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Sheri Jacobs: Perspectives on Association Growth
As author of the best-seller The Art of Membership: How to Attract, Retain and Cement Member Loyalty and founder of the Avenue M Group, Sheri Jacobs is an innovator and visionary who helps associations large and small tackle their most challenging issues. Board Forward had the opportunity to interview Sheri about association membership trends, what innovative associations can learn from companies today and the key attributes shared by successful volunteer boards.

Board Forward: You’ve devoted a great deal of your career to helping associations thrive, and have seen the association world evolve. Are you optimistic about what the future holds?

Sheri Jacobs: I’m very optimistic! There are some core ideals that have not changed. We always need to stay up-to-date in our professions, and there’s always going to be a need for education, credentialing and advocacy. But more than that, I believe there’s always going to be a need for community — associations are a way for us to share and exchange ideas with our peers. The fundamental reasons associations were created in the first place have not changed. What’s changed is how people access and interact with them, and many leading associations are recognizing these shifts and reacting to them.

BF: Generally speaking, what quality would you say is most important in defining the organizations that are experiencing growth, or on the right path?

SJ: In my experience, I think it’s safe to say that many organizations are risk averse by nature. Boards and staff are often conservative in their approach to change. But what many associations are seeing is that not changing is also a decision, and it may not be the best one.

Association leaders can start with a tough question: Are they at the top of their game or have they stopped trying? Indeed, many have invested heavily in new directions and taken risks. They may be struggling, in a turnaround or in transition, but those same organizations may be well-positioned for the future as long as they are open to change.

BF: How can volunteer boards assume the most effective approach as they chart a course for their associations?

SJ: The bottom line is that boards know their industry or profession better than anyone. But it takes a high level of focus to see the big picture. At every single board meeting there should be a discussion of the dynamics in the industry or profession, competitive influences, technology, government regulations and workforce issues. It’s in the board’s purview to identify what the potentially disruptive forces are, and then decide: How can we turn them to our advantage?

It’s a dramatic example, but look at the stories of companies like Netflix and Blockbuster. Blockbuster was a brick-and-mortar store when Netflix came on the scene and let people rent movies and pay no late fees. Blockbuster was slow to realize people’s preferences in pricing and access, creating an opening for Netflix to disrupt them. Netflix transitioned to streaming video and then created original content, further edging Blockbuster out and eventually driving them into bankruptcy. Other current examples are companies like Uber and Airbnb that have emerged in arenas where traditional players lost sight of the big picture and left an opportunity open.

BF: You use business examples to illustrate concepts and what associations can learn from them. What are other important areas where associations can draw insights from corporate practices?

SJ: Given the mandate of overseeing association resources, volunteer boards play an integral role in ensuring their organizations are positioned to grow and ultimately advance their missions. By considering how business practices have evolved in certain areas, there are some important questions boards can explore and evaluate, such as:

1. How well do we know our “customers?”
Just as companies seek to constantly gain a better understanding of their customer, an organization needs to look closely at what members want and need. This goes beyond the member needs assessment. We are seeing more associations doing broader industry studies, and also taking into consideration what is going on in their members’ professions and adapting to that just as companies do.

This also includes member segmentation: How do we identify and appeal to certain audiences or member segments? What matters to different groups, and how do we segment our offering or message? Again, we look to the corporate realm: Companies today collect an enormous amount of data. We can do so much more with data analytics than we could even 5, 10 or 15 years ago, and associations can take advantage of that.

2. Are we offering member-centric pricing options?
For many associations, the traditional pricing model has worked for years. But in many cases, once someone has selected a membership category there are no other options, and he or she might only be interested in 30 percent of what the association has to offer and not see the value when it comes time to renew.

Companies understand the importance of pricing and tend to be more reactive based on markets, competition and consumer trends. For associations, more flexible pricing scenarios involve looking at new options for people to engage and have more choices. For example, “tiers within tiers” is a pricing approach based on selecting a general category and then opting for “light,” “full,” or “VIP” packages based on one’s career goals and interests. Another of many strong examples is a hybrid model where you can be an industry member and then get discounted individual rates if you want to take advantage of specific benefits based on your job description or continuing education needs.

Are we allowing people to access and interact with the association in ways that suit their needs, rather than conform to ours?
It’s ever more critical that associations keep pace with members’ use of technology. Young professionals today are getting an education on their phones, and every profession from doctors to farmers use mobile devices. The board’s role is to understand how members of your industry use technology — both personally and professionally, because our lives are more integrated — and delegate association resources appropriately.

BF: One membership concern of interest to many associations is how to engage the next generation of members. What insights can you share about appealing to young people?

SJ: Initially, by looking at the workplace environment — is the association changing and adapting at the same pace as the workplace? One area where I’m seeing associations succeed is looking at the entire career lifecycle, and then assuming that vantage point in identifying ways to help a young person launch a successful career and continue to achieve his/her career goals over the long-term.

Second, we know that for newer generations the equation is not just “What’s in it for me?” but rather “How can I give back and are you going to listen to me?” What activities does the association have in place to reflect that level of listening and engagement?

I believe the answer, in part, lies at the other end of the membership spectrum — long-time, loyal members nearing the end of their careers. A great practice beginning to emerge is two-way mentoring. When officers fulfill their terms and older members retire, associations oftentimes don’t have a role for them anymore. All that collective knowledge and experience goes…where? For organizations finding a way to harness that, there’s a huge opportunity to connect the generations. I think there’s so much more to that conversation.

BF: What specific advice would you share with Board Forward readers?

SJ: Boards cannot do everything alone, and neither can an organization’s staff. My advice to association leaders is to be okay with failing sometimes, and I give the example of WD-40: It’s called that because formulas one through 39 didn’t cut it, but number 40 was the winner. In my book I talk about the superstar baseball player who is a lot like the volunteer board member — you’ve achieved a certain level because of your skill and expertise. But now you are up to bat, and that means taking a risk sometimes. When boards and staff work together with that mindset, great things can happen.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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