Does your team consider it a privilege to interface with your audience? Or do they cringe and run for cover when someone reaches out?

Everyone wants it to be the former, but all too often we hear: “Those people are so demanding.” “You can never please them.” And the most common, “They just don’t understand.”

Why does this happen, and how can you change your culture if you have audience members who are perceived as behaving badly? And employees who are on the receiving end of that behavior, creating the opinion that people just want to make their jobs difficult?

Like most relationships, if you don’t pay attention to the warning signs and make an effort to correct perceptions, you’re headed down a path toward separation. Retention, audience engagement, and staff morale will suffer.

Five areas to include in your engagement strategy

Every organization is unique in its own way, with its own challenges and opportunities. Your customer base may be comprised of members, subscribers, donors or “friends.” However, there are five important topics of exploration and discussion that will improve your relationship with your audience, no matter what you call them. Follow these guidelines and it will become a pleasure for your team to interact with your valuable constituency!

1—Deliver on the promise you made when they signed up

Sounds so simple, but if your acquisition team isn’t in sync with your benefit delivery team, a chasm can open up.

Acquisition is all about getting a “YES,” certainly. But if the promise doesn’t match the experience, your retention will suffer.

How realistic is your acquisition pitch?

  • Do you position your organization as the most authoritative source, and promise to answer all their questions? It’s a very good goal, but make sure people know how to ask the questions so you can answer them.
  • If your portfolio has a lot of discounts, are they truly good deals?
  • If you have a product testing program, are you prepared to manage expectations (because it’s unlikely you’ll have enough products for 100% of your audience members to test-and-keep)?
  • Are benefits exclusive, or can they pick up the magazine on the newsstand for less (or read it online at no cost)?
  • If you’re an advocacy organization, do you really represent the audience?

Persuasion is necessary to get a prospect to say yes, but it’s also the first step on a journey you’re asking them to take with you. It’s the foundation of your solid, authentic, long-term relationship.

If you never get that second “date,” maybe your elevator pitch is out of touch.

2—Listen Actively to your audience to build a stronger foundation

Almost without exception, relationships come apart because one or both parties weren’t listening. It’s no different in a community-based organization.

You might be thinking about your organization all day, every day. It’s likely your audience members only think of you when you prompt them, or when they need you. So what else is consuming their day? Find plausible ways to ask, and you’ll discover new opportunities to make yourself more valued (and improved retention will reflect the effort).

For example, when COVID-19 brought in-person networking events to an abrupt halt, organizations that listened and responded with live-stream options won the day.

Listen at every possible interaction. For example, if you’re publishing information, do you know if your recipients are a) reading what you publish and b) understanding what it means for them? A simple, frequent reader satisfaction survey can give your content team great feedback.

If a regular column isn’t being read, replace it with something that does engage the reader. You can’t influence your audience if they aren’t reading what you send.

Are your benefits resonating and perceived as important? Active listening might uncover something that is changing in their world that could influence how you modify benefits, or seek new ones.

We often find that the benefits new audience members say are very important (like getting good deals through the organization) fade over time and other, less quantifiable but more satisfying reasons for affiliating take over. Networking. Pride in affiliation. Having fun. Looking to your organization first as a reliable, trustworthy source of information that makes what they do more rewarding.

Conversely, you need your audience members to listen to you as well. You can’t retain your position as an authoritative source and justify that fee for participation if your audience isn’t engaging with you. And that means relevant, authentic communication. Because here’s the thing: nothing you send is required reading.

A good communicator can take the feedback from your member surveys and craft your messages in a style, format, cadence that your audience will read. “I hear what you’re saying” goes a long way toward engagement.

3—Respectful Assumption invites engagement

Once they say “yes” to your invitation, it’s time to stop selling (sidenote: use “invitation” not “application” unless you really could deny them access).

This is especially true when it’s time to renew. Reselling benefits can backfire. They may not have used some (or even any) of the benefits, but still value affiliation. Reminding them of benefits they didn’t use gives them an opening to say, “Well, I got along just fine without all those things, I guess I won’t renew.”

Inclusive, engaging communication that sends the message they belong, are valued, and welcomed as a part of the community makes for a stronger bond.

But don’t assume without a foundation. For example, if you assume they know how to log in and find the good stuff without a guide to train them, both your staff and your constituency will be frustrated. Here’s where a well-crafted onboarding/re-boarding program is a wonderful surrogate for the neighborhood welcome wagon. It’s not that you want them to do everything by themselves, it’s that you want them to be comfortable with your benefits and programs enough that they COULD find an answer without calling your service team.

If they reach the end of their term and say, “I didn’t know I had access to  <insert benefit here>,” you’ve failed them and sold yourself short. You’ve also failed your team by not making it clear what they do all day on behalf of the audience and your organizational goals.

4—It’s about “You” (the audience member) not “Me” (the organization)

Don’t be the person at the party who only talks about themselves. A relationship with a self-centered person doesn’t last long, right? The same is true in a community. If everything that comes from your organization is “We/Our/I/Me,” you’re sending a pretty strong message that it’s not about the individual and how THEY value and engage with you.

How many times have you read (or written) the phrase “we’re so proud” in your communications? This phrase is a big brick wall. Consider instead, “you will benefit from” which says the organization has something to share that will improve their experience.

More than almost anything else you could do, this is a culture-creator. When staff starts to tear down the “we” wall, collaboration and community thrives.

5—Be in Service Not a Servant

Your team is NOT there to wait on your audience members. Environments that allow constituents to bully, berate or make direct demands of your staff are toxic and painful for everyone.

Mutual respect, engaging communications and a culture of service is the goal. Think of staff as hosts. They are experts on your product, and are best equipped to show your audience members how to maximize their experience. Your staff should be considered skilled guides, not pack mules!

Instituting a practice of listening and sharing results can help you create a healthy culture of service. When staff knows that what they do to enhance someone’s experience results in a higher satisfaction score (like those who use the Net Promoter Score methodology), they better understand how their actions impact the score and the ultimate goal of retention.

While you’re focused on your relationship with your audience members, consider one last question

Have you walked in their shoes lately? Turn around and look at your organization through their eyes. Would you go on that second date, or would you be edging your way toward the door to get away from the person who really isn’t interested in anything but hearing him or herself talk?

A healthy, mutually beneficial relationship between audience members and staff is possible if you follow these steps.

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