Five Ways to Build a Strong Membership

Twice in my career I have run membership organizations. In each case building membership was important to our work. And I learned a lot about that from others who had been building membership successfully for years.

These are five of the better tactics for building and retaining a strong and lasting membership in my experience:

A membership table manned by member volunteers works well at the entrance on high volume days (Dallas Arboretum).

A membership table manned by member volunteers works well at the entrance on high volume days (Dallas Arboretum).

Personal Selling: Everyone at the organization can be trained to invite people to become members. They have to know the benefits and accurately explain them. I’ll never forget receiving a business card from a colleague that had a brief membership form printed on the back. He considered every card he handed out a chance to get a member. Ask people to join every time you give a talk to a civic organization and track the percentage of your audience that joins.

Free Memberships: Give a membership to anyone who attends one of your special events, conferences, seminars or webinars. If you charge non-members more (as you should), make the amount equal to a year of membership so that they see your services for a year and hopefully stay part of the family.

Invite People to Join at Entry: If you have a gate fee or entry fee to property, start with “Members get in free year-round. Would you like to join today and get in free now and for the coming year?”

Showing the membership as an annual pass also works at entry (Maui Ocean Center).

Showing the membership as an annual pass also works at entry (Maui Ocean Center).

Give Away a Trial Membership: Many organizations have found that asking folks to sign up that first time is the challenge. I once added a fee for use of picnic grounds at a nature center and to soften the blow of the change, we gave everyone who came out to picnic a free membership for that first year of change. It built goodwill and many later renewed on their own.

Offer Auto Renewal: If you give people the option of renewing automatically, many will take it. When that annual reminder comes, some people simply miss it or don’t get around to sending a check. Plan it so they can stay in your network as long as they wish without extra effort.

Membership may or may not be a large revenue source to support other activities. Often you must spend as much as you take in to provide benefits to members. However, they are also giving you money in annual campaigns, capital campaigns and as bequests in their estates. They are selling your organization to friends. They are your advocates when political problems arise. And some of them will emerge as major donors of long-term importance or volunteers.

They are your warm market, your family. Recognize them by name when you write about programs, recognize their gifts publicly on the Internet, in physical locations and with permanent markers when it makes sense for the size of their gifts.

There are many more ways to grow your membership but these five key approaches can get you started.

-Tim Merriman

Learning from Failure

I once had a government job as a manager with a small direct-report staff and responsibilities for training more than 200 employees. I was called into my supervisor’s office and asked to stop talking about mistakes I had made and failed business efforts. I was destroying employee confidence in me it seemed. Our corporate culture valued appearances more than honesty and learning from failures.

I always hope organizations will value honesty and courage in pursuit of success while analyzing failures.

I always hope organizations will value honesty and courage in pursuit of success while analyzing failures.

A number of very successful business people have failed one or more times in their careers, notably Walt Disney. He had a bankruptcy early on but seemed to do pretty well later in life.

I don’t think we learn much from success in most cases. If we make a good guess about a business or new program and it all works out, we just think we are brilliant. If we have a program or business enterprise fail, we have to readjust, do things differently. Hopefully we analyze why the idea was not so good and learn from it so that we can apply what we’ve learned as we plan our next venture.

In April of 2011 Amy Edmondon wrote in Harvard Business Review about Strategies for Learning from Failure, saying “the unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.”

Corporate cultures that embrace failure as an opportunity to learn often have very high standards for performance. I’m reminded that restaurants that ask at each meal how the food and service was are usually the ones that don’t need to ask.  They value honest feedback and use it to continuously improve.

Some of the best research and development organizations actually have protocols for analysis of failures because they expect many approaches to fail. They’re looking for the few successful approaches hidden within.

Cultures that cast blame and discourage open discussion of failures run the risk of seeming trouble-free when they actually harbor deep systemic problems. When we simply cast blame after failures, we are powerless. Someone else screwed up. Taking personal responsibility to have honest discussions, analyze what did not work, and enlist everyone in making improvements has hope of getting results.

Many organizations have a core value about honesty. That plays out in myriad ways, including the embrace of failures as another chance to learn and improve.

– Tim Merriman, Ph.D.

Let’s Get Personal

Every time I go in my bank I expect to hear one of the clerks I’ve seen many times to call me by name. It never happens. I am in there every week or two and have been using this bank for 15 years. They are consistent. No one, even if they’ve seen me a dozen times in recent months, knows my name or remembers anything about me. They do ask me questions about our business and what we do for a living, but they don’t remember a week later or connect the story with me.

Yes, I live in a college town with lots of staff turnover. Bank tellers see a lot of people in a day. But the lady that cuts my hair every six to twelve weeks remembers me and chats about what I’ve been doing lately, starting from where our conversation left off the time before. She bothers to remember regular customers. What’s the difference?

This simple nametag invites  guests to chat with Nancy and her smile is welcoming at Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia.

This simple nametag invites guests to chat with Nancy and her smile is welcoming at Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia.

Many of your employees or colleagues will only see a guest one time for a few moments. I don’t expect the personalization there, but if you run an organization with memberships and repeat visitors, be assured they will notice whether you remember them or not. Most membership software can be customized to differentiate between legal names and the nickname a member prefers or the title, if they wish to be addressed as Doctor or Reverend. Some software allows you to make additional notes about family members and preferences.

You have an opportunity to get personal every single day you meet customers, clients and members. You can find out who they are and what interests they have. You can share your own personal story, your passion about what you do for a living.  You can have that conversation that both you and your guest will remember. In a community where people come back regularly to places they enjoy, relationships grow and become more important when customers are treated less like customers and more like extended family.

So how do you encourage your staff to get more personal without being intrusive? I like nametags with first names and the city or state where the worker grew up. At a park, zoo, museum or resort that location can be a real conversation starter and many concessionaires and resort operators use this technique. I see “Illinois” on a tag and I explain I grew up there. We are off and talking. It is a starting place. But a name tag with a last name or “Officer Jones” is off-putting. It is a way of saying, “keep your distance.” Worse yet, no nametag at all makes it hard for guests to know who works at the site and whether it’s okay to ask questions or start a conversation.

I like it that this docent at an aquarium has a name tag and clear ID as a volunteer.

I like it that this docent at an aquarium has a name tag and clear ID as a volunteer. It also recognizes that he has put in more than 500 hours.

When you are going to spend all day or multiple days touring with a specific group of people who have just met, name tags for everyone makes it easier for the group members to get to know each other. I’m not suggesting you should always use first names. Some cultures (Chinese, for example) usually say Mr. or Ms. ________ as a usual protocol and prefer that. Some older Americans expect to be addressed more formally. But you can always ask for preferences or allow people to fill out a nametag by hand with how they wished to be addressed. They may actually prefer a nickname. If you solicit information for a tour because you will prepare nametags in advance, ask how they wish to be addressed. Do not assume. I’ve been Timothy my whole life due to a birth certificate, and I’m automatically irritated if called that. It tells me the person addressing me is looking at a legal identification and does not want to be more personal.

You can train your staff to be skilled in this area and help them build more lasting relationships with guests. And if your customers or members are from other nations or communities, training in cultural competency has great value.  You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so starting the conversation well matters.

And if I ever have the good luck to meet you in person, please, call me Tim.

– Tim Merriman

Not all those who wander are lost . . .*

Sometimes it is helpful to watch guests looking at signs or exhibits.

Sometimes it is helpful to watch guests looking at signs or exhibits.

Phil Hewlett and David Packard of HP fame suggested that “management by walking around” is an extraordinarily useful tool for seeing how operations are going in the workplace. Just getting out and seeing how your employees are working and interacting with each other can tell you far more than staying in your office and only observing reactions to question and answer sessions during annual evaluations.

I’ve found that same principle to be valuable in interpretive planning. In fact, it’s my second principle of interpretive planning from Interpretive Planning: the 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects (second edition). Simply stated, it’s “pay attention . . . to everything.”

I find that it helps me pay attention if I take something to write with or on everywhere I go. Once upon a time, that meant carrying a little notebook and a pen, but these days, I’m just as likely to pull out my iPhone to record images or thoughts as I have them.

You can also see how you think the exhibit works.

You can also see how you think the exhibit works.

What I’m recording is what I’m experiencing in various settings. What works, what doesn’t, how other people are reacting to different media, what they’re saying to the other people in their party. Yes, I suppose that counts as eavesdropping, but I try to be unobtrusive unless I decide to actively engage them in conversation. It’s not that I’m stalking for any nefarious purpose . . . I simply use every observation and interaction as a learning experience. I tuck away what I’ve seen and heard for future reference, but I find that actually shooting a photo or making a note helps me remember what I’ve learned.

Planning by wandering around should not have you bumping into things in a purposeless daze. Instead, the idea is to focus, but on everything instead of just one thing. By being completely conscious of your surroundings at all times, you will find yourself seeing and hearing more than you ever thought possible. You don’t necessarily have to analyze your observations on the spot, but going back to your notes will help you make sense of what you’ve seen or heard or smelled when you have time to reflect.

It is always good to pencil test a trail or path through a site from the view of a guest.

It is always good to pencil test a trail or path through a site from the view of a guest.

Planning by wandering around also means field-testing your ideas by walking through your plans before you put them on the ground. If you are working on something where the infrastructure has not yet been built, this may mean that you have to pencil-test your ideas by literally taking a pencil to your floor plan or site plan and then trace the proposed steps of staff and visitors using a variety of perspectives. Doing this will help you identify and correct potential bottlenecks, glare issues, and other problems (why did the architect propose keeping food for the live exhibits in a room on the other side of the building from the animals?) before they are built.

So whenever you are out, pay attention. Wandering around can be one of your best planning tools. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Lisa Brochu

* J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

Five Reasons Why You Should Have an Interpretive Plan

I cringe when I hear the words Ready-Fire-Aim used to describe the planning approach that many organizations use in developing new programs and facilities. I cringe because it was my favorite approach thirty years ago. I simply had no planning experience and it seemed reasonable to try something, anything, and hope it would work. Funders and managers

Lisa Brochu directed the interpretive plan in 2001 at Wolong Panda Reserve in China. Walking the route visitors will take helps in analysis of site mechanics.

Lisa Brochu directed the interpretive planning process in 2001 at Wolong Panda Reserve in China. Walking the route visitors will take helps in analysis of site mechanics.

sometimes enable this process by providing money for an idea without a plan because it just sounds like something that might fly or because an ego drives the process, causing you to build a new facility, exhibit, or program because the boss or a donor wants it.

Most companies, organizations and agencies have a stated mission. They know their purpose, but then they guess about what will work to help them achieve that mission because guessing is faster, cheaper, and easier than participating in a thoughtful process. Here are five reasons to slow down and invest in a plan.

  1. Save money – You won’t waste money on useless facilities or programs. It is easy to build a theater that rarely has an audience, an exhibit that doesn’t get seen, a building that has no traffic, or a tour that never quite has enough people to break even. With a good plan you save more than the costs of planning by not building things you don’t need. You also don’t spend money forever maintaining facilities or programs that underperform.
  2. Enhance quality – The very best experiences are designed with specific customers in mind to achieve objectives and work seamlessly making thoughtful use of available resources. That rarely happens by accident.
  3. Builds consensus – Great plans involve diverse stakeholders and build an understanding of what is being planned. It’s a team-building process. Top-down orders that don’t consider the needs of staff, customers and partners often result in projects that fail due to lack of support from those who must implement them.
  4. Everything sends a message – Often an architect or engineering firm is hired for the specific purpose of building facilities. After the infrastructure is on the ground and it’s difficult to make changes without great expense, they invite an interpretive planner to determine what to put in or around the facility to create amazing experiences that engage people and help them understand complex processes, people and places. But in so doing, they’ve sold the experience short – the building, landscaping, flow of traffic, site, elevations, aspects, mechanical systems, lighting, textures, colors and more can help tell a story and encourage engagement. If the architects or engineers don’t understand the story and objectives in telling it, they can inadvertently create conflicts with the desired impact of the interpretive experience. Form should follow function in these facilities, and that requires thoughtful planning right from the start with a full understanding of the interpretive implications.
  5. Well-planned facilities/programs get better as they age. They get fine-tuned, improved, morphed toward a planned future. Ill-conceived projects are abandoned, retrofitted to new uses and continually modified to work in a minimally acceptable way.
The Wolong Interpretive plan involved managers, scientists and local citizens.

The Wolong Interpretive plan involved managers, scientists and local citizens.

A thoughtful interpretive planning process will bring people together around the mission and vision of the organization and objectives of the project and/or program. There are no doubt many other reasons for starting your project with a well-reasoned interpretive plan, but if you need help convincing yourself, your boss, or your donors, the five listed here should give you a place to start that conversation.

-Tim Merriman