As associations evolved from places to solve problems and network with peers, they’ve diversified, relying heavily on selling stuff – research, certification, webinars, education programs, conference registrations, exhibits, sponsorships and more – to make ends meet. On average, non-dues revenue (NDR) generates anywhere from 60-65% of an association’s total income, according to data from ASAE.
To support this “retailing” model, marketing departments have grown in both complexity and size, bombarding members with more messages than they can consume since silo-based service and product makers within the organization are all chasing sales. In response, members have tuned out – or worse still, stopped renewing – while associations continue making and selling more stuff. What hasn’t changed? Members still need answers to their questions.
How can associations move from this marketing communications overkill and get back to delivering what members are looking for – while staving off the decline in membership?
One way is to apply the ultra-collaborative design thinking business process to purposefully developing new membership experiences. In this article, we discuss how design thinking (DT) was used at one professional healthcare society struggling with a membership drowning in communication overload – putting an end to the nickel-and-diming of constituents, while reducing marketing expenses and decreasing information fatigue.
What is Design Thinking?
Despite its name and the fact that groups engaged in DT use design-based concepts, one doesn’t have to be a designer to deploy DT. The most important criteria to understand is that DT starts with the end in mind: attempting to define a desired end result or future solution through the building up ideas. This stands in contrast to conducting analyses or applying critical thinking to solve a specific problem, which tends to break down ideas.
When executed properly, DT is a very powerful tool to address a wide array of business challenges and create innovative solutions, as well as develop new products or services. Depending on who you ask, DT can include anywhere from three to seven distinct stages. Here, we’re using the five stages that have been embraced by and are taught at Stanford University’s d.school.
- Empathize. Having a view from the member or end user perspective is critical to when using this human-centered design approach. Therefore, once an issue is raised via your voice-of-the-customer efforts, perhaps from a feedback channel that includes personal member interviews, a deep immersion into the customers’ experience is the initial stage of DT activities. By observing and engaging with members – in their own environments – the organization’s staff began to capture and understand the physical manifestations of actual member experiences.
- Define. After synthesizing the empathy findings, your goal is to develop a deep understanding of the users and the design space, and based on this knowledge, your team needs to assert the point of view. When done properly, the POV is a focused, guiding statement that ultimately frames the problem, focuses on the user and inspires a team to seek a creative solution. It will also provide a reference for evaluating ideas, and keeps your effort focused. By continuously asking “how might we…?” during this stage, the society’s work group protected itself from trying to design a solution that tried to be all things to all people.
- Ideate. In this phase of DT, the more ideas the better. Don’t put a limit on input, including those concepts that seem outlandish or unimaginable. Furthermore, by being inclusive, this element of DT begins to gain fresh perspectives, and leverages insights from colleagues that can build upon the ideas of others. Cross-department collaborating is essential – do it and you’ll uncover unexpected, rich areas for exploration. At the healthcare association, for instance, despite the fact that information overload issue appeared to be the publishing department’s challenge, team members from IT, finance, operations and event planning were included in the design thinking work group.
- Prototype. By putting prototypes together, which is anything that takes a physical form (a role-playing activity, an object, a wall of Post-It notes, a story board, etc.), you move the ideas from the brain-concept world to the physical world. The most meaningful prototypes allow people to interact with them, and can lessen both ambiguity and miscommunication. This is why the society’s website creators used wireframes before doing any significant webpage and email template design, as these allowed for fast and easy layout alterations – long before large amounts of time and money were spent on a full web design.
- Test. All too often associations are hesitant to put out a service or product until “perfection” is achieved. This, unfortunately, results in spending lots of additional resources when it is unknown if a market for the goods/services being created even exists. The chance to capture feedback and refine solutions – to learn by doing – comes from the test phase. Pilot testing and sharing the prototypes with communities informs future prototype versions, and often yields new and unexpected insights. You may find that you need to start all over – but if that happens, at least you’ve saved yourself from investing too many resources before going all in on a product or service.
The application of design thinking at the healthcare organization was further complemented by the Agile project management principles of Scrum. Combined, these two contemporary approaches transformed this association’s communications vehicles from what were wildly ineffective – and far too numerous – publications into a tight suite of coordinated print and digital offerings, reducing total marketing and communication costs.
These benefits were accompanied by an increase in advertising by $200,000 in one year, and further eliminated member confusion with multiple-branded products. The member experience and satisfaction with the organization’s publications improved measurably – as did the electronic communication open rates – in less than 9 months. Even better? The association’s staff was fully engaged – having gained a true understanding of the member point of view – and they had fun making it all happen.