Relevant by design

Last week, I posted at some length about "finding a better way to make the message stick". I had been thinking about my last five years of public speaking and writing, an inadvertant arc that has changed how I feel about publishing and my place in it.

That post featured a picture of just some of the (literally) hundreds of badges I'd collected along the way. In sorting through the badges after I wrote the post, I noticed a pattern that has been a touchstone (and a sore point) for one set of meetings that I attend: those hosted by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).

I haven't spoken at ASAE events; I go to listen, learn and gain a sense of the trends and issues affecting associations. Unlike Association Media & Publishing, whose events I also attend, ASAE does not focus on publishing in the association space. It's a macro event, one that makes me a better consultant by introducing me to ideas and people I might otherwise have missed.

I first attended the ASAE annual meeting in 2009, and I didn't really think too much about the bright orange "consultant" portion of the badge I was given. As it happened, I actually am a consultant. The designation seemed helpful.

It certainly proved helpful in meeting other consultants, a handful of whom introduced themselves to me in Toronto at that first conference. I didn't think too much about it until I was invited to join an informal get-together of consulting types that took place at the next annual meeting.

It turned out that the "Orange Badge of Consulting" had become a bit of a sticking point for some of my colleagues. To attend the annual meeting, you have to work for an association (and you are an "attendee").  A limited exception is made for consultants. Everyone else – industry partners (what you might call vendors) – has to exhibit to attend. Not surprisingly, their badges say "exhibitor".

About two-thirds of the exhibit floor consists of meeting-related businesses; the balance is mostly service and technology vendors whose offerings are potentially of interest to the companies I typically consult with. Over time, my colleagues had come to see the "consultant" tag as a barrier, a way to alert exhibitors and association professionals that they should avoid spending time with us.

I was a bit less experienced attending ASAE events, and (as I try to do when I don't know anything) I listened. At one point, I wondered out loud if there was a way to do a test, to have a year when at least some of the consultants got "attendee" badges. We could walk the floor and see if anything had changed.

As it happened, last year I was given an "attendee" badge. ASAE schedules its exhibit-hall windows generously, so there was plenty of time to find out if it made a difference to no longer be labeled a consultant. In a one-consultant study, I found that it did, particularly in the first 30 seconds or so of a conversation.

In previous meetings, I would approach an exhibitor, and the booth representative would look at my badge, name and title. That's pretty normal. But with the "consulting" flag set, I'd almost never be offered a demonstration, a business card, a set of background materials or the opportunity for a follow-up call. I'd be ushered along with polite conversation and a wandering eye (not mine).

This year, my badge once again designated me a consultant, though no longer at the top, and no longer in orange. In many ways, the old behaviors returned. What changed was how I chose to address them.

At the event, I had identified about two dozen exhibitors I wanted to better understand. Walking the floor, another half dozen or so jumped out at me as more relevant than I'd decided on first take. I had not made appointments with any of these exhibitors – I'd recommend that for the future – but I started every conversation with a disclosure:

I'm a consultant who works with association, book and magazine publishers to help them improve their ability to create, manage, market and distribute content. I'm looking to better understand what your company does so that I might bring my clients the broadest possible mix of industry partner solutions.

The pitch did not cure all ills, but it did stop almost every exhibitor I approached from pushing me along. In one case, an initially difficult conversation with a firm that offers community management software turned into an expansive discussion of how that company might think about markets other than associations themselves.

So, I'm left thinking my colleagues are right, that the badge sometimes does brand the consultant. I'm also left thinking that it's up to us to overcome that. Figuring out what makes us relevant to anyone – clients and industry partners alike – is a good start.

Edited September 20 to add: After I wrote and posted my thoughts on how exhibitors interact with consultants, ASAE sent me a link to a report that lists all of the vendors who scanned my badge at the 2013 event. As mentioned here, I visited about 30 exhibitors; the report confirms that one (Small World Labs) actually scanned my badge and kept the information. I continue to believe that it's up to me to change that dynamic, but the small share of exhibitors who have an interest in meeting me part-way illustrates how much work remains to be done.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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