Not long ago, I had a conversation with my oldest child, who recently entered the teenage years (heaven, help us). Having received his first smartphone, I wanted to talk to him about his online conduct, where mistakes can haunt you forever. After all, I told him, you can’t take that stuff back. Once you put something into the digital realm, removing it is like trying to take sugar out of a cake when it comes out of the oven.
After several minutes of me blathering on, I realized that he’d long since tuned me out. He wasn’t invested in anything I had to say, and I don’t blame him; I was delivering a message he didn’t want to hear, in a way that doesn’t resonate with him: the dreaded parental lecture.
Like most parents, I’ve never been able to make much of an impact by talking at my children, but that doesn’t stop me from foolishly returning to the well time after time after time, with consistently poor results.
“They’ll get it this time,” I reassure myself, confident that there’s nothing wrong with my delivery or previously failed communication attempts. Despite all evidence to the contrary – and there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary – I fall back into bad habits and fail to alter my approach.
Interestingly enough, I see this same phenomenon from a different perspective on a regular basis at work.
I Want to Believe
Part of my job involves working alongside Naylor’s association partners to develop and implement a communications plan for their print and online presence. As a result, I often have conversations with association staffers who have concrete ideas about what type of content their members want in a magazine, regardless of whether those notions are based in fact.
“Our members love to see pictures of themselves in the magazine,” an association executive once boasted to me. “They can’t get enough of ’em, and they tell me that all the time.”
However, just a few short months later, at the behest of that same executive – supremely assured that members would vindicate his statement – he was confronted with hard data that contradicted his assumptions.
A readership survey, completed by a portion of this association’s membership, indicated that most readers didn’t much care to see pictures of the most recent networking mixer in the association’s magazine, even though it had been a staple in the publication for years.
To his credit, he listened to the majority and adjusted his magazine’s editorial plan to better reflect this feedback, and the content in his magazine has steadily been getting stronger and stronger.
It’s not that including photos of past events is a bad thing on its face – it’s certainly possible to use these effectively as part of a larger strategy. Rather, the problem in this situation was that the executive was relying on anecdotal evidence and hadn’t thoroughly polled his members to find out what they wanted and, conversely, didn’t want.
Simply put, there is often a chasm of difference between the noise created by a small minority of outspoken voices and the overwhelming consensus of the less-vocal majority.
Hollywood knows this as well as anyone. Take, for example, the curious case of Snakes on a Plane. To say this horror/comedy film generated enormous buzz on the internet prior to its release would be an understatement tantamount to calling our most recent presidential election “a tiny bit polarizing.”
But when the movie hit theaters, it ultimately grossed a disappointing $34 million domestically – a scant $1 million more than its filming budget. Despite the early hype, the movie was a dud.
Ahead of its release, analysts were predicting a record-breaking run at the box office, but the echo chamber created by the film’s offbeat plot/title/marketing turned out to be just that – pure hype. The box office results weren’t at all indicative of the opinions of a relatively small group of vocal supporters who were impossible to ignore. Instead, the final numbers reflected the reality of the situation: The minority who were most invested drowned out the apathy of the general movie-going public.
The Truth is Out There
Setting aside perceptions based on anecdotal evidence, it may be tempting to resort to cheap, shortsighted tactics like clickbait, sensationalism or paid content masquerading in the form of editorial material. But, an association can effectively communicate with its members by implementing a well-planned strategy. And the best part? Given the chance, your members will tell you how to craft this strategy. As long as you pose the question in a structured format, you’ll end up with information that can prevent the echo chamber effect that will have you chasing shadows.
To add the cherry on top of this sundae of awesomeness, there are numerous free survey tools out there that associations can leverage in soliciting member feedback. There’s literally no reason to not check the pulse of your members on regular occasions.
For the past 10 years, I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with some amazingly talented association executives, leaders and visionaries. The most successful of these dedicated men and women are able to look beyond their own biases – and we are all biased – to more accurately assess the needs and wants of their members. Adequately surveying their members allows these leaders to communicate with members instead of at them.
Because, as my kids will tell you, communicating at someone is like throwing paperclips at a dartboard. Nothing is going to stick.