The 1-On-1 Interview Series is a special feature on the Wild Apricot Blog in which we interview standout members of our Membership Advisory Group.
Recently, Lori Smith, Wild Apricot’s Community Manager and Farhad Chikhliwala, our Marketing Assistant, interviewed Joe Bednar, president of the The Syracuse University Whitman Alumni Club of New York City (WhitmanNYC) in New York City. Here are highlights from their one-hour discussion.
Lori Smith (Wild Apricot): Joe, I recently read an article you wrote on the lessons learned in developing a membership club which offered some great ideas. But before we get to that, why don’t we find out a bit more about you and your organization?
Joe Bednar: I’m a three-time graduate of Syracuse University with a BFA degree in Film Production from the College of Visual & Performing Arts, and two Master's degrees – a Master's of Science in Media Management from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and an MBA in Marketing from the Whitman School of Management.
I’d been working in the marketing field for about 15 years, post-grad, and I wanted to get involved with a New York City-based connection to my school. About five years ago, I was informed that they were starting the WhitmanNYC, and I joined the club in the role of webmaster.
They didn’t have a website at the time. I am not a web developer or a coder, so I used a different company’s platform to create a website. But we found that it was not very powerful. It was a brochure site – not an interactive management platform. So we started looking for something else.
How did you find Wild Apricot and what made you realize that you needed a membership management platform?
After having used our brochure site for about two years, we realized that we could not keep tabs of our membership base, or control the registrations of our events or payments that had a rolling basis for people who joined the club. We were doing everything with Excel, and Word, and sticky notes, and chats. It was getting to be baffling how we were going to grow the club and also collect cash at the door, and not know who was showing up for what event. It was a mess.
When I became vice president of the club three years ago, I worked with the then-president to evaluate different platforms, Wild Apricot being one of them. We found that some of the other platforms were just not easy to use. Many seemed not to have a reputation in the market yet, while Wild Apricot had an excellent reputation. So we jumped in and we decided to give it a try, and it’s worked out very well for us.
Building an alumni membership from 200 to 1,800
That’s great. About how many members do you have now?
Currently, we have a few hundred paid members, but our contact database contains 1,800 alumni. And that has all been due to Wild Apricot’s reach and ease of use with doing campaigns. These 1,800 contacts are opted in. We did not import a database from our university. We aggregated those contacts over the course of three years. And what’s nice about it is that we can manage their membership and attendance in advance, and do campaigns to try to get them to become paid members of the club.
“We still need to focus on lapsed and suspended members and find out how we can win them back.”
The past president’s goal before he left was to have 200 paid members. He almost met it in the end with 190 members. But we have not used Wild Apricot to the fullest extent yet. We still need to focus on lapsed and suspended members and find out how we can win them back. We have a chair of our membership committee and they’re taking care of producing a plan to win back lapsed members. We have about 300 lapsed members, and if they were all to rejoin, we’d have a wonderful membership base. And we believe Wild Apricot can do that for us in terms of its features.
“The key word is value – what are members getting for their membership?”
Do you have any insight as to why these lapsed members left?
It’s because of perceived value. We have not done a good job as a club of marketing the value that we bring to alumni. While a lot of people join as recent alumni for a free membership for one year, when it comes time to pay for their next year, they’re not re-joining. So we need to instil in our marketing that the key word is value. What are you getting for your membership? And we have not done an excellent job of that yet, but we will.
We now have two people on our membership committee who are preparing win-back and outreach campaigns. In addition, we’re beefing up our programming for the new year. We are not a fly-by-night alumni club by any means – we have at least have one event every month and these are divided between service, speaker and social events.
What would you define as the big value for members at this point?
Right now, any member can attend any one of our four annual speaker events for free.
Are these big name speakers?
Yes, we have had speakers from the NCAA, Steiner Sports,and Turner Broadcasting. We also held a retail panel that featured speakers from ROSS, Coach, and Hermes Paris. Our school is very well connected, but delivering those connections in terms of marketing is where we have struggled. And it’s not that we don’t have the technology to do it. It’s the manpower.
Who organizes all of the events, and who does all this work? How many paid staff do you actually have?
We have no paid staff. This is a volunteer organization, with a board of approximately 20 people.
“Many people do not know the power of that rolodex that we have online for members … That’s one of the values we deliver.”
You can also reach out to any of the members through our online membership directory. Wild Apricot has made it easy for us to have an online directory for networking. We consider it our private LinkedIn. Once you’re a member, you can view any other member’s contact information for professional networking, or sales.
Having this university connection and an easy to use of membership directory is one of the values we deliver. Many people do not know the power of that rolodex that we have online for members.
In your member directory, can you send a message publicly, or do they have a private member log in to get more information?
Yes, once they log in as a member, they see the alumni’s address, telephone number, direct email, website, and the person’s interests.
Mentorship is another value we deliver. All of these values – between the events, discounts, the directory, and mentorship – we need to boil down into a campaign to drive our membership.
I noticed that some events, like the yearly barbecue, had a waiting list and were sold out. It seems some of these events are really popular and draw a lot of people, and offer great networking opportunities.
Yes – eating good barbecue amongst a hundred alumni in Central Park on a sunny summer day is not a tough sell, especially for non-members. We open these up to everyone as sort of a membership drive, and we try to sign up people and swipe their credit cards on the spot using PayPal (which drives the financials in our Wild Apricot system).
Using technology to sign-up members on the spot
That’s great. And you find that’s pretty quick and easy to do?
Very easy. You swipe the card, you enter the person’s email and first and last name, and a report is generated that we can follow up and add them to our database. It definitely makes it easy to sell people since you can attend four speaker events and save 50 percent by joining the club.
How do you keep people informed about what’s going on with the rest of the alumni and the club?
We use a social media feed on our homepage with Twitter. The secretary of our club sends out Tweets. We also use the blogging features (included in Wild Apricot) to post articles, and what’s nice about it is we can embed videos and photos in those posts. That is pretty much the outreach that we do, in addition to emails.
Facilitating the mentoring of young business people
What about your mentoring program? Do you have a lot of new graduates that are part of your club?
We do. A lot of our new joins are people taking advantage of the free one-year membership for recent graduates.
It helps them connect with the alumni base immediately. We publish an online database that is only for members and password protected. It has all of the mentors who have reached out in registration, saying they would like to mentor someone. We currently have 12 mentors on our list, and we’re looking to grow that to 36 over the next few years.
Finding the right people to “fill the five critical roles”
I want to get to the article you wrote, which had some great lessons I think we should share.
You mentioned that you had to gather a group of people with diverse skills sets. So how did you find the right people to create your board?
Well, as I mentioned, I didn’t start the club, there were two women who did. But I was sitting around the table with about five people that they had gathered, and we talked about what we would like to contribute to the club. What skills did we have?
Fortunately, we all went through a school of management. So naturally we could find a treasurer and do our reporting, and we found someone who wanted to be a webmaster – yours truly. Someone who enjoyed writing became secretary. And we grew it organically over time. It was really important that we had a core of people to fill the office roles: president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, webmaster – would be the five critical roles that any organization should aim to fill immediately.
What’s your passion? Why do you do it?
I do it because I like to remain connected with the alumni base, and I do it because I love the people I work with. It’s more of a social reward than it is anything else. I really enjoy seeing everyone at the events and bringing them new opportunities, and dreaming up new things for us to do that keep our Syracuse University and the Whitman connection, while living in New York City.
You feel part of something, don’t you?
Yes in an alumni club, you have a bond. It doesn’t mean everyone gets along. It doesn’t mean everyone’s best friends, but you have a common thread to help you in your future.
Knowing your audience and what they want
You also mentioned in the article that it was important to know your audience. How did you gather information about your alumni needs?
We brainstormed. I'm going to be honest with you. We didn’t do a lot of marketing research. We took a look at other clubs around the country and what they were doing. We made it our mission to include all working people from the university in our club. They don’t have to show a diploma from our college in order to join. So, that’s our mantra, and we include everyone in our contact database and membership database and try to accommodate their needs to get to an event that maybe begins right after work.
So the timing and event location can actually make a big difference?
Yes it can, and also time of day. We just launched a breakfast series for the real estate industry, and it’s going very well.
It’s about conversation, and it’s about looking at what the needs are for our audience. And also making it so that we’re not overlapping what other clubs are doing because we are not a “me too” organization. We are unique.
Well, I'm going to wrap up [our interview] with a quote from your article.
“A flourishing club takes a critical mass, collective buy-in, hard work and time, but the value of camaraderie and connections is immeasurable.”
I wish you good luck in all these things. And I'm happy to see that Wild Apricot is helping you manage it all and is reducing the amount of time spent on pesky admin tasks so you can focus on creating great events for your members.
Lori, thanks for your time and a big plug to all of our members who may be listening to this recording: we thank you for your membership. And Wild Apricot, we thank you for enabling us to do what we do.
Want to listen to the full 1-On-1 Interview?
Please note: this post has offered some of the highlights of the interview with Joe Bednar, of WhitmanNYC. If you’d like to listen to the full one-hour interview, you can listen to it below.