May 29, 2012

Why Continuing Education and Multidisciplinary Networking Make for Bad Chapter Meetings: Part 1

Continuing education content has long been the anchor of the professional association chapter meeting. It creates a common purpose and bond for the community to meet, break bread and form relationships with colleagues and peers.

Yet in recent years, several financial services associations have shifted from making CE the centerpiece of core membership community-building, to the anchor around which multidisciplinary networking is supposed to occur. Unfortunately, though, the approach is fatally flawed, as affiliated professionals are unlikely to find the content and sponsors relevant, and CE can take up so much of the meeting time there is little left to actually network.

As a result, many organizations are at a crossroads—to either really restructure meetings to allow for proper and structured networking opportunities, or to refocus on using the chapter meeting once again to build community around a core membership. 

The inspiration for today’s blog post is a recent conversation I had with an attorney who had decided to drop his membership in one of the major financial planning associations. He complained it just didn’t feel like he got anything out of it; he joined for the opportunity to network, but after two years of involvement, he hadn’t cultivated a single referral. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying to get involved; he regularly attended the local chapter meetings. But he hadn’t developed any relationships, so it just didn’t make sense to renew anymore.

In recent years I’ve come to realize that this is a common plight for several of the financial services associations (most notably, the Financial Planning Association and the Society for Financial Services Professionals) that have taken an increasingly “multidisciplinary” membership approach in recent years.

The basic concept seems pretty straightforward. Financial advisors often view and position themselves as the quarterback of the client relationship, but they require a whole team of affiliated professionals to function. Consequently, the associations thought, we can grow our membership by bringing in affiliated professionals in a variety of disciplines who would want to work with our members, and invite them to the meetings that are already occurring!

The members get the opportunity to network with outside professionals to generate referrals, the affiliated professionals get the opportunity to network with financial advisors to generate referrals, and the association gets more members, leading to greater membership dues, growing the attendance at chapter meetings and sponsorship revenue.

Unfortunately, though, there’s one fundamental but crucial and fatal flaw to the approach: the professional educational meeting is the anchor of the local chapter experience for most associations, and those meetings are an absolutely terrible way to facilitate networking for multidisciplinary members. There are three primary reasons:

1). Content. Quality professional educational content—differentiated from the increasing amount of free-but-not-always-good content available on the web—is advanced and challenging, yet specifically relevant to the target audience. However, when a room is filled with professionals from multiple disciplines, content that is created in a manner to be advanced yet relevant to one professional group virtually ensures the content will be completely irrelevant for the rest of the group.

Or stated more simply: the best content for a financial advisor doesn’t feel very relevant for a practicing attorney; the best content for a practicing attorney doesn’t feel very relevant for a practicing accountant; and the best content for a practicing accountant has little relevance for a financial advisor.

The multidisciplinary professional education session is virtually guaranteed to leave the majority of attendees unfulfilled in their content needs (if not outright ineligible for continuing education credit). The end result: if the content was targeted at the advisors, the affiliated professionals feel like meetings are a waste of time; if the content was targeted more broadly to make it relevant for the affiliated professionals, the core members find it irrelevant (and stop showing up for the meetings).

2) Sponsorship. While more people attending the meeting initially seems positive for the meeting sponsor, the good feelings quickly end when the sponsor realizes that most of the new faces at the meeting aren’t actually potential users of the company’s products and services anyway.

From the perspective of an investment company, for example, a room full of 40 people can turn out to be worse than a room with just 25 people, if the former includes 20 advisors and 20 attorneys while the latter is 25 advisors and no attorneys. The former may have more people in the room, but the latter has more prospects in the room for the company.

The end result: sponsors don’t see results, and sponsors don’t renew after a few years. The secondary result: the affiliated professionals, bored with not only content that isn’t relevant, but vendors with sales pitches that aren’t relevant either, become even more resolved not to renew. It’s just flat-out awkward at best for all involved when the majority of the people in the room at a sponsored chapter meeting couldn’t possibly do business with the sponsor anyway.

3). Networking Time. Perhaps the greatest fundamental flaw of the professional educational meeting as a networking gathering is the simple fact that, when the meeting is anchored around educational content, there’s hardly any time to actually do the networking!

The typical “networking” lunch meeting becomes 5 minutes of hello greetings, a few minutes of announcements, 50 minutes of content, and then everyone scatters to return their offices and their busy days (especially those members who spent the preceding hour listening to content that isn’t relevant to them, supported by sponsors with whom they can’t do business anyway). The end result: even people who were genuinely interested in networking have no time to actually network, find the dynamic unrewarding, and don’t renew.

So what’s the solution? We’ll discuss in Part 2.

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