Could you build a brand-new association using only LinkedIn for finding prospective members? Learn how one association professional has done just that.
Whatever you’re doing on LinkedIn these days, you’re probably not doing it as well as you could be.
To put it another way: Have you started an international scientific association from scratch, using LinkedIn exclusively to get it off the ground?
Enter The Graphene Council, an organization founded by Terrance Barkan, CAE, nearly three years ago to serve researchers and entrepreneurs in the emerging nanotechnology field of graphene. But what, exactly, is graphene? It’s a “a single layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a repeating pattern of hexagons” and, as Gigaom put it in 2013, “could be the next silicon.” But don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that already. Barkan didn’t either when he first read about it in 2013.
LinkedIn is one of the most incredibly powerful tools for associations, and it’s just grossly underutilized.
“Being a career association professional, one of the questions I asked myself was, ‘OK, so where’s the association for graphene?’ Because we know there’s an association for everything,” he says.
It turned out there was no prominent association for the rising field, so Barkan, chief strategist at Globalstrat, decided to fill the void by founding The Graphene Council. And here is where the fledgling group’s path diverges from the typical association origin story in some ways but follows it closely in others.
Barkan formed The Graphene Council as a for-profit that he owns, but he is otherwise “running it like an association,” he says. He continues his primary work specializing in international strategy development for associations, but he calls the The Graphene Council “a real-life proof of concept” for that experience and his strategic approaches.
Long an active LinkedIn user, Barkan has often aided associations in maximizing their use of the platform. So, to grow The Graphene Council, he pursued a LinkedIn-only strategy. Armed with a LinkedIn Premium account and some know-how, he built a LinkedIn group of more than 6,000 members in less than three years, and now he’s in the early stages of converting community members to paid association members.
“Very few people actually know how to use this tool to its full potential,” Barkan says of LinkedIn. “To me it’s one of the most incredibly powerful tools for associations, and it’s just grossly underutilized.”
Barkan used LinkedIn Premium’s advanced search capabilities and InMail messaging tool to identify and reach out to researchers, students, and professionals interested in graphene, inviting them to both join the group and connect with him individually (more on that in a moment). The primary draw at first was for members to network and connect for both research and career purposes. And, as the group grew in size, Barkan touted its increasing numbers in his templated recruiting messages. Within a year, he says, he could call the group the largest LinkedIn group for the graphene community.
One of the first ways that critical mass began to pay off was through LinkedIn’s automated recommendation engine. If you build a large but well-focused group, Barkan says, LinkedIn begins to identify users with matching interests and recommending the group to them. “All of the continued growth is self-perpetuating now,” he says.
With growth came the ability to develop content, and thus member benefits. Barkan hired an editor to produce a quarterly newsletter; the council partnered with Springer Nature to launch a journal, Graphene Technology, in January; and it surveyed 440 graphene experts and stakeholders for its first Global Graphene Industry Survey and Report this year, as well. The newsletter is free to anyone, while the journal and research study come free with a paid membership.
Converting free LinkedIn-group members to paid association members is the next hurdle, Barkan says, but, again, LinkedIn has proven crucial as a tool. Because he has connected directly with the group members—i.e., by adding them as “connections” in his individual LinkedIn network—he can export their data, including names, titles, companies, and email addresses. Using a lightweight membership software platform, Barkan says the council now has 7,200 qualified graphene contacts in its database. He hopes to eventually reach 1,000 paid individual members, and 20 to 30 corporate members (the first just recently joined).
Of course, many associations (and likely most of our readers here at Associations Now) aren’t starting from scratch. So, do these LinkedIn methods work for more established organizations? Barkan suggests that they do, particularly in regard to market outreach and lead generation.
“Specifically for international associations, it’s a very powerful tool because it’s so much harder to find potential members outside the U.S. as compared to inside the U.S.,” he says.
He also offered an example of a trade association he worked with that used LinkedIn to break through in reaching the right people within prospective member companies, after it had failed to get a response from the limited contacts it had within the companies. “So, these same two people get the email every year and they throw it away. We said let’s go into LinkedIn and see how many people we can find who actually work for that company. And so we go into LinkedIn, and guess what we find? We get 15 different people in that company that we can now write to.”
Barkan also suggests sharing (but not selling) your association’s content in other industry groups. He posts articles from The Graphene Council in larger nanotechnology groups, for instance.
Membership recruiting in LinkedIn poses two tricky challenges for associations, Barkan says. One is that, to be able to export email addresses, an individual must connect with prospective members, meaning the association must choose a particular staff member to serve that role and have a plan for what to do if and when that person leaves the association. The second is that there is no easy way to cross-check a list of leads generated from LinkedIn with an association’s existing database of members and prospects, other than a manual comparison. That was less of a problem for Barkan as he built The Graphene Council with no pre-existing list, but it’s a significant hurdle an established association must deal with.
Despite the newfangled approach Barkan took to build The Graphene Council, the underlying fundamentals of association formation weren’t much different from how many membership organizations get their start. “It’s a classic chicken and the egg, right?” Barkan says. “How do you get people to pay for something if you don’t have content? How do you create content if you don’t have people?”
He says it boiled down to a recognizable three-step process: Build a community with a critical mass, leverage that community to begin developing content, then create a formal membership offer built on that community and content. “I think what’s different [now] is the tools, and the ability to scale quickly,” he says.
How does your association use LinkedIn for member recruitment? Could it sustain itself on an entirely LinkedIn-focused approach like The Graphene Council? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments.