To open the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives in Columbus, Ohio, in mid-August, both the executive and event-planning committees of ASAE sent a strong message to attendees about what the word “association” means to the newer members of the global workforce. By having Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, authors of New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World and How to Make It Work for You, present the keynote address, ASAE also made itself accountable to practice what the authors implored attendees to do at their own associations.
But what exactly is this “new power” the authors cite? “It’s the dynamic where people believe in the wisdom of the crowd, transparency, and opening things up,” said Timms, CEO of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. New power takes the form of “a distributed community where each member genuinely feels like an owner,” which builds credibility for an association. In contrast to relying mostly on the voices of the “credentialed elite” in their industries, associations need to bring in the voices from all corners of their industry to create a wide flow of fresh, progressive thinking that spurs deeper member engagement.
Unsurprisingly, the source of new power is technology, which is steadily erasing the old ways that associations led their industries and interacted with members. “Think of how a 22-year-old can form associations today versus 20 years ago,” said Heimans, CEO of social advocacy organization Purpose. “The technology is the difference because it’s a natural facilitator of new power.” This can be seen not only with social media and online professional and enthusiast forums, but even with the video games that are most popular these days, he noted. Team-based games such as Fortnite, Minecraft, and Call of Duty, where players in different locations collaborate via audio headsets to strategize while facing challenges together.
“Right now really is the golden age of association,” said Heimans. “But it is up to individual associations to make it their golden era too, or be left behind.”
Building the Framework to Leverage New Power
Associations must use different tools and methods than before to engage members so that they provide perspectives, anecdotes, and lessons that are related to the association’s mission. “The mission of an association is to spread ideas and build movements relevant to members,” Heimans said. “A central aspect of old power is a relatively small group of people trying to ‘protect the brand.’ But associations that focus on expressions rather than impressions will allow members to further the mission on their terms, and that strengthens the brand.”
For an association to properly leverage new power, “leadership needs to take it seriously,” said Timms. “There should be some younger people on the executive committee, but it can’t take the form of a couple of 20-somethings in the room simply saying, ‘This element is fuddy-duddy, and that one too.’”
Instead, the younger members of the committee are there to make sure these questions are answered for any new initiative:
• Do we need the involvement of the crowd to get the initiative done to the satisfaction of all members?
• Are we willing to cede control to the crowd, within certain parameters, even if the outcomes are unexpected?
• Which tools and methods would work best to make the initiative succeed with crowd participation and input?
Once the leadership team buys into the idea of leveraging new power, the education and event-planning committees can get to work. First, monitoring industry-related topic forums—and developing their own such forums—will provide planners with useful insights consistently. Also, the call-for-presentations process should be easy to navigate, while pushing out the presentation possibilities to the membership for limited-time voting could assist in setting the most relevant event agenda. And to make the overall event more dynamic, planners could gather crowd input on format possibilities for certain sessions. Lastly, it’s important to have a way to keep conversations going after events and continue to get feedback on hot topics, possible sessions, and preferred formats.
“For associations, the battle is for meaning, not attention,” said Heimans. “If you make all your different avenues have meaning for your audience, the attention will come to you.”