Placing real people at the core

Interview by Anna Rivers, memcom Marketing Manager


Sarah Allen

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Allen last week, Editor and formerly Director of Membership & Communications at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. We caught up on her time at the College, together with the valuable learnings and successes over her 6 years there. Sarah will be running a session at the memcom conference this year on May 16th.


What should be at the heart of a membership strategy?


When working in a membership role, the most important thing is to remember you’re dealing with real people with real lives outside of their profession. I’m very interested in the vagaries of people and it’s so important to have empathy! Members are humans after all – not just a market segment – and we need to engage with them in a human way. This approach is not without its challenges of course – namely that people may not always behave in a typical fashion and the potential limitations of data allowing for effective segmentation can present an extra hurdle – but having a human appreciation of your members should be at the centre of any strategy. You need to bring the market research to life.


It’s also incredibly important to appreciate the fact that a membership base evolves over time. An organisation should ask itself – who requires our services at present? With the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, an ongoing challenge was the ever-changing and evolving face of the surgical team. We needed to develop outside the existing membership base and focus also on international members who needed us. We created different faculties, recognising quite rightly that the surgical team is not limited to just the surgeon. Embracing others that needed us broadened our base.


And from strategy, to a more tactical level. Any tips on channels?


Here, I’ll come back to the importance of fully understanding your members – not just what channels they can be reached on but what mindset they’ll be in when they’re engaging in each channel.


For the RCSED, social channels are important. But we discovered that our members would reach for Twitter when in a professional mindset whereas Facebook was used socially.


During the Junior Doctor contract negotiations, Twitter was the main forum for the affected groups. Opinions were being formed and swapped there in a very dynamic way. Colleges do not offer the same service as trade unions – it’s not their role to negotiate contract terms and conditions. That said, it’s important that Royal Colleges represent their members and put views forward. Members expect them to have a voice and support them. As membership organisations, we need to engage with social media and respond promptly but this immediacy needs to be balanced with ensuring there’s time for informed opinions and a clear rationale behind every tweet. This is incredibly demanding once you start it and requires some dedicated resource in the ideal world!


Emails were also a responsive channel for the College but we found out that bundling up the information into less regular emails led to increased open rates. Surgeons get loads of emails and we obviously didn’t just want to be one of many left unopened. We therefore rebranded our emails into a ‘weekly digest’ of news and dates.


Print was also still hugely successful as a medium at the College and this medium helped us to bring out the personality of the organisation. For instance, we created a ‘50 reasons why we are more than a Royal College of Surgeons’ booklet which highlighted things that people really valued. It was deceptively simple and had great impact. Appreciating how time-poor surgeons are, we also created an easy to consume infographic with tips on what the Colelge could offer them at each stage of their career.


How is technology driving change in the way professionals work and interact? And how can we best utilise technology and data amidst the looming GDPR launch?


Members expect speed, ease and the ability to manage their personal identity online. They want to see their history with the organisation and want this information to be one click away. We need to invest in technology and give members what they want. Whilst I was at the RCSED, we focussed heavily on data analytics, including regional analysis.  It’s fascinating to see how people behave and hugely worthwhile to then use that information to enhance your offering. Like the butterfly effect, small tweaks can result in large differences.


I’m all about embracing the data but, that said, don’t forget face-to-face. Research with steering groups, meeting people and really, really listening is priceless. Members normally have a huge interest in helping to drive their membership organisation forward.


The new GDPR regulations will put CRM to the fore and will bring with them certain changes for membership organisations – rules around sponsors asking for data will change for instance and everyone will need to have an in-depth understanding of the law. The RCSED was incredibly protective of their data anyway which bodes well – we were very careful with our opt-ins as we didn’t ever want to risk the trust of our member; trust is paramount. After all, having a substantial database is great but fully opted in data is only ever going to increase levels of engagement.


Can you please provide a brief summary of what your session at memcom 2018 will address?


My session is in Stream 1 and is entitled ‘Engaging with generation Z – a 500-year-old College solution!” As you may know, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh is the oldest and one of the largest of the UK’s surgical Royal Colleges. Members have an emotional attachment to the College and appreciate the services that it provides with the education, training and career support provided.  However, membership engagement is bigger than just services. And with four surgical colleges all providing similar services, we needed to have standout. With threats of younger surgeons and trainees feeling disenfranchised and voting with their feet, we developed a strategy and communications plan to improve engagement and retention with a UK-wide and international dimension. A review of the brand, communication changes and new and improved networks were all part of the process. We had notable successes at the College and I’ll take delegates through these in detail together with the changes we made, the on-going challenges and the vision for the future.


Why should people come to memcom 2018?


I think this year’s theme ‘Staying ahead in challenging times’ is hugely relevant and will resonate with everyone in the membership sector! I’m looking forward to addressing these challenges during the conference and doing so in the company of some of the best experts in the membership sector.


I’ve collaborated with many other Colleges in my time, most notably with the Junior Doctor contract – it’s important at times to stand side by side with your competitors to achieve something bigger than you can on your own. But my peers, and the people I can learn from, stretch wider than just the surgical Colleges and I’m going to grab the opportunity to learn from very different organisations that, I believe, will actually have very similar challenges and opportunities. I love a bit of LinkedIn and online forums can be useful but you can’t beat face-to-face. So many different associations come to memcom and I’m looking forward to picking up hints and discussing best practice with them. It’s so important to collaborate and pool together tried and tested ideas.


Working in the membership sector is quite an art. You have a very different relationship with a membership body than with a customer body – it’s more of an internal audience, part of the family. People working in the membership sector all want to inspire the next generation of members / professionals and it’ll be great to talk about similar goals at memcom.


And on the subject of this year’s conference theme, what do you think are the biggest challenges for the membership sector at the moment?


People have choice about when and where to spend their money. We’re experiencing a precarious economy at the moment. And there’s cultural and political change afoot with Brexit for instance. Engagement has always been very important but now more than ever. For many membership organisations, members don’t have to be a member to still work in their profession. The pressure is on to justify the organisation’s existence. And, in regard to the mandatory memberships…why are they mandatory? These organisations need to show they are delivering something of value too.



Sarah Allen will be speaking in Stream 1 at the memcom conference this year on May 16th. With around 30 high-profile speakers  and 300 delegates, the conference is one of the leading dates in the membership sector’s calendar. Tickets to the event can be bought here.