Whether you’re new to the Electronic Retailing Association (ERA) or a veteran, the question of how to make the most of one’s membership is always pertinent. And as the association enters its second quarter-century, the industry faces a paradoxical conundrum: On the one hand, direct response television (DRTV), the advertising strategy that has long defined the group, has reached such a level of maturity that it is now embraced well beyond the confines of the association and the practitioners within it. Meanwhile, the digital age that dominates most of today’s marketing conversations remains in a constant state of change. The nexus of these two forces has made the lives of all advertisers more complex, often calling into question what, exactly, a trade association’s purpose is.
While there is certainly an element of common good in the form of government advocacy and public perception that should be the foundation of any trade group’s relevance, the bottom line is that most people join the likes of ERA to grow their businesses. The game has changed, and yet amid the flux that defines today’s marketing landscape, there is tremendous opportunity. And ERA is still a fine place to foster business expansion.
‘Like’ with Like
In poll after poll, the No. 1 benefit ERA members say they want is the opportunity to network, because the ability to nurture one’s own growth is often dependent upon expanding relationships. But here’s the rub: If you’re new to ERA, walking into your first cocktail party might feel a bit like going to your spouse’s high school reunion—and you went to a different school.
Many ERA veterans have literally grown up in the business, already collaborated in countless ways, and even travelled the world together. And it’s easy for those of us who are entrenched to ignore the new blood entering the room. We do so to our own detriment, however. New members must be bold, but the seasoned among us also need to embrace them and their contributions.
One way this can be accomplished is through ERA’s Mentor Program. In it, a new member is paired with an existing member, and the latter acts as an ambassador to help introduce the new entrant to the fold and navigate the opportunities. For example, Jorge Noa, CEO of the call center companies InCall and Grupo Noa International was recently paired with Debbie Skerly, vice president of business development for Greensboro, Ga.-based a2b Fulfillment, Inc.
“Debbie and I have been talking on the phone about once a month since we joined, and she has been very helpful in terms of guiding me about who the right people are within ERA that I should meet,” Noa says.
Jim Perrus, ERA’s vice president of membership and retention, also sets up “pipeline calls” wherein a “warm handoff” can be made between members who have common business interests, as opposed to the often less-productive cold call.
In the seminal work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini introduces the concept of “liking” as being one of the most powerful levers in closing a sale. In the simplest terms, people do business with people they like. How do they determine whether or not they are in “like?” They find common ground—and it’s a lot easier to find than it often seems.
I saw the idea put into practice long ago, when I worked for a boss who could engage anyone in an elevator. You know the drill: You get into this little box and are trapped there with another person; you count the interminable seconds until you can get off. Not this guy—he made it a sport to greet every person, using the building itself as the common denominator by asking, “Who are you visiting today?” More often than not, the people would smile and respond, relieved that someone had broken the tension. ERA members have immediate common ground by virtue of their fraternity.
Bank on It
To amplify Cialdini’s “liking” principle, I’ll add another concept—the late Dr. Stephen Covey’s concept of the “emotional bank account.” Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, surmises that individuals build equity with others by making incremental deposits of goodwill over time. It is this accrued balance that enables one to ask a favor of another or withstand a difference of opinion. When partnerships dissolve, it is because there is no positive balance left in the account.
One way to build such goodwill is to collaborate with peers on the various ERA committees and councils, serve as a judge for the Moxie Awards, or otherwise get involved. Rather than plying someone with a business card on and trying to figure out how to monetize the new relationship, this long-haul approach can have profound effects. By working together toward a common aim that is not driven solely by self-interest, members develop a rapport with one another that leads to trust and, ideally, the willingness to find a mutual self-interest that can ultimately be much more successful than a forced pitch.
Similarly, events such as the Government Affairs Fly-In offer a chance for marketers and vendors to team up to advocate on behalf of the industry on Capitol Hill. Member participants are briefed on the important regulatory issues of the day, assembled in teams, and then meet with legislators and their staffs to articulate industry positions and promote ERA’s self-regulation program. Members also gain access to high-level speakers from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the attorney general’s office, helping them speak with regulators face-to-face in a convivial environment.
This discourse on behalf of, and in front of peers, levels the playing field. By the end of the day, members have bonded with one another, and have had a real chance to foster the kind of respect that can only come from seeing one another in the pressure cooker of a congressional office. “People want access to the top executive tier, and the Government Affairs Fly-In is a great way to work intimately with C-level professionals,” says ERA immediate past chairman and Venable partner Greg Sater. “There is really no other event quite like it.”
ERA members have a multitude of ways they can educate and be educated about the ebbs and flows of today’s volatile marketing landscape. Thought leadership in the form of articles in this magazine, posts on the ERA Blog, panel discussions, webinars, and more, are a powerful way of demonstrating a command of DR expertise that can be extremely beneficial to one’s business aims. It begs the questions: How can I get these opportunities, and what’s the proper approach?
First, provide good content that isn’t just a self-serving, direct pitch. Share content based upon your ability and desire to deliver insights, and there will be a halo effect for your business. We all know how painful a too-pitchy educational session can be. Any seminar, article, blog entry, or presentation should contain learnings that are broadly applicable and actionable. It is one more way of making a “deposit” to the emotional bank accounts of a wide spectrum of your peers.
Another way members can take advantage of everything ERA has to offer is to participate in, as well as sponsor, events. As the saying usually attributed to Woody Allen goes, “80 percent of success is showing up.” By sponsoring and exhibiting, you have the opportunity to put your message in front of people directly and prominently.
Sometimes, this can pay immediate dividends; other times, it’s part of a longer footrace. You may have to show up again and again. As one member CEO remarks jokingly, “I get it—it isn’t the 17th drink when someone decides to do business, it’s the 18th.”
That comment isn’t far off the mark. While marketers sometimes may seem to have entrenched, intractable relationships, changes do occur. At those moments in which a prospect is deciding to try out a new fulfillment house, call center, or payment processor, you want to be in the consideration set. That means not just being visible, but being front-and-center.
Membership is a personal and financial decision that each individual and company must make. Do you want to be part of the club, or prefer to say that it’s someone else’s responsibility? The classic American Express slogan, “Membership has its privileges,” isn’t defined solely by the association’s benefits.
Individual involvement and contribution isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s about doing what’s right for the growth of your business. “It’s a privilege to serve,” says Chris Reinmuth, ERA president and CEO. “Why? Because that sense of purpose and honor is like a boomerang. It comes back to you in the form of more business, more respect, and—this is not to be underestimated—more friendship.”
Rick Petry is a freelance writer who specializes in direct marketing and is a past chairman of ERA. He can be reached at at www.rickpetry.com and @thepetrydish on Twitter.