Published On: November 19, 2019By
How does learning enhance customer conferences? Listen to this podcast with association tech leaders from Community Brands on The Talented Learning Show podcast!


Today I’m thrilled to welcome two executives from Community Brands – EVP and General Manager, Tristan Jordan, and Director of Marketing, Tara Pawlak. Tara and Tristan are joining us fresh on the heels of their annual customer conference, Xperience. With more than 1800 attendees, this is the largest forum of its kind in the association and non-profit world.

What exactly makes this customer conference so successful? Why does learning play such a critical role? What insights emerged from this event? And what’s ahead for association technology? We cover it all…



  • For rapidly growing companies, strong customer communication is vital – not just to help users gain value from your products, but also to keep them onboard with your evolving roadmap. 
  • Community conferences are a powerful way to build a brand – strengthening relationships while you celebrate customer successes and explore common challenges.
  • This year’s Xperience customer conference revealed that associations have reached a pivotal point in their commitment to innovation. They realize that member interests have changed and they’re ready to transform continuing education programs, accordingly.



JOHN:  First, maybe we should introduce Community Brands. With mergers and acquisitions over the last few years, a lot of people may know you by other names…

TRISTAN:  Sure. Community Brands is an umbrella organization with different complementary technology products that serve common audiences – associations, nonprofits, schools and faith-based organizations. Our portfolio currently includes 59 companies.

JOHN:  Impressive. I had no idea your portfolio spans 59 brands!

TRISTAN:  Yeah. It’s a broad scope – more than we expect any individual customer to digest.

However, many associations and non-profits are served by lots of disparate technology vendors. Those vendors are often under-funded and under-resourced. And historically, their products don’t integrate well.

As a result, many customers spend a tremendous amount of time, money and other resources trying to build custom implementations between disparate solutions.

That’s a headache. Plus, it doesn’t capitalize on the promise of unified data, unified reporting and a seamless customer experience when moving between systems like an AMS and an LMS.

JOHN:  True…

TRISTAN:  Customers deserve better. So with all these different complementary technology products, we try to bring the best in each niche under our umbrella. The goal is to offer an ecosystem of products that work seamlessly together.

And because we make these products available in a way that’s smarter, more automated and more frictionless for end-users, it’s easier for customers to expand the services we provide to them, overall.

JOHN:  Makes sense.

TRISTAN:  So that’s why our annual customer event is so large. It brings together a great collection of minds from across that broad, diverse ecosystem.

JOHN:  No wonder your conference is so popular. So after this week’s event, are you feeling exhilarated? Exhausted? Or both?

TARA:  Coming off this big event, we’re energized by everything we learned from our customers and what they learned from each other. It’s especially valuable when people make connections and share their stories and ideas in the same forum.

JOHN:  No doubt…

TARA:  This year, we moved the event to November, so we’ve been anxious to see how that would play-out. But it’s actually great timing, because everyone’s getting ready for next year. Planning and budgeting are in full swing and January 1st will be here before we know it.

JOHN:  Yep. And the cycle begins again…

TRISTAN:  I have to say that the conference preparation process is really anxiety-ridden. But watching our colleagues talk about advances we’ve all been working on for months is energizing. And seeing customers talk about how their vision is coming together is hugely rewarding.

JOHN:  I bet!

TRISTAN:  You know, among technology vendors, there’s a cliche about serving customers as a true partner. I think every vendor aspires to that.

But having the opportunity to see long-standing customers talk about shared goals and progress we’ve made together through the years is really amazing. Especially in today’s digital world, when we communicate online with customers all the time, being able to sit side-by-side with them builds a whole different kind of chemistry.

JOHN:  Yep. There’s nothing like good old face-to-face communication. What other benefits does the conference bring to you, your customers and the association community at-large?

TARA:  Because the conference spans all of our various brands, it brings together industry executives, IT professionals, marketing specialists, membership professionals, fundraisers and event planners.

This diverse mix of interests gives attendees exposure to a rich learning and networking opportunity they can’t find elsewhere. People from very different environments can talk through similar challenges and learn from one another.

Plus, by connecting directly with our team, they can be at the forefront of product innovation.

JOHN:  That networking aspect is really important. Do you just let it happen naturally? What’s your strategy?

TARA:  We really want to let people network in their own style. Some people prefer a happy-hour event. Others just prefer to have one-on-one interactions in a session breakout, or through natural conversations in the hallway.

JOHN:  Do you use your products to facilitate social learning?

TARA:  Absolutely, we leverage our technology to encourage interaction. One popular example is a kind of badge flair concept. A lot of attendees love to check-in online and identify the various products they use. This makes it easy to find others with similar interests, and it helps them strike-up organic conversations.

JOHN:  Good idea…

TRISTAN:  We also have an event app called TripBuilder that we use pretty extensively. It includes a social feed for event-specific content. People can search profiles, connect with other attendees and add them to their LinkedIn network. Or they invite others to meet-up at conference activities.

But just bringing like-minded people together in one room to discuss thought-provoking, relevant topics is very effective. We strive to make sessions interactive, not just lecture format.

Also, we make sure there’s ample break time between sessions, so the conversation can continue around the water cooler or coffee stop. That’s where I see some of the best networking. It’s a kind of “conversation after the conversation,” where people actually shake hands, trade business cards and things like that…

JOHN:  Sure. And do attendees with common interests tend to share best practices about how they do X, Y, or Z in an application? Does that happen?

TRISTAN:  Yeah, tons of that. The nonprofit/association space is full of people who are trying to do good or support a cause or further an industry. By definition, associations are niche. They rarely compete head-to-head for the same members. So our customers are super keen to share best practices.

They actually find a lot of value and comfort in talking with peers who are facing similar challenges – whether it’s about how to make the most of a particular product, or just the pressures they face from competing with other sources of information, like social networks.

JOHN:  Cool…

TRISTAN:  Actually, one association’s issues are usually the same for others. As people talk about challenges and solutions, the dialogue takes on a life of its own.

When someone has a great idea, we see lots of people taking notes as we talk through it. That’s because so many of these topics are relevant to all.

JOHN:  What are the most important insights you’re taking away from this year’s conference? Anything surprising or new?

TARA:  This week, we released a new study focused on member engagement and loyalty. A key finding is that 93% of association members want personalized content.

In fact, members ranked personalized continuing education course recommendations as their number one need across all career stages – early, middle and late. Yet only 13% of associations are actually delivering it.

JOHN:  Wow. Big gap there…

Our technology teams have been working hard to support personalized content, so this is a good opportunity for our customers to deliver what members want. And conference attendees told us that they’re actually ready to embrace new technology so they can meet members’ expectations.

So there’s no more resistance to change. In fact, associations are really eager to bring this to life for their members. This means that personalization and the idea of a “customer of one” are here to stay.

JOHN:  Seems like it took a long time for this to happen. Why do you think associations are finally embracing personalization?

TARA:  I think it’s a couple of things. Definitely competing forces are coming into play. Technology advances have created other places for members to go, like LinkedIn and Lynda. Also, associations are taking a closer look at their value, and they understand that it comes from knowing their members and offering what they want.

JOHN:  Great news!

Another insight from the study focuses on why members join associations. In the past we found that many people joined out of obligation. They felt it was necessary to be part of an association in their industry.

But this year, we saw a shift toward the desire for networking and continuing education. A lot of associations are starting to recognize this shift, and they’re trying to pivot their value propositions based on things that interest and engage members now.

JOHN:  Any additional insights about continuing education? How about content strategies like video or microlearning or gamification?

TRISTAN:  Yes. During the conference, we hosted a client council meeting, where we discussed learning products. In one exercise we asked, “What’s your big bet? What do you believe will drive the biggest impact on your learning program in the next year?”

This prompted four important takeaways:

1) Many associations are becoming more comfortable with moving traditional classroom programs online. It sounds like an obvious move, but for some associations, these classroom-based learning programs are their biggest revenue drivers. And some have been around for decades. So change does not come naturally there.

2) Programs with a clear learning path are gaining traction. Associations like using technology to assess individual knowledge, sync it with information from other learners, assign a clear path forward and prompt learners throughout their journey.

In other words, let’s say the goal is to pass a high-stakes exam where failure could mean that members can’t practice their profession. Healthcare certifications are one example.

It’s helpful to send learners periodic messages about their progress. Those little nudges seem to be a productive way to keep people engaged with their course of study.

3) Personalized exam prep is important, particularly for high-stakes exams. Time is precious for medical practitioners and other professionals. So study guides are moving from one-size-fits-all books to more personalized education programs with prescriptive learning based on an individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

With digital technology, study guides can focus effort where a learner’s competency is lacking, so exam prep becomes much more efficient. Busy professionals like surgeons will pay a premium for this. So it represents a big revenue opportunity.

4) Just-in-time learning. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but it really jumped off the page for us. The focus isn’t on just-in-time learning to earn a credential. Rather, it’s about driving competence.

Associations want to provide a searchable library of digital knowledge assets with really low access barriers. That’s because members want to be more competent, but they don’t want to dig through hour-long courses to find 10-minutes-worth of information that helps them solve an immediate problem.

JOHN:  Exciting feedback! So how do you document all of the input you receive during two fast, furious days? Is it formal or informal?

TRISTAN:  Great question. It’s both formal and informal. Of course, we rely on formal surveys tied to the sessions. But this year, we also used some super cool new technologies.

For example, our employees all use our Expo Logic product. This includes a little scanner on their mobile phone, so they can point it at someone’s badge and take notes about conversations with that person. It’s a great way to capture input and ideas that happen informally over lunch or whatever.

JOHN:  Nice…

TRISTAN:  We also use another innovative product called PropFuel. It’s a cool “voice of the member” platform that basically lets attendees participate in micro surveysSo rather than sending out a traditional 20-question survey that people might ignore, we’ll send just one question prior to the event.

We’ll ask something like, “What’s your primary reason for attending?” They can answer in a free-form narrative. Then we use technology to analyze responses, so we can see the most common reasons, overall.

With a traditional pre-event survey, you’d never get a high response. But with this micro survey – the response rate was 51%.

JOHN:  Excellent!

This kind of tool is helpful after the conference, too. For example, in the next few days, attendees will receive a follow-up question from us. Something like, “Would you recommend Xperience to a peer?” They can answer yes or no, and explain why if they wish.

So this micro survey concept of questions and answers is a great way to capture feedback over time in a frictionless, conversational way. Next month, we’ll ask, “Have you put into practice anything you learned at Xperience?” It’s an easy way to keep in touch, while gathering intelligence along the way.

JOHN:  Anything else you would add, Tara?

TARA: As Tristan said, we “eat our own dog food” in that we use our technology to scan and capture information before, during and after the conference. And we consolidate that data in segments, so we can analyze it and share it effectively with everyone on our teams.

This is really important because each of us has only a limited impression of what happened at the conference. We’re all in different sessions throughout the event. So it’s super important to consolidate, interpret and share this information from a bigger-picture view.

JOHN:  Fantastic. It’s one thing to host a massive forum where many different attendees can learn collaboratively. But the fact that you gather intelligence, analyze it and learn from everything that happens really takes it to a different level.

TARA:  Thanks, John!

JOHN:  So, imagine you’re talking with someone who wants to plan a similar conference, but they’re just starting out. What advice would you share…?


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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is Founder, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.
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