Exploit Your Differences To Expand And Unite Your Base

We’ve talked in the past about archetypes that unite humans almost since the beginning of time. And connectivity is certainly key when it comes to boosting attendance and offering value. But let’s pause for a moment to look at our differences—the things that set us apart, the things that don’t quite fit the mold—and how we might exploit those to make even more meaningful connections.

A Unique Proposition

As marketers, we know that it’s tough for a brand to survive without a unique selling proposition, or USP. You need to convince your audience that you offer something no one else can, or that you offer better value or higher quality, for example. When you have a solid sense of your USP, it subtly oozes out of your marketing materials and design elements, your team, and your events.

The benefits of a truly unique USP are many: People will remember you. Your internal team will feel more connected to each other and to your association’s success. You’ll find your target audience faster because they will know exactly who you are and what you stand for. And they’ll probably be more loyal because they feel more connected to you.

What’s unique about your association that could serve as a major benefit to your members? Are you explicitly communicating this difference?


We’ve mentioned before that explaining WHY you do what you do can forge a real emotional connection with your base. Why was your association founded? What situation moved founders to create it?

Often the unique passion and motivation behind the birth of your association resonates with members.

How might your story help members see the motivation behind your association—and the same passion that continues to drive it today?

Expose Yourself

Exposing vulnerabilities or revealing your Achilles heel (LINK to Achilles heel post) can be a key differentiator that facilitates deep, meaningful connections with your audience.

Did your association fail miserably in a certain endeavor before finally succeeding? Were you forced to lay off staff during the height of the recession? Did you miss the mark on attendance numbers at this year’s annual conference? Talk about it! Who hasn’t failed at something? Only when you reveal your authentic, imperfect self can others truly see you and connect with you. They can relate. And they’re likely to be more engaged with your association as a result.

Our differences make us loveable, unique, and memorable. They help us make meaningful connections with others who appreciate our differences and can relate to them. Celebrating our quirks can also unite our internal team under one freaky banner. Yes, you might anger some people and alienate others, but—more importantly—you’ll also win fans and boost loyalty. And with the constant barrage of marketing messages hitting your base daily, forgettable is the worst thing you can be.

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Does Your Brand Move People to Action?

A quick search in Merriam-Webster’s will tell us that the word “move,” can refer to both an emotional sensation and a physical action. We might say “his kind gesture moved me to tears” or “I moved from New York to Santa Fe.”

Interestingly, a truly “moving” emotional experience can also provide a literal sense of transport—a feeling that we have been physically taken from one place to another. We use phrases like “flying high,” “shaken up,” “rocked,” or having “the earth fall out from under us” to describe this sensation. The word “rapture” is both an expression of ecstasy and a mystical physical experience.

Your goal as an association and a marketer is to move people—physically and emotionally—in such a deep, meaningful way that they are inspired to take action because they just can’t help themselves.

You Must Change Your Life

In 1908 Ranier Maria Rilke famously penned the line “You must change your life” at the end of his poem Archaic Torso of Apollo. The poem is about a sculpture—a fragment of a sculpture, actually—whose form and its imperfect, damaged state deeply moved Rilke to the point where he felt shaken to the core. The idea here is that art can move us to such a degree that we are simply unable to remain the same after viewing it.

Inspire Your Base

How can you move other humans? With truly inspirational, purposeful art and design and their manifestations in your brand, your marketing, and your events. You are in the business of changing lives. Does the outward representation of your brand truly reflect who you are in a way that moves and changes people?

To continue our discussion on vulnerability (LINK to Achilles heel post) and human connectivity (LINK to tribe post), it’s worth noting that Rilke was so moved by a human form—and an imperfect one at that! Is your brand story real, raw, and authentic? Are you vulnerable and open to possibilities? Imagine Rilke’s archaic torso—old, headless, and damaged. These qualities are what made it remarkable.

Dig Deep

Moving people doesn’t come from using the latest trends, tips, and technology. Although such tools will help you convey your message. Truly moving people starts by digging deep and getting to know them at their core. What keeps your audience up at night? What resources do they need that they’re not getting? What are their goals? It also means revealing plenty about yourself, your brand, and your struggles and goals.

Archeologists find evidence of art nearly as old as humankind. Even ancient primitive nomads expressed themselves with paintings, decorated cookware, and personal ornamentation. Art connects us to one another today, and it links us to all humans ever. That’s powerful stuff. And you can harness it to inspire your base to action.

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We Must Connect

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate,” explains entrepreneur and marketer Seth Godin in his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us.

“You are welcome here, we like you”

Human beings are wired to connect (research supports this). At our core, we’re cooperative creatures who work together to better the whole of our system. We tend to gather in tribes of people who think and act like we do because it’s safe, comfortable, and advantageous. In high school we called them cliques. Animals in the wild gather in herds. Godin explains, “the modern tribe simply says ‘you are welcome here, we like you, people like us are a part of a thing like this, we’ll watch your back.’”

Science is just beginning to discover how truly connected human beings are to one another. It turns out our hearts literally send signals to one another that can be measured and studied. Our brains are capable of matching the emotional state of someone we’re with. If I’m anxious, you too will become anxious. If I’m happy, your mood will lift.


Today we have at our disposal more tools than ever to connect us with other human beings. But often the conversation turns to how disconnected we feel, how lonely and isolated. Symptoms of our disconnection include offices implementing “no email” days to force people to interact face-to-face, poets virally lamenting their isolation, and individuals who text more than they talk.

It stands to reason that the human need to connect with like-minded individuals united under leadership and a common idea is the perfect recipe for stellar conference attendance. Yet here, too, we feel a disconnect when perhaps 30% of membership attends a conference (and many of those who do are so plugged into their smart phones they aren’t truly present). Why not 100%?


Godin tells us the second element of a tribe is a way to communicate. You probably already have a system of emails, direct mail, postcards, social media, ads, and more that you use to provide information to your base. But are you truly communicating? Do you convey a powerful message of value, of belonging, of connectivity? Are your members enticed and inspired enough to take action? Are they taking part in the conversation and communicating back? If you’re not sure, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at how to communicate in a way that moves people to action. (More on this next time!)

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Reveal Your Achilles Heel: Embrace vulnerability to make meaningful connections

Being vulnerable means you take risks, expose your authentic self, and open yourself up to the possibility of attack, rejection, and failure. While it might sound scary, the great thing about vulnerability is that it is also the place where innovation, creativity, connectivity and change can happen. (Take a look at Brene Brown’s TED talks to learn more).

Your Achilles Heel

When you are brave enough to expose your true colors, it becomes possible to make meaningful connections with other people. In marketing, this is sometimes called revealing your Achilles heel. The term “Achilles heel” comes from Greek mythology and refers to an especially vulnerable part, subject, story, event, etc. that can lead to your potential downfall.

One of the more famous examples of revealing an Achilles heel came from Hair Club for Men president Sy Sperling when he said, “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.” To a person experiencing hair loss, what Sperling actually said might have sounded like this: “I’ve been there. I’ve experienced the frustration and embarrassment that comes with losing your hair. I know where you’re coming from and what you’re going through, and I can help you.”

Vulnerability is Not Weakness

Contrary to popular belief, vulnerability is not a weakness.

Revealing an Achilles heel is tremendously courageous. It says “Here I am. I’m imperfect, but I am human.” And it turns out that revealing your authentic self, warts and all, allows other humans to connect with you on a meaningful level. According to Brown, the words “me too” are some of the most powerful words we can say to another human.

Uncertainty and vulnerability make us uncomfortable. After all, we’ve got seats to fill and ROIs to achieve. But if we never take a risk by exposing our authentic self—our voice, our mission, our vision, our passion, the WHY behind what we do—we’ll miss out on so many connections with people who share our values (and eventually fill our seats). The old cliché holds: If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.

Find Your Tribe

Good marketing is about finding the right audience.

Sure, exposing your authentic self might turn some people off. And that’s okay. Sooner or later they would have discovered that there was no real connection with you. Your purpose is to build a tribe of members with whom you resonate and connect and with whom you can collaborate to make a difference and, ultimately, change lives.

What’s your organization’s Achilles heel? How might your vulnerabilities help you connect with others?

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Here Comes the Bravery Part

So what does leaving fear behind and getting comfortable with vulnerability look like for your association?

Well, we can tell you what it has looked like for us. It looked like nearly losing our business six years ago, and one by one, letting loyal employees go as the recession strangled us. It looked like putting family vacations, eating out, and anything that wasn’t an absolute financial necessity on hold. It looked like pacing the floors at 3 a.m. wondering how it was possible we had depleted all of our savings, but trying to shield our worry from the three bright-eyed kids at home.

It looked like climbing out from under a pile of rubble and loss to start again from scratch, but this time, digging down deep and asking hard questions about why we were in this business. It looked like making a counter-intuitive decision to narrow our focus, and work with the people we thought we could make most difference for: associations and non-profits. It looked like investing in support we were afraid to invest in (like high dollar business coaches that we absolutely could not afford), saying things we were afraid to say, and putting things out there before they were perfect.

The thing is, without failing so spectacularly and painfully, we would still be operating on the surface. Without that experience, we wouldn’t be able to understand what’s under the surface, and to look at organizations and see clearly what needs to be fixed.

Ultimately, the result of all of that vulnerability is that now—for the clients who will listen to us and trust us—nobody does it better in this space. Nobody else gets the whole picture of talking about WHY you do what you do—and how that forges real emotional connection—better than Rottman Creative. And the only reason we get it is that we went through emotional and financial hell, and came out on the other side with a new sense of purpose.

And here we are again, being vulnerable in front of the very people who send us the checks: telling you that your association is so mired in fear, it hurts us to see it. And it’s affecting everything from how you run your meetings to how many people show up at your conference.

STOP BEING SO AFRAID! It’s time to truly connect.

Our hearts and souls know it. Particles at opposite ends of the universe know it. Why don’t you know it?

Ask yourself: what could stepping into vulnerability look like for your association?

We’d love to dive deep with you and figure it out.

In fact, we challenge you, right now!

Show this article to your boss, and say: “This article is talking about us. What should we do about?”

We can’t wait to see which association is brave enough to take the challenge, let their guard down, and market their event on a personal level. Who will do it?

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Anything But Vulnerability, Please!

But here is the central problem. Among people, it’s vulnerability that truly forges connection.

It would be great if you just believed us now. But we sense you need more. Let us introduce you briefly to researcher and storyteller Brene Brown, who changed our view on vulnerability dramatically (along with the almost 18 million other people who have watched one of her two TED talks, here and here.). Her work on shame and vulnerability is groundbreaking, and it applies to business as much as it applies to things like relationships and parenting. Because her research is about people, and every single organization is made up of people.

One of Brown’s central points is that the myth that vulnerability is weakness is profoundly dangerous. It stifles people and organizations. Because without vulnerability, there would be no innovation and no creativity. In fact, she says, vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage, because it means stepping out and being seen. It means risking failure. It means putting forth a human face when it’s easier to hide behind something else. But it’s that very risk that makes people connect.

After her TED talks exploded, Brown got offers to talk to organizations all over the world. They wanted her to talk about innovation, creativity, and change—but not vulnerability.

Not possible, she told them, because vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.

So yes, it would be convenient to avoid vulnerability. But if you want your association to be relevant for the future, you can’t.

You. Can’t.

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We may be the busiest, most distracted species on the planet. But strip away our phones, our houses, and our machines, and we are just people, hardwired to connect.

In fact, human beings are made for connection. Neurobiology tells us that our brains are full of mirror neurons—little pieces of brain magic that allow us to match a person’s emotional state as we’re interacting with them (you feel inspired, I feel inspired; you are worried, I am worried). With each beat, our hearts literally send out signals of connection that are actually able to be measured.

Step back from biology and look to the heavens, and the science of connection gets even weirder. In fact, the very universe in which we live seems to be held together by strange phenomena, where particles at opposite ends of the universe are entangled and mirror each other—what Albert Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance”. (We’re not making this up! Watch the wonderful Tom Shadyac documentary I Am for the most concise discussion of human connection we’ve ever seen!)

Forget biology and theoretical physics, and just look at technology.

The web has connected humanity like nothing before.

And social media has added another layer of connection—every new portal built with the promise of better and better ways to connect us.

We are itching to connect. At every moment.

And yet, for associations, there is so much disconnection happening—right in front of you. Even as your members’ hearts are sending out signals, hoping to be mirrored and entangled, the loop isn’t making its way back. Even as you use the very technology built to connect the human race, there is more and more disconnection. The loop is broken.

We know exactly why it’s broken. You won’t like the answer. You probably won’t even believe us at first. But we’ve seen too much and been in this industry long enough to know that there is no way it isn’t the answer.

The answer is that your association is afraid. Terribly, terribly afraid. Which means that when you reach out to members with your marketing, more often than not, you are operating from fear. And fear will cause disconnection every time.

Let’s Back Up: This Isn’t a Blame Game

The most helpful thing to do as we begin this discussion is to remove blame and judgment from the equation. We’re not passing judgment on your association, or finger pointing. This fear business has mutated its way into the DNA of the association industry, and no one person or association caused it.

We want to help your association—truly. We’re not interested in calling you names and making you feel like crap. But we can’t help if we also operate from a place of fear, and only tell you what you want to hear. In these last few years, we’ve been aligning more and more with truth telling. And now, we’re taking it to a new level by calling your association on its fear (which also means confronting our own, since our livelihood depends on you and your industry colleagues hiring us).

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“But We Have to Look Professional”

For most associations, the crux of the fear is this: we are a professional organization, and we can’t appear to be anything but professional. Your worth, your membership retention, and your events are all tied up in this idea of professionalism. The problem is that most associations we’ve encountered have a very narrow definition of what professionalism means.

It means not stepping outside of what is sanctioned or expected. It means the lowest common denominator. It means walking only as far as the accepted edge, and not sticking as much as a pinky toe over it. It means pulling back, building walls, and drawing distinct boundaries around personal and professional.

In your marketing, it means being guarded and thinking you have to talk to people in a stiff, formal way—instead of a human, conversational, and lively way. It means being careful about what you show. It means repurposing the same marketing and the same ideas over and over again—because you know that although they don’t get very good results, at least they don’t offend anyone. It means relying on posting links on Twitter instead of telling stories about people. It means a well-manicured appearance that is mostly just . . . uninspiring.

It hardly ever means being truly human, and connecting at the level of imperfection, messiness, and emotion. Because to do that is to be vulnerable, and in most associations’ eyes, vulnerability = weakness.

But here is the central problem. Among people, it’s vulnerability that truly forges connection.

Here is a piece of truth we will not back down from: An association that operates from fear, constantly checks itself, and hides behind accepted norms about professionalism CANNOT connect.

All you can do is create professional-looking disconnection.

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