Do your members use your site as an integral part of their daily life, the way they use Facebook? Would they panic at the thought of you going out of business because you have become indispensable to their success? If so you have engaged them on the level that counts for the results you are after: retention, relevance and growth.
For an example of a truly member-focused organization whose members consider it essential to their success, look no further than VIN (Veterinary Information Network). VIN is a virtual professional network of veterinarians. Members have access to a virtual platform that aggregates for them all they need to practice successfully: a state-of-the-art, searchable data base; CE courses; access to conversations with peers and specialists and advice on difficult cases; constantly new tools and resources—all in the comfort of their home or office and reachable within minutes. And with a growing membership of 49,000 and a healthy pofit margin, it is worth understanding and extracting from VIN “best practice” elements you can adapt and emulate.
Last week, on a recent trip to California, I stopped to visit the headquarters of VIN and a realization struck me with more clarity than ever before. Engaging is not a mechanical process. You have to simply become an engaging, motivating organization by recasting your business around people rather than products and processes. All the time! Day in and day out! Below are 7 practices from VIN that will help you translate aspirations and promises into new capabilities for engagement, relevance and innovation by embedding them in your organization’s DNA.
Change Daily and Weekly Routines
1. Change the Conversation: three new weekly routines for connecting you with your members: How often do your discussions and concerns focus on understanding members? Do you find that crises, deadlines, governance and policy; the annual conference and myriads of similar issues—rather than understanding members– are top of mind in daily operations? At VIN, members are considered so much of a priority that they become the most frequent topics of daily discussions and brainstorming. Why not start with three weekly activities comparable to the meetings VIN has weekly?
- Weekly “make them happy” meetings for all staff: staff compares notes about what they heard from or learned about members; bring up member concerns or business trends; work on solutions or new ideas about how to better serve them
- Individual departments that interact with, serve or develop products for members have an abbreviated meeting on this topic daily, before starting work.
- Weekly “Click Through’s: “Assemble the appropriate teams (e.g. program developers, marketers, member service staff, social media staff etc.) to click through areas of your website to resolve problems, test new features and simply make sure everything makes sense from a customer’s perspective.
Teach staff and volunteer leaders how to learn constantly and directly from your markets and customers
2. Make all staff responsible for their share of market & member insight; member engagement, retention and recruitment. Devise appropriate metrics and measures of success as part of performance and evaluation reviews.
3. Participate in and inhabit the communities you create for members: VIN staff uses the technology platform and tools they constructed for members to conduct their own business and communicate with each other and members. Founder and CEO, Paul Pion, personally scans (and reads many of) the 2000 messages on the boards each day. Staff actively participates in conversations—“listening,” offering advice, answering questions or conducting research on a member question.
4. Develop engaging, learning member communities with a sense of purpose: for example, facilitating problem-solving; aggregating valuable tools and information and enabling relationships and conversations members cannot find elsewhere. Ensure that each piece builds on another and is constant movement toward a destination. The VIN community is successful not because it simply aggregate people and content online the way other online communities do, but because of the relationships among its parts that constantly renew and increase its value. Instead of relying on sophisticates features and products to attract members, the appeal of the VIN community is the way it behaves and the results it enables. Members ask and answer questions on difficult cases on VIN’s numerous message boards. Staff and specialist consultants provide guidance and, frequently, conduct custom research to elucidate an issue or answer a question. They also organize, edit and index answers so that they, along with the vast research data base VIN aggregates, can be searchable. Members of the community, routinely access archival resources to answer new questions. In the process, content is constantly re-energized, re-circulated and updated.
5. Jump-start a culture of relationships, by changing internal habits and routines. VIN staff is encouraged to pick up the phone or walk into someone’s office rather than use e-mail; call members rather than rely of mass mailings or surveys. Train frontline staff to be alert for cues to customer needs, attitudes, concerns and gaps even in transactional interactions
Enable Innovation Throughout your Organization
6.Develop staff champions: Encouraging innovation to come from anywhere: Pep talks and retreats about innovation will not fire up your staff and give rise to innovations that will engage members. Instead, change your product development processes; staff roles, incentives and rewards. At VIN there is a continuous flow of new ideas and initiatives that come from everywhere in the organization. VIN, however, believes that no great idea can get off the ground and be executed unless it has a champion. If a new idea has merit, VIN encourages the individual who proposed it to become its champion, put together a team and carry it from concept to execution.
Maria Rivas, VIN’s HR director, thought that there must be a better way to conduct inventory and purchasing, and paying 1099 consultants than the current manual system. She took the initiative to propose a plan for conversion from manual to electronic systems. She was encouraged to become the conversion champion and put together a team of in-house experts and users from a number of departments to help her execute the improve ment. Not only did Maria and her team succeed in converting manual to electronic processes – posting documents to the boards and allowing an employee 24/7 access– but she personally trained the staff to use it and ensured its success. Her take on her achievement? “While being the major stakeholder in the accounting tools conversion,” she says, “it is still WE.”become its champion and put together a team of in-house experts and users from a number of departments to help her execute the conversion and improve the systems.
7. Develop member champions and engage them in co-development. Some of VIN’s most successful tools, products and innovations were seeded by a member. Sometimes the CEO identifies a need or opportunity and looks for the right champions; or he may recognize the kernel of an idea in member online conversations and encourages the originator (s) to become champions of a new product or solution. In these cases, VIN provides help and support in developing an idea and converting it into results.
Forget about counting member engagement by numbers. Forget about the pursuit of the coolest social media, the perfect community managers and how to sound “young” to appeal to the next generation. Presumably you are not organizing a media event, but running an organization. “Engaging” in any meaningful way means that you have figured out how to be absolutely essential to members’ success so that they will have a compelling reason for using your resources. This requires abilities for understanding how members think and become motivated; staff that are attuned to people and focused on the outside, capable of empathy, insight and innovation.