This month’s Corner Office spotlight shines on Joe Syrowik, director of membership, marketing and member service for the 160,000-member ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), an educational leadership association for principals, teachers, and superintendents based in Alexandria, Virginia.
By Association Adviser staff
ASSOCIATION ADVISER: Joe, it has not been an easy time financially for many school districts and academic institutions. How has ASCD’s membership held up during the economic downturn?
JOE SYROWIK: We’re holding our own despite the decimating layoffs affecting the teaching profession. We’re expecting flat growth this year after a six percent decline in 2009. In response to shrinking school budgets, we introduced a reduced-fee “online-only” membership plan four years ago, and it’s been our fastest growing membership category. On this plan, members get all ASCD publications in electronic form. They also get full access to our online education portal, our social networking site and our online resource library. Remember, with the exception of superintendents, 94 percent of our members pay their own dues. So we’re pretty pleased with our retention numbers, all things considered.
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AA: Is there anything that association membership directors can learn from the success you’ve had marketing to educators in a tough economy?
JS: I guess I’d recommend really trying to understand your members. Get inside their heads. Find out what makes them tick. In our case, members learn as much as they teach. You’ll notice our tagline is “Learn. Teach. Lead,” not “Teach, Lead, Learn.” They’re a very inquisitive and analytical group. They’re really hungry for results. Our typical member is a teacher/leader more than simply a teacher. They’re thought leaders within their districts and communities. Many are superintendants with 25 years of experience, and quite a few are in supervisory roles or lead task forces and curriculum development teams.
AA: What are ASCD’s key selling points to educators who are both teachers and leaders?
JS: Education leadership is number one. Members love the research-based articles we publish. Number two would have to be our newsletters such as the monthly Education Update, our official member newsletter, plus ASCD Express. That’s a bi-weekly filled with articles, tips and online videos on classroom management, differentiated instruction, formative assessment and instructional leadership. We’re also getting good member feedback for ASCD EDge, a new social networking site for educators and ASCD Job Ramp™ a new career Web site for educators. We also have over 200 books in our library and over 500 sessions of our conferences available for download. Finally, it’s our member service department. They’re really outstanding—which I’ll get to in a minute.
AA: Can you tell us more about the social networking initiatives you touched on?
JS: Well, in response to member requests, we created five Twitter channels, Facebook, LinkedIn, an instant blog and ASCD EDge, which has attracted 6,000 members and 4,000 non-members within 70 groups already. Despite members’ average age of 51, the teaching profession has always been receptive to digital communication, Web-based research and social networking.
AA: Tell us more about ASCD’s new career site.
JS: Our members face a lot of challenges in these uncertain economic times, particularly members who’ve been laid off due to school budget cuts. ASCD Job Ramp™ was created to help educators, schools and districts discover opportunities and talent from within our membership. While we expected this site to be a big draw for younger members and others trying to break into this profession in a tough economy, we found it to be very helpful for our older members. Remember, many of these folks have not had to job hunt in many years. They’re not used to marketing themselves and they’re at first taken aback by how much the whole job search process has changed.
AA: We understand ASCD has a long established culture of innovation. Is it fair to say EDge and Job Ramp™ weren’t isolated success stories?
JS: That’s right. Our executive director, Gene Carter, is very hands off and really trusts people to run with ideas they feel strongly about. It’s certainly been a great environment for me as I’ve worked at other large membership organizations in which this degree of autonomy would never have existed. Gene’s philosophy is that it’s okay to fail as long as you learn from the experience, and that’s what I try to pass on to my people. I just want to make clear that we’re not the wild West here at ASCD. We’re a very research-oriented culture. Before you start rolling out all kinds of new ideas, you have to make sure you have some hard data to back up your decisions.
*** READER NOTE: For more on learning from failure, see last month’s Corner Office Profile of Tom Hood, executive director of the Maryland Association of CPAs.
AA: Last month, we asked readers to weigh in on the importance of advocacy issues within their own organizations. We understand you’ve been busy on the advocacy front?
JS: That’s right. Our new Whole Child initiative is gaining lots of momentum. Instead of focusing so much on test scores, we’re encouraging educators to take a more holistic look at a child’s education to ensure five key criteria are being met: They’re healthy, they’re safe, they’re engaged, they’re supported and they’re challenged. For more information, you can check out our weekly Whole Child Podcast, and the Whole Child Blog.
AA: What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing on the membership front?
JS: I’d have to say it’s keeping our first-year members engaged. They’re really busy. They’re not always aware of the great benefits ASCD has to offer them and they’re not trained to know where to look for those benefits. Once we have a member on board for two or three years, there’s a significantly higher probability that they’ll renew. You also have to understand that younger people aren’t joiners in the traditional sense. They need to find something that speaks uniquely to them and they need a fellow member or a peer to help them make it worth their while.
AA: Can you tell us about any membership retention techniques that work well for you?
JS: I’d say it’s a blend of the old and the new. We call it our sandwich strategy. You start with an e-mail letting members know they’ll be receiving an important postal mailing from us soon. Then you send the direct mail piece and then follow up the direct mail piece with a carefully timed e-mail reminding them to look at the mail piece that reinforces the benefits of membership. We also have a special e-mail series just for first year members and we have a personalized “Welcome Call” to new members timed for their three-month anniversary. Plus, we’re offering a 90-day free trial membership that gives potential members a ways to sample our benefits online. Finally, we’re encouraging longstanding members to “mentor” the new members and we’re adding more ‘Join ASCD’ links within the organization’s e-newsletters to members.
AA: You mentioned the challenge of retaining members, especially in the early years. What’s your member service philosophy?
JS: Simple. Own the problem. When a member calls our service department, we don’t just take the complaint; we assign an owner to the issue and make sure it gets personalized attention from someone who’s accountable for its resolution. Our service people are the face of our organization. They’re really consultants and they’re one of our biggest member assets. They’re trained very well and they’re supported very well. They stay with us a very long time. It helps that teachers are really good people. Everyone on our staff can relate to a teacher who made a difference in their lives. Our service people really want to help members.
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