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Vol. 46, No. 3

New ideas for a new year: A conversation with Sheri Jacobs

It’s a new year, and many bars are ready for a fresh start—while also retaining some of the positive changes and lessons from the challenging year that just ended.

For some insight on how to move forward, Bar Leader recently spoke with Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE. Jacobs, a past faculty member at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute, is president and CEO of Avenue M Group, a full-service association marketing agency with in-depth expertise in member behavior, engagement, and retention. The author of four books on membership and business strategy, Jacobs is also a past bar staff member, having worked at the ABA earlier in her career.

Below is an edited synopsis of our conversation. For clarity, any paraphrasing and background is in italics, and anything not italicized is in Jacobs’ own words.

A new idea: dynamic pricing

Many bars are at least somewhat familiar with tiered pricing and other models that allow members to put together a package of various options they want most. But Jacobs believes those models, on their own, may still be too rigid because they’re based on set prices for particular offerings. Jacobs wants to call more attention to another idea, one that consumers are familiar with from for-profit companies, but that nonprofits have been slower to adopt: dynamic pricing, in which prices vary based on demand and other factors.

A lot of bars just have set prices for CLE, for example. They say, “Oh, if we have a webinar, we charge this. If we have it in person, we charge that.” They have this set, and every couple of years they might review it, rather than saying, “It depends on the course and it depends on the popularity and it depends on what our goals are.”

Years ago, I worked with the American Academy of Pediatrics, and they really needed to get important information out to their members. The goal for selling that content was “How many people can we reach?” not “How much money can we make?” So, in that case, that pricing had to reflect the goal of what they were trying to [achieve].

Our organizations should think about all of these factors: What are the goals for what we’re trying to do with sales, membership, education (or whatever it might be)? What is the supply and demand for this? What are the competitors out there? What do we do well?

We should be more dynamic in our pricing rather than sticking to set prices that we have always used.

Thoughtful questions for the risk averse

There’s a perception within the bar world that bar organizations are especially risk averse, perhaps because their members and leaders are lawyers—a profession that is known to want all the information in place before making any change. However, Jacobs says that this is true for many associations she works with, regardless of their focus. To encourage a productive discussion of risk taking, Jacobs likes to ask her clients two questions.

One is, “If we do nothing at all, what can we project is going to be the future?” I’ve worked with clients where we’ve said, “Based on what we’re tracking right now, if we do nothing, we’re going to see a decline that is going to continue.”

Often, we don’t realize that we’re taking a bigger risk by doing nothing. Doing nothing is actually making a decision—and it’s probably not making a very good decision around some things.

But there’s a more fun question that I’ve been asking—and I asked it a lot in 2020 especially. You ask this question of your leaders, your decision makers, the people who have to approve or be part of discussing any changes. Ask them to imagine it’s the end of 2021, 2023, or any time in the future you want to specify, and that they’re looking back. And then say, “Tell me what you’re most proud of, and why.” It could be focused on members: We expanded our reach, we educated so many more members, we helped so many more people grow their business. And then, ask them to imagine what had to change in order for them to get there.

It sounds like a soft question, but for so many different business leaders in so many different associations that I’ve led through different initiatives, it’s helped them say, “OK, we really need to see change.”

‘Hippos’ and waterfalls

Making a good decision involves three phases, Jacobs says: intuition, data, and testing. Intuition is used during brainstorming, to uncover a new idea that sounds promising. Then, it’s important to collect data and see if it supports that decision. If there’s not enough data, that’s where testing comes in.

You allow for an atmosphere of testing new ideas, not just saying they shouldn’t happen. The problem I see is that people allow the “hippo”—the highest paid person’s opinion—to make the decision. Or, in the case of an association, it might be the elected leader. So, somebody may come into the room and say, “This is what I think,” and everyone else says, “All right,” and they go forward with that. Intuition, data, and testing should influence decisions—not the hippo.

When it comes to gathering member feedback as part of the data collection process, Jacobs is a fan of using online bulletin boards, such as those offered by itracks. She recommends inviting a group of 30 people to participate, in exchange for an incentive, and to make two visits during the testing period—any time they want.

It’s not a focus group, where eight people are in a room for an hour and two people are dominating the conversation to the nth degree. The way I do it is, I ask three questions, and before that person can see anybody else’s responses, they have to answer the questions. Once they submit them, when they log back in, they can see everybody else’s answers and respond to them. I’ve done this with many different industries. The stuff we get out of it, the real conversations that people have back and forth, it gives you a real starting point to say, “OK, this is what we’ve learned.”

Requiring people to answer before they can see others’ responses prevents the information waterfall, where somebody posts something and everyone agrees or builds on that post, and you never get some of the more individual insights that they might have come up with on their own.

Empathy for naysayers

A common response when an organization contemplates taking a risk is “Well, we tried that before, and it didn’t work.” If that happens, Jacobs says, arguing that today’s conditions are different will only make the person more defensive. More productive, she believes, is to start with empathy and inquiry.

I think you have to start with trying to understand more: “Tell me more about the situation you were in when that didn’t work. Are there any parallels to today’s situation?”

After they’ve shared some of those thoughts, say, “OK, so these are the things we should be cautious of. I’m so glad you raised them because now we will be aware of them and keep them in mind as we explore and test our new ideas.”

I’ve seen people go from tense and guarded to relaxed and open once they’ve been heard and they think, “You’re going to use what I’ve learned, and that makes me feel good.”

I think you have to incorporate their cautiousness and not try to fight against it in a way that nobody ever moves forward.

It’s also important to know that it’s not always about hitting the goal but about trying new things, making sure you are learning every time you do something, and making course corrections if you need to—and making sure that people who are very risk averse understand how you have built in course corrections if things don’t go quite how you thought.

Communicating the value proposition

I think this starts with finding out in a more practical, easy-to-answer way, “What are the jobs to be done? What are your pains and your gains?” They might say, “I need to grow my business, I want to get a promotion”—and then you ask them what things are standing in their way, which, if they were removed, would help them. Then, you connect it back to the organization and what you offer: How does it help them gain, and what pain does it alleviate?

I think organizations can best communicate their value by not starting with themselves and their benefits—or the top 10 reasons to join (I laugh every time I see that in an email!)—but instead starting with what their members are trying to do tomorrow or Monday morning, and then connecting it back to what they have.

Jacobs recommends considering selecting a small group of nonmembers who seem to have a lot in common with your current members, in terms of job responsibilities or things they need. Give them three or six months of free membership with full benefits. Tell them they’ve been selected and when their free membership will expire—and then, don’t send them a barrage of sales emails. When the time comes for renewals, just put them in the renewal stream, like any other member. When one association she worked with did this, the renewal rate for those who received the free membership was about 30 percent—far higher, she says, than the typical success rate for direct mail and other marketing techniques.

What pandemic habits will we keep?

In the consumer world, there are so many new habits that people have developed during the pandemic, whether it’s trying a new product and learning that the generic is just as good as the name brand, or discovering that they don’t need to drive downtown and wait in their doctor’s office for a medical appointment.

I think it might be helpful if you can—whether formally or informally—ask of your staff, of your volunteers, and of your members, “What pandemic habits are here to stay, and what can’t you wait to go back to?”

A lot of people are probably saying to themselves, “I can’t wait to get together in small groups of people again—maybe not large groups. If there’s an opportunity once this pandemic is over, I’m going to that first in-person meeting.”

Brainstorming that internally with staff and with your volunteers is a fun exercise, and then you can do a quick pulse poll of your members to see which pandemic habits they plan to stick with and which ones they can’t wait to discard. Then, you can use that data and that brainstorming to start planning.

The future is hybrid

One pandemic habit that many bars have adopted, out of necessity, is offering virtual meetings and events. Even though a lot of members will be excited to see each other in person once it’s safe to do so, Jacobs encourages bars not to completely abandon their virtual offerings.

I think the future is going to have to be all hybrid. If you think about the mission of the organization, if you think about how many people you’re reaching, if you think about some of the inequities that are in the world, across all demographics, you have to be able to create hybrid opportunities where people can choose a path that makes most sense for them.

Really, in-person meetings have a level of exclusion. Think about the person who is the primary caregiver at home, or maybe they don’t have the income to attend an in-person event. Maybe they have student debt that’s higher than others’. Or maybe they’re an introvert and they have the anxiety of having to come into a room where they don’t know anybody there.

You can really expand your reach by keeping different types of events that allow greater access. People talk about D, E and I, and they leave out A, for access. I think there’s value in starting there.

Going back to the question of pricing, I think there can be value in certain packages that allow people to test drive it, to say, “You know what? I may be interested in just one event—let me see how it goes. Or I may be interested in a series of events.” The challenge is, you’re going to have to figure out what’s unique about coming to in-person events and how to price it.

You’re going to have to test it, and you’re going to have to tell your members, “You’re going to come along for the ride. We don’t know all the answers to this.” Just be transparent—but don’t move back to how things were. I think hybrid is where you’re going to see a bigger future.

I also think lawyers will need help with how to sell their ideas at work, how to sell themselves, whether to get a promotion or gain new clients. So much has changed, and the dynamic of how this has to happen has changed—relationships and networks may be different from how they were before the pandemic.

Your members need retraining, and they need ideas. They may not even know that this is going to be a big challenge, or they’re just starting to see it. That’s a big opportunity for bar associations.