Well… their market changed. Their industry changed. The technology changed. Their customers changed. And eventually, painfully they went out of business. But even with all these market pressures I don’t think going out of business was inevitable.
They asked the wrong question
One key issue for them was that they were asking themselves the wrong question. In the late 90’s when the success of their company was in the balance Kodak execs were asking the wrong question. And the question frames the answer so they also got the wrong answer. The big question for them was: how do we save the film business?
The answer to how do we save the film business actually isn’t that hard. These are the tactics Kodak used: they developed more merchandising – floor displays, counter units, end caps and check out displays. They offered custom product to retailers, 10 packs for Sam’s club and eensy-wheensy canisters for dollar stores. They innovated within the line – best quality and special effects. They used their might to advertise more: promotions, rebates, contests, and coupons. And do you know what? All of these tactics worked. For a year or two. But inevitably the tactics stopped working because they were busy trying to save a product that was inevitably going to go away. How you frame your problem frames the solution.
How associations ask the wrong question
This is a problem we have in associations as well. When membership is flat or declining. When revenues are soft. We ask how do we grow membership? When you ask how do we grow membership? The answers tend to revolve around the mechanics of membership: optimizing renewals and retention. How many times to we email lapsed members? When do we start the renewal process? The problem is no amount of optimizing is going to work the long term if your association’s business model is broken.
Asking the right question
Let’s go back to Kodak and let’s imagine we are their top executives. We are very worried because revenues have been steadily declining. We have got to figure out some solutions!
This time instead of asking what are we going to do to save the film business we take another approach. We know that our best customers are in these 3 segments: professional photographers, amateur photographers and family photographers. We will start talking to them. What are their challenges, goals, fears and emotions around taking photos, lugging the equipment, protecting the equipment, sorting photos, storing photos, retrieving photos, displaying photos and sharing photos? Our customers would tell us all of their problems. Once we know what our customer’s biggest problems and goals are we can solve them. These solutions would be the innovation and marketing story for the Kodak of the future. How you frame the problem frames the solution.
How to ask the right question
Be careful not to fall into the wrong question, wrong answer trap. What is one big problem that has been getting your association stuck? Think about how you have been framing that big problem.
- Can you make the question less tactical and more strategic?
- Make sure you are focusing on the root problem not a symptom. Declining membership may be a symptom not a root problem.
- Focus externally. Focus less on what problems you are having and more on what problems your members are having. Solve their problems and they will solve yours.