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Vol. 39, No. 2

‘Fresh, hot, hip’: Toward a more innovative bar association

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“Everything we do as associations is being disrupted.”
“We have a billion gamers on the way.”
“Members are not customers.”
“Don’t be a slave to your publication’s calendar.”

Those were just a few of the compelling insights from Shelly Alcorn of Alcorn Associates Management Consulting, speaking in Indianapolis at the 2014 National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop.

Though she was addressing bar communicators, much of what she said applies to the association as a whole—including certain habits and governance structures that she believes inhibit the kind of innovation that associations now need to embrace.

Are your members trying to replace you?

The disruption that Alcorn sees is coming from many different sides, and it affects not just associations but also the wider culture in which they operate. For example, she said, MOOCs (massive open online courses) “are going to tear the post-secondary market up.” Instead of necessarily paying tuition and pursuing a degree to work in a particular field, she explained, more people will take MOOCs for free and pursue “badging and micro-credentialing”—that is, verification of certain skills.

Degrees like a bachelor’s in communications are becoming irrelevant, Alcorn said; “It’s all about what you can do.” That’s also true in other fields, she added: A systems analyst degree is no longer required to work at Microsoft. Of employers in general, she said, “They want to use employees like Legos,” moving them among departments and providing skill training as needed. Could this type of skills training be an opportunity for bar associations, Alcorn asked?

And there’s disruption from within associations, too. “You have members that have ambitions beyond you,” Alcorn said. “Maybe they want to replace you. Find them first.” If you connect meaningfully with those “hub” members, she explained, then you’ll also gain access to their audience of other members and potential members.

An association’s biggest competitor is LinkedIn, she said, noting that associations have “missed the mark” on social media. Associations have essentially outsourced member engagement to social media, she explained. It’s not that associations shouldn’t have a presence on those platforms, she said, but anything an association does there “should always link back to you” rather than just existing as a “disembodied voice” that doesn’t pull the member back to the bar association or its website.

Be like a game

How does the popularity of online gaming affect associations? As more of the young—and not so young—people who habitually play these games reach the point of deciding whether to join a professional association, Alcorn said, they’ll “expect your association to behave like a game.”

That is, they’ll expect the association to be “fun and accessible,” she explained; they’ll want to be given something to do right away—and then be given something harder once that task is completed.

Those same young potential members are becoming accustomed to “collaborative consumption,” Alcorn added. This refers to things like eBay, Lyft, Uber, and AirBnB, where individual people offer to other individuals certain things they’re not using—whether it’s collectibles, space, or a seat in their car.

Alcorn recommended a TED Talk called “The Currency of the New Economy is Trust.” Trust will be key for associations, too, she said; members want the tools to be able to work together, with “less babysitting” and more transparency from the association.

This does not sound like the typical association leadership path and governance structure, Alcorn noted—and she thinks that’s a problem. At a time when trends move very fast and have short life cycles, she said, associations can no longer be burdened by their “bad habit” of forming committees or having the board study at length any “fresh, hot, hip ideas” that might be worth pursuing.

By the time they get out of committee, she said, those ideas are “over.” For example, as huge as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fad was, Alcorn believes it will never happen again—so if you have an ice bucket committee, she joked, you should disband it.

Associations should look beyond their own walls and their own membership, she said, in order to spot trends in time to think of how they could be useful and could be adapted. She recommended watching a trend-hunting video (which is posted with her handouts) to see what you might use—and simply keeping your eyes and ears open.

When it comes to fostering the kind of discussion that encourages innovation, Alcorn recommended something as simple as a menu change: Instead of chicken, why not serve pizza? She’s a big believer in “pizza-driven capacity,” she said. Why? There’s something about gathering around that open box that takes people back to their college days—when they were much more open to new ideas.

But it’s one thing to talk about trends and ideas, and it’s another to implement them. “Innovation is born in strategy,” Alcorn said, “but it lives in the budget.” In fact, she recommended, there should be a budget line item just for innovation.

The case against customers

What’s the problem with thinking of members as customers who need to be served? This sets up an expectation that can’t and shouldn’t be sustained, Alcorn said. Rather than a relationship where the association—through its staff—gives and members receive, members should be treated as “co-creators” in the association, and staff members should help “facilitate their personal achievement.”

In a similar vein, Alcorn said, associations should stop sending out online surveys that ask members to rank products and services on a scale of 1 through 5. This encourages the passive customer mentality, she explained, and it’s also simply unnecessary—the two things members will always rank highest, Alcorn believes, are education and networking.

Focus on what the association is doing well, she advised, and how to do more of that—even if it means jettisoning some “legacy programs that are going nowhere.”

But don’t think your work is done if your current members are happy, Alcorn added. After all, they’ll eventually retire—and die. She recommended that only 60 percent of your activity be devoted to current members and the other 40 percent be dedicated to reaching the ones you don’t have yet.

The power of surprise

When it comes to publications, Alcorn said, it’s all too easy to get on and stay on “the hamster wheel of communications.” Rethink whether a particular publication really has to come out with its current frequency or in its current format without any deviation, she suggested. Are you putting out a bar magazine or newsletter simply because members expect it—regardless of whether you have much to say at that time?

If there’s a week where you’re putting out an e-newsletter just because you’re scheduled to, consider sending a video, an interesting quote, or something else instead, Alcorn advised. The world will not come to an end, she said; in fact, “You’d be amazed what surprise will do for a member.”