Better than relevant

by Jeff De Cagna on February 9, 2008

If you haven’t read Kevin Kelly‘s fabulous post, “Better than Free,” I suggest you do that now.

Even though relevance is a losing argument for our organizations, both staff and volunteer leaders continue to believe it is the strategic endgame and make (shortsighted) decisions on the basis of this erroneous belief. Fortunately, Kevin Kelly’s post offers us a different entry point into this crucial conversation, as well as invaluable insights into the new argument we need to be making if we’re going to be successful.

Let’s begin with the fundamental questions Kelly poses:

…why would we ever pay for anything that we could get for free? When anyone buys a version of something they could get for free, what are they purchasing?

These are critical strategic inquiries for associations today and going forward. We have always been willing to give away some content if doing so served the larger purpose of recruiting and retaining members. With the membership-centric business model decaying, however, the reaction from many organizations has been to pull back from free and put more and more information in secure places where only those who are already members can access it. But as Kelly points out in his post, “the Internet is a copy machine,” and inevitably, the information that associations seek to protect behind members-only firewalls will be copied too, if it hasn’t already. In this new world, the “skills of hoarding and scarcity” aren’t very useful anymore, Kelly writes, and he is absolutely right.

So as we try to identify new, sustainable business models for associations, free will need to be a part of the decision-making calculus, but as more than a pricing strategy. In a world of abundant information, free must be married to other forms of value to capture both attention and profits. Kelly’s post outlines eight types of value (immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage and findability; read Kevin’s post for full details on each) that he believes are “better than free” (and for which people will pay) in the network economy, and he defines these “generative values” in the following way:

A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured. A generative thing can not be copied, cloned, faked, replicated, counterfeited, or reproduced. It is generated uniquely, in place, over time.

Take note that relevance isn’t one of Kevin’s eight generative values. Why? Perhaps it is because relevance isn’t a quality we cultivate or nurture over time: something is either relevant or it isn’t. Google has set the standard for providing access to relevant information, and so our mindset now includes the expectation that relevance is already factored in to every exchange. And since we’re all suffering from information overload anyway, why would we devote even one bit of our limited time and continuous partial attention to something that hasn’t firmly established its relevance? All of these issues contribute to making relevance a losing argument for our organizations.

Being generative, however, is a winning argument. We can build associations that function in a generative manner by helping our contributors make sense of emerging issues and challenges through the creation of meaningful, real-time context. We can enrich their personal and professional lives by redefining the way they engage with the membership experience as part of trusted markets, networks and communities. When we focus on being generative, we can create new dimensions of success both organizationally and for our stakeholders, but only if we’re willing to think differently about how we do our work. Here’s the critical quote from Kevin Kelly’s blog post on what this way of thinking requires:

…[it demands] an understanding of how abundance breeds a sharing mindset, how generosity is a business model, how vital it has become to cultivate and nurture qualities that can’t be replicated with a click of the mouse.

Are we ready to think this way? The answer to that question is unclear, but I do know that now is time for us to unleash our imagination and change the shape of the conversation we’re having about what’s next. We simply must stop talking about being relevant, and start acting generatively. It’s our best strategy for creating and winning the future.

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