From Stagnant to Relevant w/ Amber Huston

Episode Thumbnail
This is a podcast episode titled, From Stagnant to Relevant w/ Amber Huston. The summary for this episode is: <p>As a first-time CEO/Executive Director coming into a national association that had not seen any changes to its business model, technology, membership services, etc., Amber Huston was met with a wave of needs and feedback. At the core, the association was in the midst of an identity crisis; was the association's purpose still relevant. Listen to this episode to hear how a first-time executive leveraged the voice of customer data, marketing, and strategy to evolve a stagnant association.</p>
How Amber Approached Getting to Know the Association
01:27 MIN
Do an Operational Scan and Review the Data
01:21 MIN
Starting a Voice of Member Survey
01:09 MIN
Exploring the Culture of the Association
01:04 MIN
Recognizing and Celebrating Progress
01:19 MIN
Be Strategic in Your Messaging
01:10 MIN

Alex Mastrianni: Welcome to the Member Engagement Show with Higher Logic, the podcast for association professionals looking to boost retention, gain new members, and deepen member involvement.

Heather McNair: Throughout our show we'll bring on some experts, talk shop about engagement, and you'll walk away with strategies proven to transform your organization. I'm Heather McNair.

Alex Mastrianni: I'm Alex Mastrianni, and we're happy you're here.

Heather McNair: Welcome back to the Member Engagement Show. This is Heather McNair, and today I'm excited to bring you some of our best content from Amber Huston, she's the executive director at the National Association for Campus Activities. When Amber first joined NACA, she was a first time CEO and executive director. Before her the association hadn't changed any of its business model, technology, membership services, et cetera, and Amber was instantly met with a wave of needs, feedback from her employees, from her members. At the core the association was in the midst of an identity crisis, and she was handed the challenge to try to fix that, to try to identify their purpose, was the original reason they were founded still relevant? And one of the things that we've talked about throughout our episodes is capturing the member voice, using member data to really make sure that what you're doing is relevant, how you're giving information back to your members that is important to them, and Amber really hits the nail on the head as she talks about how she is leveraging voice of the customer to bring them a relevant experience, to make sure that the things that NACA is offering are relevant in today's marketplace, and that she can evolve what was viewed as a stagnant association, and she has brought it back to life in really exciting ways. And so with that, I will turn it over to Amber.

Amber Shaverdi Huston: My name is Amber Shaverdi Huston, and I am the CEO for the National Association for Campus Activities. I just rounded my first year here. I grew up in the Midwest and had been living in Indianapolis the past 11 years, and a majority of that time serving as COO for a men's organization, received a phone call by a recruiter to look into this association, as they were doing a search for their executive director role, and it interested me. My master's is in higher education administration, and I thought I wanted to be a Dean of Students on a college campus, but after working with associations I realized associations were more the path that I felt comfortable with, so earned my certified association executive designation and had said, that's the direction I want to take my career. So it was really fascinating when I received a phone call by the recruiter and I thought, this is a great opportunity where my two prior professional experiences can collide, higher education and association management. It also meant relocating my family to South Carolina. It is currently 80 degrees, which I am a football fan, love fall, love wearing sweaters and long sleeves, so it's taking a little bit of getting used to, to get adjusted to this heat. I am a mother of a two and a half year old daughter, and am expecting my second in about a month, so if I get a little out of breath while I'm presenting, it's just because I'm super pregnant. And been married for 11 years and have two cats, but I'm both the cat and dog person, so that's a little bit about me. I traditionally love to travel, love food, loves sports, and am excited to talk with you a little bit about some lessons learned. I will share with you that I came at this a little bit of, what I wish I would have know, or maybe that drinking from the fire hydrant in the first year as an executive director to an association that I was new to, that also where we all experienced a pandemic, so sharing a little bit about those lessons learned. Julie Foudy, who is a all star soccer player and now turned sports broadcaster, but also does a podcast, and I love a good podcast. And one of the things that Julie always does when she is beginning an interview on the podcast is she says," Set the stage for me," and so I thought I would set my stage for you and give you a little bit of a sense of the experience that I had, and why that encouraged me to share my experience, but also submit a presentation for the super forum. So setting the stage in regards to my experience coming in as a new executive director, I'd always been aware of this association because of my higher education experience, but I had never been a member. So was aware, but didn't know the association intimately. And during the interview process it was shared with me that there needed to be a focus on membership, there needed to be a focus on aligning this staff structure with the strategic plan, those big picture and also generic things that a lot of us are faced with. I will share with you that of course during interview process, and getting to know the board of directors, I did not realize to what degree the association had plateaued. And I really got a sense of that once I started. I had asked some initial questions to prepare me, and I had a couple of months of very casual onboarding with the current board chair before I actually started, which was great. That was an amazing experience. For anybody that ever has the opportunity, I strongly encourage it. I had a very supportive prior place of employment that was excited for me and supportive, and so was very comfortable with me setting time aside to start having regular phone calls with my future board chair so that she could onboard me and give me that orientation and a little bit of the lay of the land. And our conversations really ebbed and flows from the governance, the goal of the association, and she and I started to get to know each other and learn a little bit about some of the challenges that the association was having. But when I really came into the association and was on the payroll, I realized that not only had the association experienced a plateau, they had experienced a very significant decrease in membership, and that really, of course, sparked a lot of thoughts on my end of what I initially had learned, or believed to have learned, from the association was really not actual. So of course what did I start to do? I started to dig in to the data, and this is where I started. So what I want to do is share with you a little bit about how I approached getting to know the association so that I could be fed that information, and then I was in a position to change our membership strategy and to really identify what we needed to do to once again become relevant. Now of course this had to happen very quickly because we have many peer associations and I knew that time was important, and it was also important for the bottom line. Let's all be honest, we know that membership and membership interaction drives the bottom line, and so we need to make sure that we have stability there. So what I first did was I did an environmental scan of the teams, wanted to get to know them. How did they articulate the mission and vision of the association? How did they see the mission and vision coming to life in all of the association services, programs, initiatives? And that was really informative because from there I realized that there was not continuity. And so I put that in my notes of that's something that we need to have, that elevator pitch, that case for support, it needs to be fine- tuned. And we all need to have agreement in it, and that needs to be supported by the staff, not just supported, but believed in. The other thing that I did is I conducted an operational scan, so a scan of all the services. How do we operate as a team? Does the team structure the resources? Everything that we do to support the association, does that support and promote a membership driven association? And they didn't. And so that's where I had to start peeling back the layers that not only were we fragmented and there were silos, but what we said was the strategic plan, and what we said were the strategic priorities, were not happening in the day to day operations of the association. So that meant we had to make some changes, we had to align the services, the focus areas of staff, and really our operations so that membership came first. It was thought that membership came first, but in actuality it wasn't. There was also no membership strategy, so when I inquired about, give me the membership plan, give me the year round strategy, one did not exist. And unfortunately this association, for many years, had found itself very comfortable where everybody renewed, or for the most part people renewed. Retention rates weren't awful, but when you look at just the past couple of years, there really had started to be a significant problem with retention, but historically it wasn't a problem. So there was an opportunity there to really think about all the personal touches, all the opportunities that we had to develop a membership strategy, but that really came through when I did the operational scan and we as a staff did a deep exploration together as a team. I had the luxury of saying, I'm new, show me the ways, tell me, inform me of what's happening," but that doesn't mean that you can't do that. I think everybody has the opportunity to say, you know what, let's do a deep dive to see if all of our services and our internal efforts align with our goals. I had the opportunities to do it because I was new, but you all have the opportunity to do it as a deep dive, and to say that you want to continue to explore ways that your association can improve. And of course you can't argue with numbers, so you do the operational scan and you are able to participate in a team exploration, but then you also, as a team, can go through and review the data. And that's what I did, and for each of you that are here participating my suggestion would be, do a deep dive with the team on the operational scan. Independently do your own data review. Pull back all the information that you can, put it out on the table, and just sort through it, so that way you can get a trend line in regards to retention, are there any intersection points that help give you insight on maybe there was something that happened within the association, a service that was introduced or removed, or an event, or something that an experience was changed within the association. Are there any intersection points? And if there aren't, then that also gives you a different path to go down to research and to analyze. But independently I strongly encourage you to review the data yourself, and then that way you're in a position to work with a team to dissect it and talk about observations, talk about ways that we can use data to inform our approach. Because we can disagree on a number of vision and strategy components, but as a team, it's much more difficult to disagree when you've got data and numbers that can inform you, which led me to gaps of information and priorities. What I observed is that we had priorities that were stated either by the board or by staff leadership, and even the membership, but yet that didn't align with the information or the everyday operations. So knowing that there was that gap, that gave me insight into the right and left hand don't know what they're doing, or aren't working together. That was just another layer of information that helped me recognize where I needed to start, and you may see that as well, you may see that sometimes the board of directors wants to go in this direction, but also wants to go in that direction, and there's a gap in resources, or there is a gap in strategy. And so making sure that all of us take that time to really examine it and think about what needs to change to remove that gap, or what priorities need to be revisited so that the services, internal operations, and funding really do support what the stated priorities are. And of course, I also rolled phone calls. I acted as it was the days of sales, I just rolled phone calls. I called members at large and I asked them, I did very organic voice of customer surveys over the phone and said," Tell me about your experience. What do you love about your experience? What do you feel is missing?" I had a plethora, I had a list of open- ended questions, it would usually ask around four, depending on where the conversation went, and got to know the members. They were really surprised that I was calling them, that I was asking them, what do they think about the association? Where do they see their potential with the association? What part of the experience are they enjoying? And what are the experience do they not care for? What isn't landing? So I had a number of just very open- ended conversational questions, and that's where I got the meat, that is where I got to know the association and I really was able to identify what it is that members are seeking from the association. How can we be that resource? How can we be that experts for them? And most importantly, how can we be relevant to what their needs are? Not only so that they'll renew, but so there'll be happy and then they'll refer us to other people. And then of course I asked volunteers, but I wanted to go to the membership first, because I think it's really important that we don't unintentionally get a different perspective, or that we don't hinder open and free dialogue with members. So I started with them general membership, then I spoke with current volunteers, and I also asked past volunteers. And with the board I spoke with the current board members one- on- one, each of them, our association board and our foundation board, and then I also reached out to some very recent past board members, I wanted to get their perspectives. And of course it was interesting because I got three, for the most part, three different perspectives, but a lot of crossover. The biggest difference I had was the conversations I had with staff, and again, that tells a story, and that lets me know where people are and what people are prioritizing, what people believe the association should be focusing on. What I did, and how I approached that was, I started a voice of customer, or voice of member surveys. This is something that's used in the corporate world, and it was something that I learned from a former board member that mentored me. He always said," Amber, VOC, that drives decisions, that way you know what your customers or your members want." As soon as I started I incorporated a message that the membership hears from me every two weeks, every two weeks they hear from me as executive director, and in those messages I have a couple voice of customer, or voice of member, in this world, questions. Again, getting a sense of what about the experience are they enjoying, maybe it was a new service that we recently rolled out. Those voice of customer surveys give me so much insight into the morale of the membership, and to what it is that they feel the association should be focusing on, and where we're missing the mark, again, to help feed me in regards to what I need so that we can be a relevant association to them and to their peers. I was doing that while I was also doing the staff culture, deep dive. I wanted to get a sense of where was the comfort in regards to membership, in regards to recruitment in conversations with members. Our association has a number of events, so that's what our staff was used to, supporting the association through events. But when we think about supporting members of 900 plus institutions, 450 different entertainment and education agencies, and then other nonprofits through our affiliate membership, we had to think about ways that we could find a place for every member. Our membership is a little bit unique in the fact that the school, the entity, is the member, and can share that with as many people as they want on their campus. So if they're a campus of 25,000 students and they have thousands of professional staff, they can share it with as many as they want. But then we have other institutions that are members that maybe only 10 professional staff members leverage our membership. So we have to constantly be thinking about how do we consider and defined interaction and engagement between that range in membership, and the type of membership. We also have three very distinct classifications of membership, we have the entertainment and education speakers, and then we have institutions of higher education and other nonprofits, and that's why that voice of customer survey was so important because it gave me insight into what the members wanted, needed, were seeking, and felt was missing. And then I was able to regularly pull that information, create an executive summary, and share that with the board and educate them, and it gave us something to use, you can think of it similar to a pulse survey, it gave us something to use as a gauge of, are we charging down the right path, or do we assume that this is what members want, but that's not what's happening in actuality? The other piece with this is that I spent a significant amount of time exploring the culture of the association, because that gave me context on to why there were these perceived assumptions about what the staff or the association should be doing, and what our priorities should be. All of that information, and the gathering of that data, positioned me then to go and have conversations with the board about our growth strategy, and about the direction that we should be moving in. And that was difficult, because I came in as a brand new to them executive director and said," We've got to make an adjustment to the strategic plan. What is listed here in the strategic plan is not happening in actuality, and it's not guiding us in the right direction." But I had the information, I had the qualitative and quantitative data to back me up on that. I also had a game plan for what we were going to do internally, and having all of that at the ready made that conversation much smoother. Were they a little taken back? Yes and no. No because they obviously knew that there needed to be a focus on membership and that is one of the reasons why they hired me was because I had a lot of membership experience, but it was still a difficult conversation because it's hard for a group to hear, okay, our priorities need to change, our strategy needs to change, and we need to do this right now, and we need to do it with a brand new executive director. But then having their support gave me the green light that I needed to make other changes, to make changes with resources, to make changes with where our operations were going to be focused. But again, I did that all with qualitative and quantitative data that was mostly driven by membership insight and feedback. So here's how I started putting this strategy together. The goals were lofty, and where I knew we needed to get, I needed to break it up, and not only for the staff, but also for the board, so that we could be in a position where we weren't constantly feeling behind. And so what I did was I worked with the staff to think about what was realistic, but what was also going to challenge and grow and stretch us. And so putting together benchmarks, benchmarks specifically for growth and membership engagement and interaction. Of course that meant that we first had to define what engagement and interaction meant to us, and that's different for everybody and for every association. I encourage you to have that conversation with your team, with your volunteers, because I think you're going to find that people define engagement very differently, and so we're always going to have a moving target, that goalpost is constantly going to be moving, and therefore you're not able to truly celebrate a success. So as you are setting the benchmarks, don't think about it in just the statistical number, but think about the benchmarks that you're going to use to guide you when it comes to defining and celebrating success when it comes to interaction, and I encourage you to think about that outside of registration for a virtual or an in- person meeting. How else do you define interaction? Do you define it in people that participate in online discussions, or is it through your social media impressions and engagements? I would encourage you to come up with a couple of different categories, but then of course have an overall goal that you have that is backed by a shared vision of engagement and interaction. And that's going to look different for each association based on your field, based on the number of members you have and the type of programming that you provide, but I think that having those benchmarks and those definitions set in advance really positions you to be able to celebrate and identify success. Additionally, when it comes to the statistical aspect of the benchmarks, thinking about all of the drivers of membership, so what does it mean, thinking about, does that look like cold calls, is that consistent outreach, what type of outreach, how frequent? Setting all of those benchmarks in a dashboard that you and your staff can see in real time where you're making progress, and what KPIs are driving you towards your goal, and what staff operations and inputs are not yielding success so that you can quickly adjust. If you don't have a dashboard I encourage you to develop one, you can do it easily through Excel, or you can have software, just depends on what you have at your fingertips with your association, but a dashboard that really gives you all of the information so that you know and can view what inputs are yielding growth or no growth. Having that infrastructure set up will position you to observe and see how things are happening from a growth perspective while you're working on the marketing aspect. You have to have the infrastructure first because if not, then you're playing catch up, you're getting the story out there, but then you can't see if it's landing, and if you're seeing that progress. So those benchmarks and dashboard to position you so that you can monitor and track staff activity, and identify if you need to make any changes to inputs and KPIs. The other piece that's really important to, of course, having those benchmarks is the ability to celebrate progress. To say that you need to jump from 80% retention to 90% retention, that's a big jump for some organizations. It may happen more quickly initially for other organizations, but then how do you maintain it? So making sure that you have those internal benchmarks so that you can celebrate, it's important for staff morale. Often when you make a dynamic change with strategy that also means you're making a significant change with how staff approaches their work, and so that's why it's important to make sure that you give yourself that opportunity to celebrate success so that all of those expectations, when it becomes to daily behaviors and operations, can be recognized, and that morale isn't impacted. There's also a reality that when you shift, and when you start to place so much focus on membership, storytelling, information gathering, and member outreach, there are other things that then have to go away. And so it's important to keep in mind that there are necessary endings in other operational areas of the association. Sometimes those are endings forever, sometimes they're put on the shelf for a while and they may come back, but that's where you go back to that voice of customer information and you can say, these are the initiatives and services that members are not participating in, don't feel are relevant to their experience and their membership, and then you also have your engagement data, and then that's how you can say, these are the areas that we have to say goodbye to at this time. As a culture, unfortunately, we tend to think about endings in a negative way, they're sad, they're difficult to let go of, but we need to think about endings in a healthy way, and that is a culture change, that is something that is uncomfortable for a lot of us, but it's okay, and it's something that we can celebrate as well. We need to talk as a team about the life cycle of services and initiatives, and oftentimes staff tends to get to that comfortable place more quickly than volunteers, so much easier said than done, but I recognize that we internally as a staff has to feel comfortable with it first, and then we can help coach and support volunteers when we are letting go of something. But I really encourage you to use the voice of customer data and engagement statistics to identify what are those services, initiatives, that it's okay to let go of, and to be a leader in changing that culture of everything has a season and it's okay for things to end, and we're excited for and celebrate what we were able to achieve, but we're going to turn our focus to this, because this is what the membership needs and is asking for. Now of course all of that comes through strategic buy- in and messaging, so building your allies, I learned from another mentor very early on that as I'm interacting, and as I'm working to roll out an idea, that I start having those conversations not too early, but early to build those allies, to get that buy- in, to get that excitement, and also to solicit their feedback and ideas, but then that way they feel a part of the changes that are going to be made. So my recommendation, of course, be really strategic in your messaging and creating your buy- in, starting with staff and then building your allies within the membership. Oftentimes we go to a lot of the same people and I encourage you to think about those members at large that aren't always tapped into, but are active. They participate, they are ambassadors for the association. And then who are the members at large that aren't always ambassadors for the association? Pulling them in, talking with them, getting a sense of how they see the association, sharing ideas with them so that they can start going to bat and say, yes, I agree, that is an area we need to focus. I can't stress the importance of the at- large member, and I think for all of us, a lot of times we see our organizations, they like to mix volunteer and member, and those are two different categories. So making sure that we are messaging and soliciting and engaging with them in different ways, and not always treating them as one in the same. I think that that's just one of those things that you just have to constantly think about and make sure that you're pulling and utilizing them equally. and not one more than the other. And then of course the buy- in from the board, equipping them, helping them feel comfortable with the strategy, and more importantly, the why behind the strategy, and so that way they're constantly there to support that message, and they're there to support the focus and the goodbyes that were had with some of the other areas. I know that for some of you, you're thinking about, okay, how do I create that excitement within the membership? Where's the marketing component? And so that's where I would really be... putting together this story I think is hard, that's the challenge. For me getting the data, you can do that, you know what sources to pull from, you know what questions to ask, and you can pull reports from the dashboard or from your AMS. But telling the story is, I think, the art of all of this. That part's the science, this is the art, and the story comes from that conversation that you have with the members. That is where you go back to those notes of those phone calls, and soon, one of these days, when we're all able to be back together in person, those hallway conversations, those are the most important, they really are the so informative, but defining that story, and that's where the relevancy comes in. And the story has to be told to both potential members, current members, and volunteers, and that story is crafted by you. If you are here as the lead person when it comes to membership and defining the value that the association has, then that's where you start writing, and you start thinking about what is it that makes us unique? What is it that makes our association relevant? And you build your story off your case of relevancy. And that is where the story gets started, and then you fine tune it, and you keep working on it, and keep working on it, you keep practicing, and you get it so that it's organic and that it's natural, and that it can be fluid and adjust for differences situations. But one of the things that's so important about this story is that it doesn't stretch too far. There should always be a central theme to it, central objectives, central talking points of relevancy, that you're always able to use. And sometimes that can be anchored by your mission vision, in an ideal world. But for associations that haven't updated their mission and vision in quite some time, that may be difficult, and that may no longer be something that the association references. So you have to take that into consideration. I will share with you mission and vision was something that I worked with a work group of people to update in my first year, because through that voice of customer information, we knew that the mission and vision, nobody knew it, nobody cared, it didn't drive us forward, it would just wasn't relevant anymore. Not everybody has a board or an association membership that has that appetite to do that, and that's okay. Recognize what appetite exists within your association and make sure that you're thoughtful about that. But telling the story is where you pull in and identify and reiterate and message back to your members of, this is what our association offers you, this is why we are unique, this is why you need us in your professional life. One of the things that is important in telling that story is a sense of a little bit of emotion. There is research in regards to thinking about health campaigns. You can be told to not do something because it's not healthy, but if there's no emotional appeal, then it's information shared out, shared out, shared out, and it might be retained. But for something to be retained, there has to be that hook, that personal hook. And is it that my professional association equips me, it gives me opportunities, it's my community of people, which is something very relevant right now, it's my network, it's my professional home, there are different words that people can describe, but digging into that, and not just stopping there, but getting into how does that association serve me? How is it an association that I can't not have? And so the relevancy piece really comes in there, but of course built off of the qualitative and quantitative data and the voice of customer information. And that creates the momentum that you need, that then yields association pride, and then that gives you that competitive edge that, gives you affinity, and affinity is what builds retention and what creates referrals, and that helps with membership. Once you have that in place, then you've got the things that are not tangible that help drive growth and stable membership. One of the things that we all have to take into consideration is that oftentimes there are metrics and expectations to grow registration. We need to grow attendance and participation in our programs, but that, for the most part, comes from membership. Each association has its different percentage makeup of member and non- member participation in programs, but I'm going to go on a limb and say a majority of us, it's overwhelming members are the ones that are registering and participate. So leaning fully into membership first will then set you up to reach those other goals when it comes to the participation in one- off webinars and multi- day events. But again, it's identifying through exploration of what's going to give you the insight that you need to build your case for support and to define what it is to be relevant in your professional space.


As a first-time CEO/Executive Director coming into a national association that had not seen any changes to its business model, technology, membership services, etc., Amber Huston was met with a wave of needs and feedback. At the core, the association was in the midst of an identity crisis; was the association's purpose still relevant. Listen to this episode to hear how a first-time executive leveraged the voice of customer data, marketing, and strategy to evolve a stagnant association.

Today's Host

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Beth Arritt

|Association Evangelist

Today's Guests

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Amber Huston

|Executive Director, National Association for Campus Activites