September 13, 2019 by Ronn
"A lot of the key to success for our business is being the catalyst for people to network," Elizabeth Petersen, product director, professional development, for Simplify Compliance, told a packed room at SIPA 2019 in June during a session titled Customer Onboarding, Engagement & Renewal Braintrust. "They don't want to talk to me, but they want to talk to a peer. One thing we've done with getting people engaged is we pose a question and then get out of the way and let them talk."
Listening again to this session this week, I can't tell you how valuable being present at this kind of discussion can be. There was constant interaction in the room, ideas flowing everywhere. Today we release the full program for our Business Information & Media Summit (BIMS) Nov. 11-13 in Hollywood, Fla., and we fully intend to build on these types of sessions. In fact, there's an entire track titled Onboarding, Engagement and Retention.
Petersen continued. "I think onboarding is a very important part of events. We have this very successful event for critical documentation improvement specialists. The reason why this event is so good is not because of me or my colleagues but that we empower people to talk to one another. So before people come to the event, instead of us blasting out, 'Come to this session, come to this session,' we actually created a conference app. And at first I said, 'Nobody's going to use this, guys; this isn't a very tech-savvy group.'
"[But] the first year we had 95% engagement on the app. And the interesting thing is [it's not the part of] the app that tells you what the agenda is. It's the conversations that they started with one another. So the week before the session, people started posting who they wanted to meet and what they wanted to see. Then they started posting pictures of their dog wearing a conference tee-shirt. And a drink they were having before they got on the plane. And so they were onboarding one another because they were hearing from their peers what their peers were going to get out of their event. That's a million times more powerful than me standing in front of folks either in person or in a webinar saying, 'You must come to this session; it's going to be the greatest thing.'"
SIPA president Greg Hart, director of marketing for PSMJ Resources, Inc., also sat on this panel. He agreed with Petersen on the importance of creating that community. "One of the most effective engagement tools we found for our paid subscription newsletter product isn't any touch between us and the subscriber; it's creating a community between them.
"You're familiar with the [SIPA] Listserve. Occasionally there are flurries of emails and occasionally it goes quiet. But you have at your fingertips instant access to this network of hundreds if not thousands of folks. And doing that for our subscriber audience—maybe it's a couple hundred bucks a year; it's a very primitive tool—has exploded the engagement that we have in the subscriber base and as a result renewal rates have gone up. Just simply because of that."
Earlier in the session, Hart talked about another crucial engagement element that, on the surface, also involves not becoming the center of attention.
"So much of onboarding, engagement and renewal just ties back to listening to your customers," he said. "And sometimes it's as simple as stop talking and listen to what they have to say and document that."
The third member of the panel, Robin Crumby, co-founder and managing director, Kademy—and formerly the head of Melcrum—spoke about making that customer listening valued in your company.
"For us, customer intelligence became the new currency internally," he said. "So every team meeting would start with an insight from a customer conversation, and people learned very quickly that if they really weren't having regular contact with customers, they really weren't having a say in those meetings.
"What we found was the higher the price point, the deeper the level of engagement that is required." He said that they might have had $30,000 products, so that's a lot of engagement. "Sometimes the customer can't articulate the need or what a product should look like. So we try to understand some of the challenges that they're facing, trying to understand their individual pain points and how we can pinpoint our individual products and services to address those. It went beyond listening to co-creating the solutions."
Petersen stressed the value of maintaining that "customer intelligence"—perhaps making it part of your processes.
"Customer listening [should happen] not only at the start of the product but on an ongoing basis," Petersen said, "and frankly that's an area where we fall down sometimes. We had launched a new association, and we were really proud of ourselves because people liked it a lot at first. But nine months in, we did our first focus group—which was an absolute mistake. This should be happening once a month. We were asking people questions, and we were shocked to find out that people were only aware of about 10% of their benefits.
"They didn't know where to find things on the website. They weren't receiving communication that we thought they were receiving. And we had made assumptions about where they wanted to receive information about their member benefits. So what we learned was that people actually liked getting updates about their association on Facebook. We learned that people would sometimes see an email from us and they would delete it.
"We made assumptions and stopped listening to our customers, so I think that has to be a baked-in process, ongoing and then all the customer touchpoints you have—whether it's sales, customer service, marketing, product—everyone's coming together and having open and honest conversations frequently."
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…