Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Digital vs. In-Person Relationships

This is part three of my reaction to Jeff De Cagna's excellent article on business model innovation for associations in the April 2011 issue of Associations Now. In part one I talked about how the primary challenge for associations in innovating is a cultural one, and how organizational priorities need to move away from established structures and towards whatever mechanisms help the organization deliver better value for its members. In part two I talked about one of the ways of doing that—tearing down the walls that get put up between association staffers and members and allowing them to honestly interact with each other as human equals.

Now, I want to toss out a cautionary flag in response to another one of Jeff’s core ideas—that the social layer of our society is becoming increasingly digital and that associations must embrace this platform in order to maintain their “ownership” over member interaction.

For as long as there have been associations, the social layer has existed almost entirely in the physical dimension. Throughout our history, creating sustained relationships required regular face-to-face contact among participants at association events. Today, relationships flourish in a fully digital form, a medium that makes them always accessible, highly portable, easily shared, and thus more valuable. It is impossible to underestimate the impact of this paradigm shift on membership-centric business models that put pay-to-play access to relationships at the heart of their value proposition.

The social layer of our society IS becoming increasingly digital—there’s no denying that. This shift in our society IS having and WILL CONTINUE to have a significant impact on membership-based associations. I see that as clearly as you do. But I would caution association leaders—especially those of associations who put pay-to-play access to relationships at the heart of their value proposition—to not lose sight of the value face-to-face relationships have and will continue to have in the future.

Two quick anecdotes. First, my own association is doubling down on face-to-face relationships. In a marketplace increasingly dominated by LinkedIn groups, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds (and even given the fact that we’re dabbling in all those areas) our leadership has correctly positioned the human interaction that goes on at our conferences as an intrinsic piece of our membership value proposition. In our world, there are still subjects that will not be discussed over a social network, and there still is knowledge that a peer will share with another, but not if they have to log into the network in order to do so.

Do digital relationships of their own creation assist my members in performing their jobs? You bet they do. Are those interactions always accessible, highly portable and easily shared—in a way my association would be hard-pressed to match or provide? Absolutely. But does that make them more valuable than the face-to-face interactions members can only access by being members of my association? Not by a long shot. Digital relationships are valuable. But I don’t think anyone has yet made the case that they are more valuable than in-person human interaction. In the association of the future, I predict, both kinds of relationships will play a critical role.

What’s my second anecdote? It’s a short one and maybe you can relate. I’m really torn on whether to attend the ASAE Annual Meeting this year. It’s closer to home for me than last year in L.A., and that makes it more convenient, but there are so many demands on my time, and it’s scheduled during a less than ideal week in my calendar. But here’s a fact. With all due respect to any ASAE staff person or volunteer who may be reading this, if I do go to St. Louis it won’t be because of the general sessions or learning labs or evening receptions they have so diligently planned. If I decide to go it will only be because of the people who will be there and with whom I gain so much value out of meeting with face-to-face. The chance to connect, to share stories, the learn from their experiences, and to plan things together for the future—that kind of interaction is worth a few days out of my busy schedule.

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