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Membership 2.0 Time to upgrade the thinking

Nigel Hillier

With the rise of Social media and people’s growing confidence in technology, our use of networks has become much more sophisticated. They’ve created new types of relationship and changed buying behaviour and communication patterns. Many firms and brands are venturing into the waters of social media – some with conviction, certainly not all with direction.

But it is clear that these networks require a more holistic approach to thinking about people – their personal and virtual connections, life styles, working practices and even environment - if their true potential is to be reached.

With many Membership and Alumni operations under increasing pressure to generate valuable income streams and new, sustainable methods of engagement, now is a good time to perhaps think differently about the role, purpose and approach of these teams.

Social media is rightly one way to build and maintain the links but it’s not always the end game. Here are 6 ideas of how to meet the challenges head on…

1. The early bird…

Maintaining alumni relationships is a challenge; particularly as many students sever their connection with their University once they graduate.

An alumnus or alumna is defined as "a former student and most often a graduate of an educational institution". If you take the etymology, alumnus is derived from the Latin verb, alere, which means ‘to nourish’.

Yet why do so many institutions only think of nourishing after their students have left? Where their first real experience of being part of something other than their own social circle is when they are no longer part of campus life?

Every University knows that their students will come in and then leave at a pre-determined date. It means they have a fixed window to prepare and foster those ideas of community, affinity and hopefully loyalty.

Be prepared to start the Alumni relationship at a student’s induction. Begin the journey of belonging, of community and that sense of place. Education is a major factor in shaping the personal identities of their students. Why should the Institution itself not be a tangible part of that story?

You can establish a culture of participation (even philanthropy) from week one by engaging the students – your future funding alumni – in campaigns that revolve around giving and contributing. You can embrace social media (established networks or your own) to engage them but measure success by participation rates, likes and tweets not just donations.

Create the right vehicles for interaction and the new experience can become habit, potentially ritual – something far stronger and a permanent part of their life.

2.You’re there to raise sights and spirits as well as money

What truly drives successful membership programs is the belief that keeping in touch is the right thing to do.

The right values need to be in place so there’s clarity of purpose behind your activity – whatever that may be. If the ‘profit’ motive becomes decoupled from the ‘purpose’ motive then bad things can happen: poor communication, lousy services and the sense for some members of having limited value to the organisation. It wouldn’t be unusual to hear people say, “it’s not for me, time to move on…”

Membership calls for skills in distant relationship building, an understanding of the psychology of communication and the emerging needs of current and prospective members as they go about the world at large.

And membership (of anything) needs its privileges…

Your network needs to create explicit reasons for people to join and stay. And not just directories or job postings, even though this is still the number one benefit (followed by professional development, access to expertise, career development and new business ventures).

A more holistic set of services such as the ability to offer online ‘counsel’ where appropriate; the ability to offer mentoring to those who are embarking on more senior roles; support in entrepreneurship for those who might be launching their own businesses. Even equipping job-seeking members with how-to books, training classes, and job-referral programs.

When you look at emerging needs and can be inspired by people’s futures, your scope just keeps increasing.

3. The experience economy…

Member networks strive for (and rely on) high levels of engagement. Yet many institutions still believe engagement is the result of a corporate communication strategy and something that is done to people.

But what if you believe that engagement is the result of individual experience and therefore, everything that an organisation does will continually affect that experience and a person’s level of engagement? It means that an experience has an economic value (remember why you pay more for coffee in Starbucks than at Bepe’s Café).

Believing this would mean that your ‘member experience’ is intrinsically linked to the strength of your future member relationships. Bringing these areas together and weaving a future member story into that experience can only help strengthen the bonds between the organisation and its members.

And if the experience is good and the membership story relevant, then tapping into people’s memories (after all, they are the hallmark of experience) can help maintain and even strengthen those bonds.

4. INSIGHT IS NOT A NUMBER

How do you judge the return on any investment in social media? Many will look at the activity, likes, and interactions yet still determine success in terms of number and size of donations.

But is that it? Well, it’s one way of thinking about it but it is very literal.

High sign-up rates and ‘likes’ don’t necessarily relate to engagement or activity. Social networks work best when they’re ‘living’. When people interact with each other through them. They have to be thought of as the vehicle, not the destination. And you need that vehicle to be the right one to take people where they want to go.

But how do you know where that is?

Rather than thinking about hit rates and actual donations, what about looking at the conversation themes? Where there’s an increase in activity relating to a particular post or event or the number of positive or negative comments associated with a particular topic. All these provide great insights and if tracked can help you focus future activity to get the most return – perhaps even financial – on your investment in the medium.

Get ready to commit to the long term: certainly don't dabble and then retreat, or you’ll never really learn anything.

5. The value of a small world

Social networks undoubtedly give you the means to connect with your membership community but it’s important to understand what a social network gives to people.

It gives them a choice of three things: They can decide to create, contribute or simply consume. And what a person does with one network may not be the same on another.

These networks work on an exchange of value. But without contracts or explicit structures to govern the exchanges, they also depend on and trust that the value will be mutual. If not, then participation simply drops off.

You want to be able accommodate all three types of user and show that you value them. After all, it’s a thriving community you want. And with a community comes different levels of activity and different styles of conversation.

Simply because someone may only ‘consume’ on your network doesn’t mean they do so on another. And that’s where, if you get the sense of value right for people, you’ll reap more benefits through their positive associations of your organisation elsewhere.

Six degrees of separation?  You could be closer than you think to something amazing.

6. Content may be king but conversation is THE POWER BEHIND THE THRONE

It’s important to decide what you want to say but equally important to open it up into a conversation.

Use existing networks where you can to create groups and post discussions. Making it feel personal with a distinct online voice, not from a formal institution, will be more in tune with these networks, which are person to person.  And when a group trusts and likes the owner, they'll support you, defend you and become your allies in return for your commitment to them. 

Once you've earned the members' trust and attention, you can ask for gifts and greater involvement.

Twitter is real time. Members will expect immediate responses but it also puts you on other people’s radar frequently, so your content needs careful selection. And because Twitter extends the audience far beyond your official membership, you can reflect the broader themes of what you do…if you’re in the education business, use broad educational themes to create valuable content that can appal to a wider demographic.

It's about trying to ensure your Membership network becomes part of your members' other personal and professional networks. You won’t (and don’t have to) be everything they need but you can become an important part of the mix.

If you’re prepared to think beyond the traditional and challenge accepted wisdoms, you’ll uncover new ways of just how and where your network can be of the most benefit to your members.

You may even find membership is no longer what you, or they thought…

Does this strike a chord with you? Do you work in Membership, Development or Alumni relations? We're keen to work with you to help reinvigorate your propositions and activity and we'd love to hear your story. You can get in touch by emailing simon@visiblefutures.com