Your New Promotion: Fearless Champion of Member Experience

Tim Walker is co-founder of Biro Creative, a pioneering provider of marketing advice exclusively for movement-building organizations. Biro's small tribe of long-term clients includes Avaaz, 350, Greenpeace UK, 100-Mile Diet and Global Zero. Tim is co-author of the Web Thinking Manifesto. He once ran the marketing department at Adbusters. And he believes that the best organizations build their movements by word-of-mouth, which they earn by creating a remarkable member experience.

INTRODUCTION

Give yourself a promotion today. I mean it. Don't ask your boss. Don't make an announcement. Just decide that tomorrow is going to be different. It doesn't matter if you're an Executive Director, CTO, Field Organizer, or PHP/Drupal/Apache code ninja. This new job will be perfect. Oh, and it comes with a very cool title, ready? Fearless Champion of Member Experience.

Member Experience? Fearless Champion? Yes. I'll clarify in a moment. But first, let me explain why accepting this job could be the single most important thing you can do to help grow your movement.

HOW DO MOVEMENTS GROW?

How do great organizations reach new people to scale their work? How do a handful of hippies with a battered fishing boat in Vancouver grow to a major force behind the modern environmentalism movement? How does a 200-strong Evangelical congregation in Lake Forest, California become one of America's largest megachurches? And how do a half-dozen students and their environmental prof in Vermont ignite the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history?

It's not thanks to massive advertising or PR budgets, that's for sure. The simple answer, of course, is that great organizations grow movements by word-of-mouth. They don't do it themselves, with internal resources. They look one degree outward to their most passionate, dedicated, excited and talkative members to reach new people.

Now here's the important thing: it doesn't happen by chance. Organizations don't get word-of-mouth for free, by magic or from some viral condition they catch online. They certainly don't get it simply for fighting the good fight. How do they get it? They earn it. That's right: word-of-mouth is earned.

HOW DO YOU EARN WORD-OF-MOUTH?

Here's where things start to get interesting for your new job, and where truly great organizations shine. There's a lot of excellent research on the topic of generating word-of-mouth; I've put some of my favourite resources below if you’re interested. For now, let me summarize the main conclusion: Great organizations earn word-of-mouth by providing members with a remarkable member experience.

  • Donors to DoSomething -- America’s largest teen service org -- who bought into its Initial Public Offerings in 2008 participate in quarterly "shareholder" meetings with the group's CEO and Chief Old Person Nancy Lublin to learn about the social return on their “investment”.
  • Members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran Association (IAVA) get secure access to a vets-only online community to connect and support each other through the challenging transition home from the front lines to a new life. They also get free tickets to Yankee games, NASCAR races, Henry Rollins concerts and hundreds of other events thanks to this awesome rewards program.
  • Those at WoC 2009 heard from Zack Exley about how Obama volunteers were ushered into four-day immersive training programs where they not only polished skills but also created and shared stories about what brought them to this place and the meaning to their lives.

These are pretty disparate examples, yes, but all pretty remarkable. These are the kind of experiences you can't help but want to share with family, friends, colleagues and, sometimes, even strangers. These are the kinds of experiences that the grow movements.

WHAT’S IN THE WAY?

So what’s stopping us all from embracing this strategy and becoming remarkable? Why do we still so often neglect the member experience? Why do we continue to fill inboxes with petitions spam? Publish reports that no one reads and then ask for money to create more? Sap members’ passions by never saying thank you or showing them the impact of their efforts? Why are we still so boring?

Well first, some leaders simply don’t buy it. They argue the member experience is a waste of resources, a luxury. Remarkability, they say, is a flighty distraction from more immediate, hard nosed, legislative goals, fundraising targets or what-have-you. I often point this camp to Fred Reichheld influential book The Ultimate Question where he introduces the idea of "good profit" versus "bad profit". He talks about how organizations under pressure often seek the latter -- quick results at the expense of a frustrated or disappointed base. These "bad profits" may sometimes deliver but they can kill longer-term vitality. And I think you’ll agree, if social change is anything, it’s long term.

Second, some argue the problem is coming up with great ideas. It’s intimidating seeing what’s out there: Charity: Water helping people use their birthdays to fund wells in Africa. Project Porchlight spinning a simple household chore into community block parties. AARP getting members discount health insurance (Now that’s a remarkable experience you want to share!). But to be frank, this argument is nonsense. When you gather smart, passionate people in a room who know the their audience and needs (and include their audience), insights are never far behind. You just have to do it. You could start by asking: “What's it like being part of our movement?”

Third, the most serious barrier to becoming remarkable -- and the least easy to overcome -- is fear. Seth Godin attributes it to what he calls our lizard brain. Being remarkable requires being different, going out on a limb, trying new things and innovating. It means taking risks. Being at the centre of attention. Being looked at through a microscope. This is frightening stuff. No one wants to get fired, laughed at or offend anyone. Natural enough; it’s easier being safe and boring. It’s just no way to build a movement.

THINKING LONG TERM; FINDING IDEAS; OVERCOMING AND FEAR

This brings us back to our new job: Fearless Champion of Member Experience. It’s about helping your organization overcome the three big barriers -- and earning the word-of-mouth that grows movements. Hopefully it makes some sense now why this is such a vital position. And hopefully you’ll consider the challenge.

How exactly do you encourage longer-term thinking about your movement? How do you bring people together to generate ideas to improve the member experience? How do you help overcome the fears about making it all happen? All good questions. I’m very keen to explore them together at WoC this year. Hopefully we can get ourselves properly prepared for our new promotion.

RESOURCES:

- Seth Godin’s classic book Purple Cow and his thoughts on the Lizard Brain.

- Zappos Founder Tony Heish on Delivering Happiness

- Word of Mouth Marketing Association

- Arming the Choir by Free Range Studio

- Andy Sernovitz book Word-of-Mouth Marketing

- Beth Kanter and Frank Berry have compiled some excellent resources here