Growth by Association: A Conversation with ASAE’s Robb Lee

By blending the roles of CMO and Product Strategy Officer, leaders across all industries can find new sources of growth and innovation. Lisa recently “sat down” with Robb Lee, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer and Chief Product Strategy Officer, for ASAE. Robb has been a Marketing Growth Leaders™ member for the past five years.

In this interview, we explore  the evolving role of the CMO, lessons learned from 2020, and the future of events.

Tell us how your role has changed in light of the pandemic.

My role has changed recently. While I remain the CMO, I’m now the Chief Product Strategy Officer too. Although that was being discussed before COVID, the impact of COVID probably accelerated the plans.

My dual role has allowed us to focus in more detail on answering some of the key questions with a product level view and a market-based orientation. I firmly believe both sides need to be thoughtfully considered to create the best opportunity for learning and success.

How has your team changed as a result of the shift to virtual? Has it changed how you work with other teams within ASAE?

Specifically, we’re spending more time upfront analyzing market conditions, price points and the competitive landscape. It was present before, but now we are investing more energy to apply the discipline more effectively.

Whether there is an official role or not, I’ve always believed “how” you problem solve and think is the single most important aspect. I define it as thinking in T’s: Vertically with a tactical orientation or horizontally across the breadth of the environment with a strategic view. And when adopting the strategic view, which is required for product management, I’d  recommend reading “Tools of a Systems Thinker” and “Top Resources for Product Managers.”

How are lessons learned from 2020 informing your 2021 events strategy?

We are just starting the product management journey. But the orientation starts with a holistic view of all products and how their performance impacts each other and how that translates to our stakeholders.

We look for tech partners who want to evolve and help discover interesting methods to engage attendees and sponsors. The question is: Whatvirtual experiences will keep thousands of attendees happy, and how can the value of their mass and attention be translated to sponsor value?

As an example, we successfully launched a branded, broadcast news show – Associations NOW Live – at our 100% virtual annual meeting.  It was a new tech platform for audiences that allowed viewers to gain more insights on speakers at the event among other benefits. Fully utilizing the platform will allow sponsors to become more aligned with content and the audiences they seek.. The goal is to continue to build audience and sponsor opportunities, which will allow us to deploy it at other times.

What part do you see virtual events playing in a post-pandemic world?  

Let’s describe the other side of this pandemic as a place where attendees can choose what type of experience aligns with their needs at any moment in time. 

In that space, I see the opportunity to continue to engage people who prefer F2F and have the time and resources to participate. However, I also foresee offering robust, but different virtual value propositions

Consider how virtual attendees can view a presentation, with some live aspects or not, and interact with the speaker in real time after the presentation. Then consider a sponsor with related content, that can be involved on a continuum from sponsoring the Q&A to actually participating with the speaker and audience afterwards. That might lead to packaging the session and the Q&A content for those interested, and determining ways to tie that back to the sponsors’ business.

Even more interesting, using AI tech, imagine serving that session content after the event with anyone who used predetermined key terms during the course of the event. Now there is contextual content for the recipients and some level of qualified leads for sponsors, also.

We are definitely considering new ways to productively connect audiences through new tools. And it may require working with more than one tech vendor to achieve it.

This last point is the most important: connect with the sponsors beforehand to align their interests with your outcomes. Then start the technology partner conversations with an idea of how you might want to build more value for all stakeholders. Finally, co-create options, test and refine.

Answering the proverbial “what if we tried…” question is more important than ever, regardless of the dissemination channel. I believe our stakeholders are demanding different answers.

What’s the most surprising thing you and your team learned from hosting virtual events? 

We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the level of interaction in virtual events. In many cases, attendance has increased by a factor of 2X — and sometimes more. That portends of a future where the sheer audience scale of virtual events creates opportunities for additional ongoing revenue streams..

“Hybrid event” is a nebulous term being used in the industry right now. How are you and your teaming thinking about hybrid events?

It simply means an event that has unique value propositions for F2F and virtual attendees and sponsors. That’s a somewhat academic definition.

While there can be many definitions of hybrid events, I think the key is finding partners that can brainstorm with you to determine what is actually feasible. This is a nascent space that will likely require you as the host to define on how the marriage of virtual and F2F comes to together in a manner that’s beneficial to everyone. A year from now, we’ll have a much better idea.

With the pending vaccine rollout, how are you and your team planning for live or hybrid events in 2021?

I suspect that like many, we are remaining as flexible as possible before confirming the event format. That will continue for at least the first half of 2021.

What products, events strategies or programs will you stop doing in the next 12-24 months?

Simply, using enterprise-wide product management as a filter, we’ll look at product performance based on individual performance and how the product/service fits and contributes to the entire portfolio. We seek productivity, balance and ongoing innovation to exceed stakeholder expectations.

We’ll also ensure that product management decisions align with strategic planning and overall business goals. I’ll come back to the concept of systems thinking to assist with the analysis. Finally, involving multiple stakeholders with more views of what’s working or not will be an advantage.

Thanks so much to Robb for sharing his perspective, and congratulations to him on his new role!

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