Check the Numbers

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

By Hank Berkowitz


It turns out like-minded people really want to interact with like-minded people. Even in this short-attention span, text-you-later society, F2F still has cred. Who knew?

Undeterred by the economy, stock market meltdown, tornado-ravaged airport and a relentless heat wave across the Midwest, last week’s American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) annual meeting and expo in St. Louis attracted more than 5,300 attendees and 400 exhibitors from 18 countries. Both numbers showed a nice uptick from previous years, according to ASAE president, John Graham, and included 20 percent first-timers who seemed not to mind giving up a summer weekend to immerse themselves in the latest tools, techniques and best practices for leading organizations, connecting with members and increasing relevance with the younger generation.

  • Research shows association leaders rate live events higher than any other type of member communication offering.
  • Technology and social networking tools are enhancing, not detracting from, the power of live events.
  • Associations with highly developed innovation cultures encourage all staffers to suggest ideas, take calculated risks and make mistakes—from which they can learn.


As our 2011 Association Communication Benchmarking Study revealed, association leaders overwhelmingly believe their members place a higher value (4.3 out of a possible 5) on their live events than on any other member communication channel they offer. For some perspective, no other media channel scored higher than 3.9impressive considering today’s “tidal wave” of technological advances. A decade ago, only about 10 percent of our member touchpoints came via technology, according Harrison Coerver, president of Harrison Coerver & Associates, who moderated “The Race for Relevance” before an overflow crowd of ASAE attendees. Today that ratio is about 50 percent and within five years, Coerver predicted it will be about 90 percent.

What’s more, our unscientific analysis of tweets from the show revealed far more “awesomes” and “greats” than “disappointments” and “over-rateds.” If nothing else, that should give all association event planners some comfort in these difficult times as the ASAE annual conference is the largest annual gathering of association heads and a good bellwether for the state of the association profession. The Rugburn Index (RBI) was also very high this year.

What’s the RBI? That’s Association Adviser’s rule-of-thumb ratio for comparing the number of seated attendees to the number sitting cross-legged on the floor during a popular presentation or product demo. Shouldn’t the show organizers have provided more seating? Not necessarily.

As Julie Coons, President and CEO of the Electronic Retailing Association related, we live in a last-minute, just-in-time decision making environment. Coons, a seasoned event planner, said she used to know two or three months out how an upcoming conference was shaping up. Now it’s more like two or three weeks.

Unlike 2010 when ASAE experimented with a virtual attendance option, the Society did not officially broadcast or stream the event to non-attendees this year. Nevertheless, attendees became a de facto army of micro-broadcasters. In addition to the strong upsurge in tweets and posts, QR2 codes dominated the show floor, and iPads significantly outnumbered laptops and yellow legal pads as attendees’ information capture device of choice. Tablets seemed to be used not only for note-taking, but for surfing, posting and taking digital snapshots of presentation slides, since handouts were generally not distributed to attendees.

As both our proprietary benchmarking data and our anecdotal interviews with association leaders show, it shouldn’t be a matter of technology versus face-to-face, it’s a matter of how technology enhances face to face interaction.

Tara Bishop, CAE, associate executive director, National Council of University Research Administrators, quipped in one learning session that the real power of Twitter isn’t connecting online. “That’s no different than exchanging business cards. The real power of Twitter is when you take it offline and start meeting new people.”

On the flip side, keynote speaker Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine and The Daily Beast, a news and commentary site with 10 million unique visitors, called tweeting a good tool for communicating, but she didn’t consider tweets a new form of journalism. “Sometimes you can pluck somebody out of that crowdsourced form of journalism who shows great talent. But I still feel that [pure journalism] is a craft that has to be learned, even if it’s not a ‘journalist,’” Brown said.

Celebrity name-dropping aside, Brown’s talk focused on ways that online, print and face-to-face communication each remains valuable. And no matter which medium you use to touch your members, Brown said you can’t underestimate the importance of good storytelling. The takeaway for associations is to recognize the kinds of stories that intensely capture their readers’ interests, and move quickly to satisfy those needs.

While most attendees had a hard time relating to Brown’s challenge of creating harmony in a merged newsroom of several hundred full-time journalists, she did bring up something that all association communicators can leverage—the generational mix of its staff. On one hand you have the younger digital natives, who are assigned to seek out and summarize the most relevant news stories quickly, and on the other, the seasoned journalists who write the longer pieces.

As for the printed page itself, Brown views the iPad app as the new newsstand, asking attendees, “When was the last time here anyone raced to the newsstand to buy a magazine?” However, Brown says that people are spending money for iPad app subscriptions, which will serve as a “very, very healthy thing for the economics of print publications.”


We’ve got to learn to accommodate time-pressed members (and boards) said Harrison Coerver. The old association model assumed members had a lot more time to give you their undivided attention. Now we need the “20-minute version of monopoly.” Coerver said “joining the association because it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t fly any more as a member recruitment strategy. Previous generations didn’t have the same expectations that they do today and industries and professions weren’t as specialized. For example, Coerver said nearly 75 percent of doctors belonged to the American Medical Association in 1965. Today, only 19 percent belong. We no longer have the industry “sandbox” all to ourselves Coerver lamented. We have trade publishers, industry vendors, job boards and even our own members all competing with us for our members’ attention.

At the same time that we fight to remain our position as No. 1 voice of the industry we serve, we have to learn to give up some control, particularly on LinkedIn and other social networking forums, according to Jay Younger, managing partner of consulting firm, McKinley Marketing, Inc. In the short run that’s scary for many associations, but in the long run, Younger said you gain credibility because you can let members share with their peers their experiences with your organization—and you have a unique opportunity to respond to those comments.

Ken Cousineau, executive director of the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association, is an active blogger and thinks most associations, regardless of size, will soon have at least one full-time social media person on staff to handle their online presence and maintain relevance with younger members. The younger generation of industry up-and-comers is more comfortable texting each other, he said. Even e-mail’s too slow for them, and they’re certainly not going to call me on the phone or knock on my door. That’s just how they communicate.


It may come as no surprise that innovation was a hot topic as ASAE has launched several new initiatives to help organizations think outside the box in a strategic and impactful way.

As you’ll see in today’s Did You Know column, associations are increasingly looking toward all staffers, not just senior management, for fresh ideas. ERA’s Julie Coons told us she encourages a healthy dose of calculated risk-taking, provided those risks are backed up with some pre-thought and data. Bill Sheridan, editor and electronic communications manager for the Maryland Association of CPAs told us his organization is big on “graphic facilitation,” which often consists of getting everyone on staff in the room, laying out ideas on large sheets of butcher paper, and analyzing the piles of sticky notes that accumulate (or don’t) on top of each proposed idea. Author and presenter David Nour led a lively discussion about “failing forward,” and Michael Hoehn, VP of business development for the not-for-profit consulting firm CMI, told us over dinner that failure itself is not the problem, regardless of whether you’re talking about a new initiative or a customer service problem. “It’s how you recover from the problem,” Hoehn said.

ASAE presenter Peter Sheahan, author of Fl!p and Making It Happen: Turning Good Ideas into Great Results, outlined common “idea killers” that you should watch out for at your organization:

  • The idea is too broad. Ideas die when no one gets narrow enough in taking that idea and packaging it into what he calls a ‘commercial offer,’ and no one is willing to take charge.
  • The workplace has little activity. Inertia due to executives’ failure to act smothers an ideation culture. The presence of large boards and very diverse stakeholders can paralyze attempts to gain consensus.
  • The targeted market is too wide. “We often spread ourselves too thin with our ideas, either by trying to sell them to too many people at one time or to appeal to too many markets at one time,” Sheahan cautioned. At a recent priority-setting exercise conducted with an association client, he and its board found that of the group’s 13 going-fine-but-not-great initiatives, the one deemed most critical was also the most underserved.

Associations need more oddballs

Or maybe you just need more oddballs. That’s one of the messages author and organizational consultant Joe Gerstandt delivered in his Learning Lab titled, “How to Fly Your Freak Flag.”

“If we really want to be innovative, if we really want to be creative, then part of that involves bringing more difference and uniqueness into the workplace to feed that innovation,” said Gerstandt. “When people are free to express their honest beliefs and concerns,” he said, “new ideas are introduced—and when that’s part of the culture, people tend to feel a closer connection to an organization.”

So think outside the box. Learn from your mistakes. Have the courage to fly your freak flag from time to time and always have enough seats on hand for your next big event. They just might show up. Logistical preparation combined with great content is the best remedy we know for posterior rug burn. It also ensures your attendees will become repeat attendees, and ultimately your advocates and evangelists.

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser enews.

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