Monday, May 30, 2016

Learn the Language of Your Members

I wrote a post a few weeks back on what I called paradoxes in association management, which I defined as counter-intuitive practices that we must embrace if we want to be successful. Here's one:

Success comes when staff learns the language of members, not when members learn the language of staff.

This is one of the most obvious, but frequently one of the most difficult to embrace. In my experience, associations tend to develop two separate cultures--one defined by the members and the industry or profession they belong to, and another defined by the staff hired to manage the association, who most often are not members of the industry or profession the association represents.

In the best of cases, there is a large overlap in the Venn diagram describing these two cultures. In the worst of cases those circles barely intersect at all, the members and the staff understanding almost nothing about what makes the other tick.

And when that's the case, staff will often expend a tremendous amount of energy in order to "teach" members their definition of success. You must utilize our services in order to gain value out of this relationship. You must read our newsletters and attend our conferences. In this mindset the staff often loses track of the thing that matters most within those services--the content and its relevance to the member. Because association members generally have little loyalty to the vehicle of their association's newsletters and conferences. What they care about is the content that those vehicles are delivering--a commodity that is very difficult for a staff that has developed a non-intersecting culture to define and deliver.

It's not enough to promote a conference as having "great education and networking." Or a newsletter as containing "information of direct relevance to your business or career." That's speaking in the language of your association staff culture. If you want a member to care about your services (i.e., look forward to receiving your newsletters and attending your conferences), you have to define and deliver value through them in the language they understand.

And that requires learning the language of your member, not teaching them to speak yours. How would a member describe a great educational experience? Or information of direct relevance to their business? Specifically, what information are they looking for? Concretely, what do they do with that information once they find it? And measurably, what effect does the application of that information have on their business or career?

Only after you've learned to communicate your association offerings in these terms, in the language spoken by your members when they are not interacting with your association, will you find the success you're most likely looking for.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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