In our latest edition of Ask A CMO, we interviewed Chris Jacobs, the Chief Marketing Officer of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB). AGB’s mission is to provide guidance and thought leadership to empower college, university, and foundation boards and board members to govern with knowledge and confidence. Chris’ career path has led her to the world of association marketing.
Today’s association marketers build complex, multi-faceted marketing plans to deliver unparalleled value to their members and the communities they serve. While we will never stop executing comprehensive campaigns using a mix of tactics and channels, Chris says that starting from a place of simplicity might be the smartest path to success.
Here are a few highlights from our discussion with Chris:
CT: What are the top three experiences from your previous marketing roles that inform what you’re doing today as a CMO?
CJ: I would say all of my experience from each of my prior roles informs what I’m doing now. As we all know, the core principles of marketing are consistent across industries and sectors. So, understanding customer/member needs, developing compelling value propositions, segmenting and targeting audiences, becoming an expert in various communication channels and strategies to deliver messages, honing communication skills, and using data to inform decision-making – all of this drives marketing across any industry, and each of my roles has helped me build my skills in these areas to inform where I am today.
I’ll add that my previous role at the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) gave me directly relevant experience for what I’m now doing at AGB. NACD also caters to governing boards, but they focus on corporations while AGB supports the boards of higher educational institutions. I was part of the team at NACD that doubled membership, drove record event registrations, and increased revenues of our consulting services year over year. While there are differences between corporate and higher education governance, understanding governance and bringing my experience from NACD to a parallel organization was immensely helpful in building AGB’s marketing and communications strategy.
What programs and/or tactics have you implemented, or are considering, to drive membership and event attendance?
CJ: I’m a firm believer that across any association, your membership value proposition must be extremely compelling. While that’s not a new concept, it was the first thing I worked on when I started at AGB. Without a solid member value proposition, there is literally nothing you can do to move the needle in increasing your membership or event attendance. Once you have your value proposition set, it’s a combination of communications strategy and channels, tactics, and repetition in marketing to drive both member recruitment and event registrations.
In fall of 2019, we overhauled our entire membership value proposition to bundle more benefits with the annual dues investment and to significantly reduce the nickel and diming effect. We were extremely fortunate to have everything in place by March of 2020 when COVID hit. Given the pandemic and the fact that higher education institutions were dramatically affected, you can imagine how challenging it was to engage and retain members when budgets were being heavily scrutinized, and many were considering whether to keep association memberships. Having a solid membership value proposition in place was key to weathering that storm and being able to carry out our mission on behalf of higher education.
Along with the value proposition came a very intentional effort to become disciplined about our communications channels. For a while, it was the wild, wild, west – everyone had their own siloed goals and agendas, and members were drowning in emails. We took a deeper look at our member experience and reimagined how to reach our members with purposeful, dedicated communication. That really helped to build a more disciplined recruitment and engagement strategy, which we were building from scratch.
Now that we have a solid marketing approach in place – with a clear and compelling value proposition and segmented communications – we are excited to put in place an association analytics platform, Acumen, which we expect will help us hyper-personalize everything we do to serve our members most effectively.
What is the one skill that you want every marketer on your team to have?
CJ: You need to be an excellent communicator and that goes for both verbal and written communications. Relatedly, having high emotional intelligence is critical, I think, to earning and nurturing effective interpersonal relationships. This is especially important for marketers as they support and work with teams across the organization.
When you are interviewing candidates for your team, what is your go-to interview question?
CJ: I try to get at a candidate’s motivation for new and challenging projects. Typically, I’ll throw out a situation – for example, you feel like you are drowning with the pile of tasks on your plate and a lot of deadlines, and you’re asked to take on new, highly visible, and important initiative for the association. How do you handle this? The candidate’s answer, to me, illustrates how they manage their workload, how they navigate their internal working relationships, and what their motivation is for taking on new challenges. It also helps show me their commitment to the organization and to the big picture.
What’s your best “one day we’ll laugh about this” story from one of your conferences?
CJ: I think it would have to be the fact that we had two major April 2020 in-person conferences scheduled. I was just a few months into the role, and we had to convert those events to virtual formats in three weeks due to the pandemic. Just imagine all the communications and logistics associated with that! Of course, we didn’t have a virtual platform in place, so the events became a series of Zoom webinars. You just had to have a sense of humor to get through that. I can laugh about it now, but it was chaotic! Ultimately, we figured it out and it worked out well. We comped everyone and got great feedback.
What’s the best advice you ever received from a member?
CJ: Our members have great ideas, but one that stands out to me is a reinforcement of the KISS rule: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Today, we use that philosophy to inform our content strategy. Our members are busy professionals, and they need information quickly and easily in digestible formats. Our organization had previously been heavily focused on long-form content. We now offer multiple ways to access information. We’ve seen great success with simplified formats – assets like FAQs, toolkits, and executive summaries, and we link to the long-form content for deeper dives.
We also aim to keep our marketing communications scannable and to the point. We know our members are busy and have a lot competing for their attention.
What business/corporate buzz word would you like to eliminate forever?
CJ: That’s easy – the two phrases I can’t stand are “bandwidth” as in “I/we don’t have the bandwidth” and “above my pay grade.” These are indicative of not having a can-do mindset, and I think there are better responses for pushing back when necessary.
If you weren’t in marketing, what would your dream job be?
CJ: Well, marketing IS actually a dream job. Developing campaigns and communications that inspire people to act and be more engaged with a product or an organization is gratifying. I also love working with a great team, and I am truly fortunate that I currently do. But beyond that, I like to dive into my creative side, so I’d say working in interior renovation and design would enable me to do that. And if that didn’t work out, training Labrador Retrievers sounds like a dream.
Special thanks to Chris Jacobs for giving her time and wisdom.
Click here to learn more about how Ceres Talent can help you find and assemble your association’s dream team.