Story Time: Member Engagement Gone Awry

Is your association guilty of "tell us your story" engagement? Maybe it's time to dig deeper and refocus on engagement that serves members, not the association.

There’s an old adage in journalism that says “everyone has a story to tell.” The lesson for writers: With a little effort, compassion, and the right questions, a good reporter can find a compelling story in anyone.

But now we live in the social media age, and things like actually getting to know people have become a bit passe. Today’s communicators just craft a hashtag, sit back, and let people tell their own stories!

It’s gotten so bad that a new Tumblr has arisen dedicated solely to cataloging the countless corporate brands asking consumers to “tell us your story.” As highlighted on Slate last month, the demand for stories is high, with brands like Clorox, Flonase, and Purina engaging consumers with opportunities to tell their bleach, nasal spray, and cat food stories.

Even if you can get people to talk about themselves and your brand, does anyone else want to read those stories?

Take a couple minutes to scroll through that Tumblr and enjoy a good chuckle. Then stop chuckling because we association pros are probably all guilty of this too. We call it an “engagement” opportunity, but it’s mostly just a ploy for testimonials, and most sane people—i.e., everyone but we content marketers behind these efforts—can see right through it. (Sometimes to a devastating effect.)

What makes “tell us your story” engagement doubly confounding is that, even if you can get over the first hurdle of getting people to talk about themselves and your brand, does anyone else want to read those stories? Probably not.

That raises the question of the true purpose of member engagement. If it’s primarily to drive renewals and revenue, then keep on asking members to engage with you on your terms. But if you see member engagement as crucial to your mission and crucial to serving members better, why not go out and listen instead?

Member engagement, as I and plenty of others have suggested before, ought to be a two-way street. The newest effort to foster that philosophy in associations is an in-depth white paper from Anna Caraveli, Ph.D., at The Demand Networks and Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, at Spark Consulting. In “Leading Engagement from the Outside In: Become an Indispensable Partner in Your Members’ Success” [PDF], Caraveli and Engel share several case studies of associations practicing what they call “outside-in” engagement. As they put it:

Dynamic, two-way engagement is the fundamental basis for attracting your audiences’ attention, involvement, and, ultimately, revenue. You cannot get and keep customers unless you engage them by connecting with what matters to them most. … To engage people at their core, so that they choose you over their almost infinite other options, you must actively facilitate their success and connect to their evolving needs and goals.

In other words, your association should engage with members, rather than the other way around. This requires a change in thinking, to recognize that our associations are not, and may never be, the center of members’ lives. As Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress & Convention Association, once wrote in Associations Now, “Over the years I have concluded that my association can never be more than a small segment of its members’ lives. So we strive to make that slice of time as valuable, enriching, and constructive as possible, but we don’t try to dramatically increase the slice.”

It’s easy to laugh at the idea of people engaging around stories about Flonase, but your association might not be all that different. For a lot of your members, your association may fill the same role in their lives as a nasal spray: a handy asset for fixing a problem, to be used when and if needed. Trying to get your members to engage as if your association is a lifestyle is a sure sign of an association-centric mindset: “You come to us. You tell us a story (about us). We need you to tell us your story because, truthfully, we barely know you.”

A few weeks ago, I shared another white paper that urged associations to engage members with meaningful experiences. That was in the context of young professionals, but the advice applies broadly. If you’re going engage your members by asking them to share their stories, do it in a way that’s ultimately meaningful or useful to the members, not just to you. Ask them to share their biggest challenges, so you can develop solutions that address those problems. Ask them to share their advice for fellow members, so that others may learn. Or even ask them for their funniest experiences in your line of work, so others can commiserate and be entertained. But don’t just ask them to talk about you.

Have you ever been guilty of “tell us your story” engagement? How does your association proactively engage with members? Please, ahem, share your stories in the comments. (So others may learn.)


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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