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Back in 2017, superhero movies made more than $4 billion at the box office. That’s “billion,” with a “b.” Black Panther, the first major superhero release of 2018, made more than a billion dollars in its first month. In other words, people really, really like their superheroes.


Some anthropologists have argued that comic book superheroes are a form of modern mythology. The Greeks had Zeus, and modern Americans have Wonder Woman. But there may be a simpler reason that doesn’t require reading dry academic anthropology dissertations:

Superheroes inspire us.

We see Superman on the screen, and we want to be him. We want the world to be able to depend on us. We want to be needed, and we need to believe that on occasion, we save the day. Each of us wants the world to recognize the important work we do. Without Superman, Metropolis would descend into chaos. Even if entire cities don’t depend on us, we all need to be recognized by others as being an essential part of the way the world works.

Association members are no different. In fact, associations and the way our professional identity helps define our self-perception go hand in hand.

What do we mean?

Your accountant is likely just an accountant. You may really like them, you may value their services, but in the end that is exactly what they are to you: a service provider. You pay them, and they do your taxes or help put together a balance sheet or profit-and-loss statement for your business.

But in their heart, they’re something much more. When their kids ask her what they did at work that day, they probably don’t tell them they helped someone reconcile their chaotic general ledger. Instead, they probably say they helped an entrepreneur save their small business. They are the hero of their own story, just as we are all the heroes of our own individual stories.

Understanding how your members view themselves as the hero of their own stories is a fundamental part of attracting new members and improving existing member engagement. In many trade associations and professional societies, membership-development and membership-engagement strategies depend completely on technology and tactics. Board and staff leadership will look at declining or stagnant membership and convince themselves that the only solution – the only thing missing – is a new association management system (AMS). Using this logic, more members or improved-member engagement are just an AMS away. Or, if not an AMS, then a new member benefit.

Having the right technology in place to help manage your association is important. So are value-added member benefits—but an AMS and a new-members-only networking event or discount program are no substitutes for a deep and genuine understanding of how your members view themselves and their role in the world.

Some professions make it easier to identify the inner superhero. It wouldn’t be hard to conduct a campaign centered on the inner hero that exists in firefighters or emergency room nurses.

But while they may not rush into burning buildings, the world needs accountants who approach their job with a sense of duty and an understanding of how important their work is. The world needs fundraising professionals who raise money for nonprofits like the world depends on their work (and in many ways, it does).

As association leaders, how do you identify your members’ inner superheroes?

First, ask questions. Ask what attracted a member to the profession or the industry. Ask about a time when the member felt like they genuinely helped one of their own customers or clients. Ask about where their inspiration comes from. Ask your members what they wish the public knew about their profession.

Then listen. Take what you hear and translate it into your membership marketing campaigns. Use the language of heroism and inspiration in your member communications. It may feel a little corny, or awkward, to talk about seemingly mundane professions as heroic.

But the truth is the world needs accountants. And fundraisers. And librarians. And dentists. And ombuds.

And accountants, fundraisers, dentists, librarians, and ombuds know that, and, on occasion, they need to hear how heroic their work can be.

And they especially need to hear it from their association.

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