s point of view.

Changing Member  Worldviews

Associations can no longer define engagement and value as “ask not what your association can do for you, ask what you can do for your association.” Your members and other stakeholders have their own “worldview,” which Godin defines as “the rules, values, beliefs and biases that an individual consumer brings to a situation.”

When a member joins or otherwise engages with an association, they already “know” what they want, what value they believe they are going to get as a result of joining or engaging, and on what terms they are willing to engage. And, they are extremely unlikely to change the value perceptions that drove their decisions, just because the association has a different definition of value. As Godin puts it:

“The story a consumer tells himself about a new product or service is primarily influenced by the worldview that consumer had before he even knew about the new thing.”

As Godin and many, many others have pointed out, trying to change someone else’s worldview—whether they are your members, customers, neighbors or spouses—almost never works. Unless you’re Steve Jobs, which most of us aren’t. That’s why he was Steve Jobs.

Unlike Apple, association products and services aren’t revolutionary. In fact, many haven’t even kept pace with the times. Associations can’t really argue that serving on the Bylaws Committee or attending the Annual Conference or joining the association will rock their members’ worlds the way the iPod or iPhone or iPad did.

Changing an individual’s worldview is unlikely when introducing a new product. Multiply that difficulty by a factor of 10 when attempting to do so about the kind of mature, traditional, and often archaic products, services, and access to resources most associations offer.

That’s why “smart marketers,” Godin says “don’t try to change someone’s worldview.” They “don’t insist that people change their biases. You don’t have enough time and you don’t have enough money.”

It’s Not 1983 Any More

Or, does your association listen to members….

As associations keep discovering, it really doesn’t matter how clever your marketing is, your chances of changing anyone’s mind about why they joined or what they value or how they see ‘engagement” are slim to none. Here’s Godin again:

“It’s interesting to note that while changing a worldview is fairly glamorous work, it doesn’t often lead to a lot of profit.”

It just. Doesn’t. Work. So why do associations keep trying to do it? Why do they keep believing that the glamor of supporting their mission is all the value a member needs? Why do they keep trying to engage members or customers through a “one size fits all” model that only addresses one worldview—that of the association (and possibly the members, now leaders, who joined in 1983, or 1995, or 2003 or whenever the last time the association had a growing membership)?

The reason your association’s value and engagement strategies worked in 1983 is that they fit your members’ worldview at the time. The reason those strategies and practices aren’t working in 2013 is that they no longer reflect your market’s point of view. If what you’re doing to encourage engagement and maximize value isn’t working in 2013, what are the odds it will work in 2020, 2025, or beyond, i.e., the future in which your association will be providing value and engaging stakeholders?

Slim to none, we’d say. It’s not 1983 any more.

“Lean In” to What You Can Do For Your Members

So what are associations to do?

Smart associations, like Godin’s smart marketers, don’t try to change their members’ worldviews. Instead, they “lean in” to them by changing the association’s worldview—refocusing it 180 degrees, from “inside-out” (what the member can do for the association) to “outside in” (what the association can do for the member).

Smart associations have stopped thinking of engagement and value as a communications issue, circa 1983, and started thinking of it as a relationship issue, circa 2025. They’ve thrown out ideas about what value and engagement used to mean and focus instead on what they are going to mean for their future members and markets. They understand and embrace their members’ worldviews and have structured their organizations around understanding, serving, meeting, and speaking to their members’ value perceptions.

Associations tell us that their memberships are simply too diverse and that the association can’t be all things to all people … and this is true, as far as it goes. “At the same time,” Godin says, “it’s naive to believe that a million people have a million different worldviews. Instead, worldviews are clumpy. There are common memes that group strangers together.” And, “a group that shares a worldview and also talks about it” is a community.

…understand and share their point of view…

Identifying Your Association’s Meme

Every association is a community. So, what is the meme that ties your members together? What is the worldview your members share and talk about? (And, please don’t tell me it’s “to advance the profession.”)

Your members have a lot of choices about where to spend their money and what organizations to join. Why did they choose yours? What binds your members together as a community? What are the common outcomes and solutions members hope to get by engaging with your association? What is the one thing every member, customer and stakeholder has in common that s/he believes the association can provide—the reason they engage?

If your association wants more members and wants more members to be engaged, start with understanding what drew them to your specific association, rather than the myriad other resources they could have chosen. Identify their common goals and worldviews.

If your association’s membership really is too diverse for you to identify and understand a common worldview among them, that’s almost certainly a problem in itself, but one we’ll address another time. So, start by understanding the value and motives and desired outcomes of your core members. Or, better yet, with a segment of your membership that, with just a little push, can be moved a step or two up the engagement continuum.

If you still can’t do it, it should now be clear why your marketing isn’t working. Either that, or it’s time to completely rethink your organization’s reason for being.

…and agree on value and engagement propositions that reflect member worldviews?

Smart Associations Build Relationships

Identifying and understanding your members’ common worldview or cause is only the beginning, however. Smart associations—those that are growing and thriving today—have recognized that engagement and value are based on and derived from relationships, not transactions. From the members’ perspective, “value” and “engagement” don’t come from the excellence of the information or networking opportunities your association provides. (Although they may indeed be excellent, too many other organizations provide similar opportunities.) Instead, the true value and engagement your association brings to its members comes from its ability to understand and facilitate:

  • the relationship between your association and why your members join or engage;
  • the relationship between your association’s information and network and your members’ personal goals and ability to succeed;
  • the relationships between when, how, and why members access your information and networks and when, how, and why those access points fit into the members’ daily lives;
  • the relationships between members and the association, members and their customers, members and other members, and members and the wider market

Refocus your association’s worldview to reflect and serve your members’ worldview. Lean in to and facilitate their desired outcomes, value, and engagement preferences. Create and maintain the relationships that make members’ desired outcomes possible and keep your association at the center of their value worldview. Otherwise, you’re just going to keep trying to pick the value and engagement lock without even knowing whether it uses a combination or a key. And, most associations already know how well that works.

(All Seth Godin quotes are from the book: Godin, Seth, All Marketers Are Liars: The Underground Classic That Explains How Marketing Really Works and Why Authenticity is the Best Marketing of All, New York, New York, Penguin Group US, 2009)