You are subject matter experts (SMEs) in association management, or more specifically, in professional development, membership, government affairs, marketing, or another association specialty. But if you want to design and deliver projects and programs that deliver value to members (and customers), you must have a decent level of knowledge about the profession or industry you serve. Here are 13 ways you can keep up with trends and better understand the issues your members face every day.
13 Ways to Increase Subject Matter Expertise & Keep Up with Trends in Your Industry
Pick a few of these methods to start and slowly build them into your daily or weekly routine.
#1: Social media
Twitter isn’t just for celebrities and politicians. It’s a great source for professional development reading if you know how to best use your time on the platform. The trick is being selective about whom and what you follow. Start by searching for experts and influencers in your industry or profession. See whom they’re following and whose posts they’re sharing.
Create Twitter lists of people who are sharing good reads about the topics that interest you. Look to see if they’re adding hashtags to their tweets. If so, search by those hashtags to find more “good reads.”
Search for keywords and hashtags on Instagram’s Explore tab. On LinkedIn, follow industry influencers and other experts. Search for and try out professional groups on LinkedIn and/or Facebook. If they end up being too salesy, don’t hesitate to leave them.
#2: Member advisory board
Identify a group of members whom you respect. Tell them what you’re trying to do and find out where they go to keep up with trends, for example, newsletters, blogs, social media groups, hashtags, etc. Ask them to forward good reads to you when it’s convenient.
Every now and then, schedule a call with one of these members. Think of them as background sources like a journalist would. Use these calls to clear up confusion about an issue or practice, and find out what’s new or interesting in their world. Cultivate at least a dozen of these relationships so you’re not always taking up the time of a few people.
Make sure you include vendor members in your “advisory” board. Since many of them came from outside the industry, they had to get up to speed like you and may have good advice on educational resources.
Make sure you thank these members for their time. A handwritten card goes a long way, and reflects well on your association. In a sense, these members are acting as volunteers when they help you, so recognize them as such.
#3: Newsletters, blogs, and aggregators
Subscribe to newsletters and blogs. Create a designated folder in your inbox for these resources so they don’t clutter your inbox. You’ll receive the best value from curated newsletters since someone else is doing the work of searching for, reviewing, and selecting content for you.
Consider using a RSS feed aggregator, like Feedly, to read fresh content from blogs and websites in one place. If you set up Feedly as your homepage, you can take a quick peek at headlines before starting work each morning.
Search for and subscribe to podcasts related to your industry. Authors, influencers, journalists, and other experts often make guest appearances on podcasts or host their own podcasts. Pro tip: listen to podcasts at 1.5 speed—you’ll get used to it after a while.
#5: Google Alerts
Set up Google Alerts for the names of industry experts you admire so you can find out when their name appears online in articles they’ve written or for webinars they’re presenting.
#6: Job boards
Industry-specific job boards often have a career resource section for entry-level or transitioning professionals where you can find information about your association’s industry or profession, along with recommended reading or links.
#7: Online communities and forums
Become a regular reader of the discussion groups in your association’s online community by subscribing to daily or weekly digests. Pay attention to the questions asked and advice shared.
You may even want to create a “Good Reads” discussion group in your community. But, if you do, establish a rule: participants can’t promote their own resources. If something is good enough, someone else will share it.
If your association doesn’t have an online community, seek out other online forums in your industry or profession.
Industry vendors often host free webinars. Get on the mailing lists of those who seem to offer quality speakers. You can always listen to the recording if you can’t attend in person.
#9: Talk to members
The best membership “intel” sometimes comes from random calls with members. Schedule a weekly call with a random member. Tell them you want to learn about their work, challenges, aspirations, what they read, and what they would read if they had more time.
Talk first with your membership department about these calls. They may ask you to enter notes into your association’s AMS or CRM.
#10: Visit members
Site visits take more time but can provide the type of insight you’d never get from phone calls and reading. For inspiration, check out these stories from Associations Now:
• The American Dental Association’s two- to four-hour member office visits
• The CEO of the American Booksellers Association’s annual holiday season stint as a worker in a member bookstore
• The Specialty Equipment Market Association’s town hall meetings at member facilities
#11: Guest speakers
Talk with colleagues about inviting a local expert in for a brown bag lunch on a specific topic or emerging trend. Don’t forget to feed them well and send them a thank-you later.
#12: Association resources
The most obvious resources are your own association’s, but strangely, many people don’t take the time to read their own information, for example, newsletters from other departments, email alerts, and magazines. Get on those distribution lists. Don’t just skim, read.
Sit in on conference sessions and other educational/training events if your schedule (and supervisor) allows. Visit booths to talk with vendors about the latest news and trends.
Review the list of competencies required for credentialing programs. See if programs recommend specific reading. Ask if you can audit some of your association’s online learning programs.
Many of your colleagues have a deep understanding of the issues facing your industry, especially staff who work with policy-makers on legislation, regulations, codes, and standards. Seek them out with specific questions about issues that perplex you—buy them a coffee or beer if you succeed in “picking their brain.”
Tip: Make it a team effort
You can’t be the only one at your association who’s attempting to up their game. Help connect the silos in your association by sharing what you learn or, at least, sharing your resources, and asking colleagues to share theirs. Use your LMS, collaboration platform, or online community to share good finds.
Developing expertise and keeping up with trends won’t happen unless you make it a habit. Dedicate a little time each day or a block of time each week to learning—it will change your life.