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Moving at the Speed of Change
For associations, change could result from any number of events—new regulations or laws, demographic shifts, market forces, innovative technologies, or other factors. The key is to identify those shifts and be nimble enough to address them. One type of organization that deals with this challenge constantly, and can therefore provide useful insights to associations, is the technology user group, also called user communities. “Change isn’t just around the corner; change is here and it’s here to stay,” said Brian Langerman, director in the Technology Industry Practice at SmithBucklin. “We need to continuously evolve to remain relevant.”

24/7 Community

Through a partnership with a technology provider like Oracle or Palo Alto Networks, for example, user groups provide members with an opportunity to learn about the company’s technology and discuss its application with peers. But when products frequently change or are updated, or when disruptive technologies change the landscape, members need more information on a more frequent basis to help them make better decisions. To accommodate their needs, user groups must be nimble to offer more engagement points, both in-person and virtually, to provide real-time information to members, explained Langerman, who is the chief executive officer for the Applied Client Network, a user group for Applied Systems, which develops software for the insurance industry.

Josh Berman, chief executive officer of the Fuel User Group (Fuel), which is affiliated with Palo Alto Networks, concurs. “It’s a 24-by-7-by-365 community,” said Berman. “User groups need to maintain a year-round presence with their community. We're providing that infrastructure for ongoing education and networking.” For example, instead of just having one big, multi-day annual conference, Fuel offers opportunities for members to get together at a series of micro-events throughout the year. This includes unstructured live meetups, as well as training sessions, local events, virtual meetings, meetings on social media platforms, etc. Berman says the idea is to offer an entire spectrum of opportunities for members to convene and discuss. The informal meetups—which could be scheduled online, or over pizza and beer at a local restaurant—provide the opportunity for users to engage on an impulse. “If you look at a group like Fuel, which is centered on cyber security, the risks and threats are ongoing and everchanging. The users need a persistent, credible platform through which they can ask, does this affect me? And if so, what are the best approaches to resolve any issue?” said Berman.

Contextual Content is King

“How do you create that unique value, that unique experience, in the face of changes?” said Langerman. Oftentimes it comes down to being particularly good at sharing the right information at the right time. That’s what drives many technology user communities, and it’s a focus that non-profit associations could leverage to keep pace with the changes in their industries.

Some technology user groups have adapted to changes by tailoring content to individual users or groups of users. It’s not enough to just know the product. Users need to know how to use it for their specific purposes. To many technology user groups, context, not content, is king. “Context management is key because there's a lot of information out there, but users want to know how it applies to them,” said Berman. “In the case of Fuel, we’re going to the cybersecurity community with information on the product,” he said. “It's all about creating an accessible, credible platform where a user can find someone in a similar position—whether it's a geography or an industry, or job title or business problem—to have those conversations,” said Berman.

Langerman employs a strategy with Applied Client Network called persona-based tailoring, which involves customizing the user’s experience with the community based on job function. So, through persona-based tailoring, the group provides education, content, events, networking opportunities, and other products and services based on what the individual member does on the job.

Fuel’s tailored approach also goes beyond job title. It applies to how people want to consume information, Berman said. “With all the young, professional talent coming into the tech space, we've had to look at their buying patterns, online and in-person consumption patterns, and how they choose to get educated,” Berman said. “What we've done, and we're going to need to do a lot more of, is use that information to create year-round online opportunities,” he said. “We extend delivery beyond traditional means using Slack, YouTube, and various social media platforms.” He called it a shift from destination thinking, referring to the large destination event, to journey-oriented thinking, i.e., engagement throughout the year.

Applied Client Network has also revamped the way it offers education, based on feedback from members. It rolled out a new service this year called the All Access Webinar Pass, explained Langerman. For an annual fee, members can get access to all webinars, live and on demand, for the entire year. In the past, users paid for each webinar separately. The change was based on feedback from users, who said the new model would be more convenient and less expensive. The service has been widely popular since it was introduced in early 2018. Applied Client Network has already exceeded initial revenue targets for the year, said Langerman. It’s a prime example of the organization listening to its members in order to provide unique value.

Engaged Communities

Technology user groups must not only serve members, but they must also provide value to the company behind the user community. The user group has a symbiotic relationship with the vendor company where each relies heavily on the other. A successful user group delivers value for the technology provider by creating a two-way channel for the company to communicate with its customers. This, of course, provides a way for users to help influence the development of products and services, which inevitably generates greater customer satisfaction. This, in turn, helps build loyal customers and credible, trusted product evangelists. It can even lead to shorter sales cycles.

This same principle can be applied to traditional associations. In this instance, a strong relationship between the association and its exhibitors and sponsors is vital. Based on their ability to connect with members, associations should consider trying to create high levels of value with the supporting partners. Adopting such approaches can help an association foster a more engaged and thriving community.

“There are so many places vying for their dollar and attention that it is very easy for a member to quickly tune out and go away,” said Langerman. “Why should they spend time and money with you versus somebody else?” To stay relevant and essential, associations can leverage the strategies and approaches of user communities.

“But you can never be satisfied,” cautioned Langerman. “To stay ahead of the curve, you have to have the mindset that it’s much easier to change before you have to, as opposed to try to change because you're in dire straits.”

Or, as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos once said: “What’s dangerous is not to evolve.”
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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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