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Episode 49: “Nurturing Virtual Communities” with Eric Hawkinson, Senior Vice President of Client Management at Innovatis Group

Eric Hawkinson, Senior Vice President of Client Management at Innovatis Group, discusses how the pandemic has resulted in increased engagement with associations and challenged event organizers to make virtual events more personal.

Matt: I'm Matt Swain and you're listening to the Reimagining Communications Podcast, where we discuss the opportunities and challenges facing companies on the road to optimizing their communications for the future. Today, I'm joined by Eric Hawkinson, Senior Vice President of client management at Innovatis Group. Eric, thanks for joining today.

Eric: Hey Matt, thanks for having me.

Matt: Absolutely. So, Eric, context matters. Give me some background on who Innovatis Group is and what your role is there?

Eric: Good question. A lot of people would refer to us as an association management company. And the truth of the matter is we are an association management company, but we view ourselves through a different lens. Namely, we believe our passion is in a kind of a combination of both community and customer member engagement. So, in many cases we'll refer to ourselves as a member engagement firm.

We manage a lot of large scale, not-for-profit associations as well as for-profit businesses mainly in the tech space. So, big software companies. We also work a lot in the business trade unit through a number of different print organizations, as well as your traditional trade associations.

As to me specifically, just with title of client management, I have some oversight over a number of different clients, both in the print space in the tech space, and help drive initiatives.

Just like I've done throughout my career, it's, you know, let's work on a collective vision. Let's go ahead and set some outcomes, and let's go ahead and track those outcomes to make sure that these organizations are successful and have a long path forward in their growth trajectory. So, we'll talk more about that. But that's it in a nutshell.

Matt: Well, it's great. And I think to your point, you talked about over your career. And when I think about the time you spent with SmithBucklin where you served as executive director of Dscoop. And for those listeners who are not familiar, this is a community of graphic arts business owners and technical professionals using HP technology. And Eric, I think that's where we first met.

Eric: Yeah.

Matt: But then also, you helped launch and now serve as executive director of thINK, which is a Canon Solutions America inkjet printing community. And a casual industry observer may say, "Oh, I've heard of those events." But the charter for the association is much broader than just hosting a fun informative event. Can you talk to me a little bit about that community building aspect of what you do?

Eric: Yeah, it's funny. I've got Liberal Arts degrees, which are useless. So, anyone who's listening to this and says, "I need to get a double major in political science and history and then double down and get a master’s degree in political theory," you might want to rethink your career path. And I jokingly say that but one of those things that...having that background in school led me to being involved in political campaigns. And working with like-minded organizations that were driving forward goals. Now, in my case, it was political candidates. But I developed a very strong and sincere passion for the candidates that I worked for and the causes that I believed in.

That led me to community building. And going back to Dscoop and then ultimately to thINK, these are groups of people who had a similar vision and wanted to get there. Now, let me take you back a step. If I think about Dscoop, the interesting thing about that organization was that there was a group of HP Indigo customers. And they were in a group and it wasn't fulfilling their needs. They couldn’t network and connect the way they wanted to.

They didn't have the strong tie to the OEM, which in this case is HP, as they wanted to. So, they decided to move course. But it wasn't until I met Francis McMahon, who at the time, believe it or not, was a marketing manager for HP. And then Jack Glacken who is the president of Today's Graphics in Philadelphia, who wanted to see this change manifested in the group of people that they had already worked with. That's what led to Dscoop. And that's ultimately what led to one of the most relevant print organizations over the past two decades. It's something I'm particularly very proud of.

So, just in terms of the community element that you asked about, you have to have people who are passionate in what they do. thINK is no different.

When I came to Canon and we founded thINK, we wanted to do something similar, but really focused on the technology inkjet, which was, again, emerging at the time. Now it's become, in many cases, kind of a main staple of printing. And they wanted to find ways that we can go ahead and evolve the notion of what inkjet could be. If you think about where inkjet was a decade ago, low quality. It was fast but you couldn't really sell it. I mean, it was for a kind of subset of printing. Now we've gotten to the point where the resolution is so strong, and the speed is so capable. You're able to go ahead and use this for companies like Broadridge or any other transactional printer that wants to get their message out with high quality and validity in terms of their customer data. So that community element has helped elevate where inkjet is today.

And again, back to the question, just in terms of the community building aspect of it, as much as the community element is about having the place to go, it's really about the people that drive it.

Matt: So, Eric, those are great points. And I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on some communication best practices that you employ within these communities. Because I'm thinking about what keeps that community together and probably more now than ever with the pandemic over the last 18 plus months, I'd be curious, what best practices you have used in the past? And then maybe how has the pandemic changed how you approach the role of building community?

Eric: Let me answer the second question first. Because I think the pandemic, listen, we're still in the throes of it 18 months later. But I think we found a way to do our best to manage through it. And I will tell you that all the organizations that we work within Innovatis, they changed for better. And let me explain what I mean by that. Every one of the organizations that we worked with in mid-March, went through the same thing every single person and every single listener has gone through. The world was turned upside down, people had to make changes. And we saw that people gravitated towards associations for a variety of different reasons. One, they were looking for another way to gather more information that was pertinent or relevant to their specific interest. And then secondly, in many cases, people were looking for what's this going to mean to their own personal well-being.

And I could tell you in both situations we manage well over 100 events annually, in-person events annually. And within two weeks, starting that mid-March timeframe, we were able to turn that into virtual events across the world with no impact financially to these organizations. And what that did is it kept people together. So, whereas in the past we would bring anywhere between 100 people to 100,000 people together in in-person events, we were able to recreate experiences. And I have to underscore that, experiences that made an impact in their lives. I would also say that every one of the organizations we work with, believe it or not, experienced growth in membership because of the pandemic. That's not saying that I'm happy that the pandemic happened. I'm just saying that people turn to associations to find out how they were going to get over the impact that was made to their life.

Now, how do we communicate with those people is a little bit different. And I think the role of data has proven to be incredibly important. One of the things we refer to frequently is something we call the member journey. So, from the second a person registers for membership in a specific organization, what are they doing and what are the paths they're taking to get the information they want? As you're aware, some people obviously want to get things exclusively in email. Sometimes people want it once a week, sometimes they want it once every quarter, it just depends. But tracking them in terms of their likes and dislikes and then creating compelling messages that go specifically to them is something that we had to place an intensified focus on.

We also saw that people wanted to learn from other volunteer leaders in terms of what they were doing to overcome elements of the pandemic. So, we created platforms for those volunteers. Whether it was through blogs, which in many cases we ghostwrote, or through individual social channels to find ways to connect to those members. Again, it's that member experience, that member journey that drove the member closer to the organization. And then lastly, not everyone way of communicating is equal. We also used the printed word quite a bit. Sending out things that were specific to their organization, driving them to some of those virtual events. We were also finding ways to impact the people that maybe don't necessarily read the mail.

What are we going to do to go ahead and make sure that those mail pieces are relevant to them? So, trying to do certain callouts, making it easier for them to respond via QR codes, and that's one element. And then another element would be hitting up publications that are impactful to the President, to the C-suite. We did a lot of different opportunities to buy space and time in places like Fast Company or CEO Magazine, try and find ways to communicate these organizational goals and objectives with the individual members. A long way of me getting at, no one organization is the same, and it's trying to find ways to make an impact, which is, again, similar with all other printers out there today. They're trying to find ways that their pieces are read.

With any organization, I think too often we look at the member level. And we're concerned about what they're doing. One of the things I take great pride in is that we've tried to find ways to involve our partners, or in many cases, our sponsors, or the OEM. They have to have a seat at that table in these organizations.

So, we were very clear through some of the virtual events that we hosted or through just standard communication out to our members, that these partners are here to support you through the pandemic.

Matt: So, Eric, I'm really interested in your comments around the uniqueness of each association. And certainly, to your point around communications preferences, that's the same thing we're dealing with and work with, with our clients on at Broadridge. It's about preferred channel of delivery and preferred channel of interaction and how do you make the most of each of those channels? I also think about your points around the differences within associations. What I'm hearing is, you have a template that works as a baseline for how you would spin up a new association. But the membership and those on the board are what make each association unique, and what also makes each of your approaches to engaging that association membership unique. Is that a fair way of putting it?

Eric: Completely. At the end of the day, they all want the same thing. They're trying to provide value for their membership. And this isn't unique, whether you are volunteering for your local school board or your faith-based establishment or an organization like we're talking about today, the reason you join is because you want to make an impact for your fellow members. And I believe it's rooted in a kind of faith in your common man, as cheesy as that may sound, but also into driving value for others. And that's what we do. So yeah, to your point, there is something that we can work off which is a platform. But every single organization that we work with is unique. And it's trying to find things that make it unique based on their technology or based on their focus or interest. That's our job. Because if you can make an impact with these people, that's going to have long-lasting effects in their industry and that's something that we're very passionate about.

Matt: So, relevance absolutely, right? I mean, that's where you're headed. But also, everyone is protective of their time these days. And so, not only do you have to be relevant, but there's also a level of maybe getting something back or being able to give. I know people participate within association memberships for different reasons. But I just also think about how critical it is to build a true community where there's a sense of belonging. And to do that is not easy. When I think about the theme of Reimagining Communications when it comes to this space, I think about what does that mean for, evolving demographics or preferences within associations, new technologies that maybe changed the way that you can interact, I think about the pandemic. It's great to hear that membership bases are up. But I also think about these live events that have now been switched back to hybrid or fully virtual as we enter another wave of uncertainty. It feels like a very difficult time to be in the association space. But at the same time, it's a needed outlet for many people as you said.

Eric: Here's what's funny about that. For us, I made it very easy sounding, that moving from in-person to virtual is just like we snapped our fingers, and we did it. The tough part for us was the speed and the focus that people wanted to take. Because there are people who wanted to still create an experience that was similar to an in-person meeting. And what's funny is I think right now, especially 18 months into it, so many people are like, "Oh, I just can't deal with a Zoom meeting." And yeah, that's fine.

We need to create this outlandish experience that, people are going to be having their audios connected and we're going to just like walk up to people in avatars and start talking to one another. Those are all great, right? But what I would say is that for us and for the organization we manage, more importantly, we're getting the basics down, make sure the registration page is easy. It's easy to access some of the content online because the second that that falls apart, people are hanging up. But also recognize that there are other ways to encourage participation. Again, this is kind of the challenge even with print, how do we make things new and exciting for something that's been a mainstay now for 18 months. So, we'll have local events, and we'll find ways to engage experiences. I'll give you an example. We would send out packages to our members, people who signed up, in many cases they paid, in some cases, they didn't, and have someone who served as basically a bartender so that we can have a virtual happy hour. People would be able to make drinks and talk to one another through the coordination of this online platform. Granted, you can do that in-person, but right now we can't, so let's go ahead and capitalize on things like that. And it's not limited to just alcohol. You could do things like a charcuterie board. I've seen people do painting. But it's finding ways and new and unique ways to keep people engaged.

Virtual does not need to be impersonal. There are ways to make virtual personal. It just takes a little bit of planning on the front end.

Matt: I think we have our quote for the episode right there. That was an excellent closing line. But I will also say, I was travelling many weeks of the year pre-pandemic, many times at events having those chance conversations and chance interactions. Can you speak a little bit to, in a virtual world how you are helping cultivate some of those chance encounters versus just members sitting in the sessions they want to hear most or only virtually chatting with the people that they know best?

Eric: The thing that gets lost on virtual events, is people are basically most often forced to participate to the chat function. And the chat function can get very old because sometimes you could ask a question, 100 responses could come, and no one ever saw your question. And then either you give up or otherwise. Having a virtual emcee, so someone who can be live, looking at the chat features the same way anyone would on a Q&A through Facebook, through a Facebook Live session, having that is helpful. Gamification, also equally helpful. So, finding ways to get out to meet other people.

An example I would give is that we had Nolan Bushnell, who was the creator of Atari. Now listen, I'm a man in my late 40s at this point. The Atari 2600 was revolutionary to me, right? And what we did is we rewarded people who had good questions or had good feedback on a particular topic and that were speaking to Nolan Bushnell. We would send them some of those newfangled Atari 2600s that connect via HDMI cable and have 100 games. People are always going to want to sit on the sidelines, but the people who truly want to get involved will. And giving them opportunities through either of those different methods is a way that we have to find something new and engaging in the virtual platform.

Because I will tell you, in closing, I don't think virtual is going away. There's clearly a pent-up demand for in-person events. And right now, for good reason the venues or the company policies are slowing that to return. I am confident that events will return. But I think that you're always going to be able to have the virtual component to augment involving more people than you would traditionally get in in-person events. I think this is a greater way to build and grow your organization.

Matt: So, Eric, this is interesting. I like to end each podcast episode asking my guests about their thoughts on the future of the customer communications market and where you think it's going in the few years. I know you've spent a lot of time around people who are passionate about print. It's also people who are passionate about the communications market at large where print is just one of the channels. So, I'd love to hear your thoughts on where you see the market going and how you think it will continue to evolve.

Eric: It's a great question. I spent the better part of the last two decades caring about the medium of print and finding ways for it to be pushed even further into the mainstream. And here's what I would tell you is, especially in the last 10 years, right? Working with people who are in high speeding jets, not limited to inkjet. But specific, the people that really got a hold of data, the people that we're hiring or employing people like data scientists or even behavioral psychologists to understand patterns in terms of where people are going and having that drive the print medium, I have found to be extraordinarily successful. And I'll give you two examples. And I can't name names, right?

But there was a company that was working with a large retail manufacturer. And they had a data scientist employed where they were tracking customers for this large company and saying they're buying something every three weeks, right? They're literally tracking this. And so, what they were saying is to show print as a value mechanism, if they knew that they're buying the same product every three weeks, it was their job to work with their printer to go ahead and send something out two and a half weeks with a coupon that said, "Hey, guess what, we're having a sale on this", right? It did two things. One, obviously it engaged this member, so back to member experience. Wow, how did they know that I'm just in time to buy nails or carpeting for that matter? And secondly, also can show back to that vendor, we're proving to be valuable because we're using your data to drive your sales. And they wouldn't have been able to do that unless they had a powerful data operation. And I thought that was impactful.

I will tell you one story, again, it's probably not great to talk about on a podcast but it's important. Because I mentioned I'm a 47-year-old guy. I got a message from a healthcare provider that said, by the way, you're over 45 and you might want to consider doing a colonoscopy or colorectal screening. And the way they did it was through a piece of communication that kind of explained why if caught early, colon cancer is very treatable and so on and so forth. And they made it simple, where they were able to add a QR code where that QR code loaded up a message on my phone and all I had to do is click the “Send” button. And I had one of these pre-screening things sent to me.

But when I look at that and I recognize, again, listen, it's not easy. But they're playing on the sentiments of a guy who is in his late '40s, who has a family with three kids. We want to make sure that we're safe and we live a long life. So, using what they had at their disposal and creating it through a print piece that connected to a digital piece was extraordinarily impactful. And I'm proud to say here today, I am perfectly healthy after going through that experience. But it wouldn't have been possible without print. And I mean that in complete sincerity.

So, going back to your question, I think the people who are on the forefront of data and technology the same way we are at Innovatis, is what's going to drive the printing industry forward and recognize...and the last thing I'll say, you can't be stationary, right? You always got to think the next thing. And even for companies like yours, Matt, are doing a lot of different things. But I'm just thinking specific to statements. Finding ways to go ahead and cross-populate those statements with things that are relevant. Whether that's coupons to retailers or informational. Those are things that I read when I open them. And I think that the more that we can get involved in that, the more that we can drive behaviors and things that are relevant to the end-user, the better off the print industry is going to be.

Matt: Well said. Eric, thank you so much for joining and sharing your perspective today.

Eric: Happy to do. Anytime you want, Matt. Anytime you want to talk about colonoscopies, I'm your guy.

Matt: I'm Matt Swain and you've been listening to the Reimagining Communications Podcast. If you liked this episode and think someone else would too, please share it, leave a review, and don't forget to subscribe. And to learn more about Broadridge or insights and our innovations, visit broadridge.com or find us on Twitter and LinkedIn.