The Association Cycle

Associations, more than any other type of organization I’ve seen, are defined by their annual cycle.

Volunteers and board members turn over every year. Many organizations have a new president or chairman every year. Annual meetings happen, well, annually! Membership renewal is typically on an annual basis. Awards are given out each year. Periodicals come out periodically.

This cyclical nature is a tremendous strength that also brings some challenges.

The strength is that associations have significant momentum stored up in the flywheel of their annual cycle. This energy creates significant barriers to competitive challenges and provides a sustainable source of income. People have been predicting the end of associations since I started working with them almost 20 years ago. Still here! Still valuable!

That annual cycle momentum has a lot to do with association staying power.

The challenge is that the default action of any association is to repeat the process over again, often precisely like it was the year before. Do nothing and you do the same. Status quo is the much easier path for associations, more than other types of organizations. This can result in a gradual decline since the world around us is constantly changing and failure to adapt will erode performance over time.

Implementing association strategy successfully requires being fully cognizant of the organization’s annual cycle and using it as a primary implementation method. Annual cycles should be modified each year to create outcomes that contribute to your strategic goals. This can involve pruning or adding items to your cycle but more often it requires modifying what you already do to create different results.

Own the cycle or it will own you.

New York Times and Paid Content

The New York Times has announced a new paid content model for their online content. The announcement is here:

A Letter to Our Readers About Digital Subscriptions – NYTimes.com.

The upshot is that occasional website visitors will not have to pay for anything but people who read many articles online with the Times will be asked to pay after using up a monthly free quota of content.

There has been a lot of hue and cry about this, just like there was when they tried to charge for their opinion content way back in 2005 or 06. Here is my take:

Any company like the NYT can be successful with a paid content model. The problem with this change is that they are removing content from their most loyal readers online. They are not offering anything new to their best prospects, they are removing what draws them in the first place It is also rather complicated which will suppress sales a bit.

Why not offer new value to your most voracious online readers and charge for that? The Wall Street Journal does just that with the top end of their online subscription options, providing new in depth content in focused areas. I might pay for an online subscription that provided access to more photos for each article (or the NYT’s photo archive, which is massive), podcast interviews with reporters on the ground where the news is happening, etc. Use what you have to create new offerings that you’ve never provided before but can scale in the online world.

Getting people to pay for something they already had for free is simply a tough row to hoe when there was no expectation set of that free access being temporary.

Publishing: Providing value via vetting rather than distribution

This 26-Year-Old Is Making Millions Cutting Out Traditional Publishers With Amazon Kindle.

Interesting story about a writer publishing her novels directly to the Kindle via Amazon and apparently making quite good money at it. Without an official publisher.

One thing I’ve noticed on Amazon is that a lot of these indie novels are crowding out those by mainstream publishing houses in the ‘Recommended for You’ lists. I’ve found with the few indie novels I’ve sampled that they are poorly written and/or edited, which makes it hard for me to get into the story.

Publishers going forward are really going to have to embrace their role as a filter of good stuff, making sure that what they publish is truly good. Anyone can make their own content available. Publishers are going to provide value through vetting much more than distribution.

Elitist? I don’t think so. When everyone is online, those that help find the signal in the noise are going to be in a good position to provide value.

Lessons from Start-ups

Fred Wilson, an investor and partner in many technology start-up companies, recently posted some key themes from successful start-ups he has been involved with. These came from a talk he gave to an MBA class recently. I pulled out a few of the items below, follow the link for them all: A VC: MBA Tuesday.

- There is a very high correlation between lean startup approach and the top performing companies in our two funds.

- Lean startup methology is great, but it is really a lean startup culture you want.

- Lean startup is a machine, garbage in will give you garbage out.

Lean in the context of NPOs and associations means you don’t throw large teams, budget, or formal volunteer committees at the challenge as you start up. Being starved for resources forces you to focus on only those actions that will move you toward your goal rather than building process for the sake of process. My good friend, Seth Kahan, wrote extensively about this in his book, Getting Change Right.

More from Fred:

- Early in a startup, product decisions should be hunch driven. Later on, product decisions should be data driven.

- Hunches come from being a power user of the products in your category and from having a long standing obsession about the problem you are solving.

- Domain expertise to the point of obsession is highly correlated with the most successful entrepeneurs in our portfolio.

Associations have a huge advantage in this arena: our most active members are the most obsessed about their field or industry in the world! The trick is to work with them to inform and energize the start-up project rather than saddle both them and you with an unwieldy process that stifles precisely the creativity you need to be successful.

- Monetization should be native and improve the experience for users.

If you expect the new product, service or outcome to pay for itself in the future then it should have revenue built into it from the get-go. If not, you’re unlikely to add it in successfully later. This doesn’t mean it’s profitable from day one. But a product or experience with a revenue component built in from the start doesn’t have to be reinvented to add it in later and it trains your customers or users to pay for it over time.

Cascading Website Improvement

Here is an easy to implement process for making quick improvements to your website that have a large impact in terms of the number of visitors they benefit and your bottom line in one month.

Identify the top 10 pages on your site in terms of number of page views. Go through each page and identify one change you could make to each that would improve the experience for the user. Some things to consider:

  • What is the most important next action we want people to take on this page? How can we make it more clear or easy to do?
  • What extraneous content or interface can we remove from this page to make the core purpose more clear?
  • Use live visualization tools to see where actual users seem to be having problems on those pages.

You are looking for low-hanging fruit in this exercise. Identify one change you can make in the next business day to put the improvement into action. Capture other ideas that require more effort and use those when considering longer term projects.

Now make that one change. Repeat for the next 9 days.

Next, identify your top 10 pages in terms of the revenue they generate for your organization. Look for easy changes you can make to those pages to enhance the earning potential with your visitors. Use the same processes as above.

If you do this you’ll have made 20 improvements throughout the site for your most visited and highest earning pages. Not bad!

Old Members Are The Future!

Deirdre Reid wrote a post this week about dealing with a dearth of young leaders in associations. I’m going to take a good crack at the idea we have to increase the percentage of young people in our organizations and I wanted to give Deirdre credit for kicking off this idea when I read her post.

By 2050 over 25% of the population in the U.S. will be 60 years or older according to government projections. 1 in 4! That’s compared to about 18% today. Given overall population growth, that represents more than 50 million new people 60 years or older in 2050 compared to now.

Old people are the future.

A lot of associations complain about how old their membership is. Given the way demographics are going, we better get used to it!

I also wonder how many of the 50 and 60 year old members of today were active leaders of their association 30 years ago. I’d wager a beer that it’s a very low percentage for many organizations. Our personal activities are driven by the professional and life stages in which we are immersed. Perhaps we are being too hard on ourselves about not having a lot of youth involved in the organization. Perhaps they just truly don’t care or we aren’t in the business of providing the value they are looking for at this point in their lives. Or there simply aren’t enough of them!

It is always worthwhile to take a step back and give our assumptions a few solid kicks and see which of them fall over and which stand up to scrutiny. Maybe you should be trying to get more ‘old’ members engaged rather than tilting at the young member windmill.

Example of Providing Options Beyond Basic Online Subscription

I made a short screencast of the Wall Street Journal’s website today, WSJ.com, looking at the subscription pricing model the publisher has in place. There is a great lesson here for associations about offering premium options that give new value to those who purchase it without inherently devaluing the base subscription.

Accountability Demands Performance

An article about Netflix’s vacation policy this week caused a bit of an envious stir online. The policy? Take as much time off as you want, just make sure you are getting done what you need to get done.

Accountability! Flexibility! Hooray!

Here is the secret to why this actually works for Netflix is not abused: They fire average performers.

From the article:

People who don’t produce are shown the door. “Adequate performance,” the company says, “gets a generous severance package.”

Anyone who would abuse these open policies (approvals are not needed for travel or entertainment expenses either) is shown the door long before it would become a problem because, by definition, high performers are producing above average results.

You can’t give freedom and demand accountability without actually holding people accountable. That is the terribly hard part of the equation for a lot of organizations.

David's Upcoming Appearances

I have a couple of public presentations coming up that you may be interested in.

First, I’ll be presenting at ASAE’s Annual Meeting in Los Angeles later this month on how to make more revenue online. This session has been selected by ASAE to include in it’s first ever virtual attendee package for this event, so you can attend from anywhere in the world! Session details:

Make Money Online! Unlock the Revenue Potential of Your Organization’s Website

Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 1:30 PM – 2:45 PM

This fast-paced session will identify ways to maximize the revenue potential of your organization’s website. Explore the most common revenue models for association websites, examine case studies of organizations that have achieved dramatic revenue results online, and leave with cutting edge ideas from around the Web that you can adapt. The top and bottom lines of any association, large or small, will benefit from the content in this session.

Next, I’m doing a webinar with Peach New Media featuring all new content about how to embrace entrepreneurism in the pursuit of goals that matter. I’ll cover in depth a lot of the ideas I’ve shared on the Orgpreneur.com blog as well as others provided via e-mail in the Orgpreneur Weekly Tip. Session details:

Be an Orgpreneur: How entrepreneurship is the key to achieving goals that matter.

September 16, 2010 at 12 Noon Eastern

The organizations today that make the biggest differences to their customers, employees and society are those where staff pursue goals that matter with an entrepreneurial mindset. David Gammel calls these people Orgpreneurs and he will show you how to be one in this unique webinar.

David will zero in on topics such as:

  • What entrepreneurship means in the context of organizations and non-profits.
  • Why today’s business and social environment demands an entrepreneurial approach if you hope to be successful.
  • The common traits of an Orgpreneur and how to develop them.
  • How to establish entrepreneurship as a process rather than an exception.
  • Cases and examples of Orgpreneurship in action.
  • How to hire and manage Orgpreneurs on your own team who will deliver exception results.

This session is perfect for senior executives who want to create a more entrepreneurial organization as well as managers and staff who want to dramatically improve the impact they have at work. Register today!

Hope to see you at one or both events!

I Learned a Lot about Delegation During CPR Training

When I took a class on CPR a few years ago the instructor gave us one of the best lessons I’ve ever had on delegation.

She said that when you come across some who isn’t breathing, you need to get someone else to call 911 for emergency response before you begin CPR. Yelling “Somebody call 911!” turned out to be the wrong thing to do in this scenario. There is a great chance that no one will call 911 if you just yell for anybody to do it.

The instructor said that you should make eye contact with someone nearby, point at them, and say very firmly “You! Call 911 and have them send help to this address!” Maintain eye contact until they confirm and pull out a cell or go to find a phone. Then you can start with the CPR.

It is so easy for leaders to make this same mistake in working with their teams. The leader says that he wants someone to take care of this issue, problem, or opportunity and then is shocked when no one does so.

Ambiguity is the enemy of effective delegation.

We all must be as specific as possible: I am delegating to YOU. I expect YOU to achieve these outcomes with these parameters.

Try it the next time you need to hand off something. I’m looking at YOU!