Use Technology to Put People First—How the Country Music Association’s Members Took Center Stage

Until AIs can think for themselves, digital systems are tools that do their best work with human ingenuity as the driver. And one of the puzzles technology excels at helping us solve is how to understand each other.

The presentation Tiffany Kerns gave at .orgCommunity’s recent Solutions Day event, centered on that idea. Tiffany explained that although the Country Music Association revolves around the limelight, all of its members weren’t getting the applause they deserve.

Tiffany is the Executive Director of the Country Music Association Foundation and CMA’s Vice President of Industry Relations and Philanthropy. The Foundation’s mission is to ensure every child has access to high-quality music education and every music educator has the resources to create a thriving program. .orgCommunity was thrilled to donate 10 percent of the proceeds from Solutions Day registration to this great cause.

I’m eager to summarize Tiffany’s talk for you because, in addition to the intersection of technology and people, she focused on member centricity, another issue I often write about.

Align People and Mission

It might seem strange that an organization with a household name, boasting members who are even more famous, faces the same challenges as the rest of us. The industry includes everyone who is involved in producing country music—from aspiring stars to stylists, roadies, and suppliers. As a performance-driven business, all of these workers were especially vulnerable to pandemic disruption.

Tiffany Kerns explains CMA’s challenges and opportunities

When Tiffany became vice president of industry relations in March of 2020, she sensed that the association’s approach to its members needed realignment. The organization’s outreach was focused on the glitter and the brand but missing the people who are at the heart of its mission.  

Foreshadowing trouble on the horizon, “Five days before the pandemic lockdown, Nashville experienced a tornado,” Tiffany recalls. “One week later, over half of our 6,000 members were out of work. The majority had spent their entire careers on tour. They had no clue how their skills could translate into other industries. We saw depression, anxiety, and suicide. In addition to being uncertain about the future, people had lost a unique part of their identity.”

On the administrative side, the association’s television contracts contributed to a multi-million-dollar loss. CMA was dealing with a triple threat—uncertainty as people, as an organization, and as an industry. The experience was traumatic, but it was also an opportunity for a reset.

 “Our mission didn’t change,” Tiffany advised. “But our ideas about the resources and the relevance that we bring to our industry did. We committed to putting people first. From our employees and our members to our fans, we focused on the human connection.” 

Evaluate Member Experience

CMA started their transformation where I advise our clients to begin. They studied the member experience and evaluated how to engage and communicate on a personal level.

“I wonder how we existed before the pandemic,” Tiffany observes. “We’ve gained so much as an organization. Communication is the number one business issue, and we’ve become laser-focused on promoting effective dialogues.

“I credit our CEO, Sarah Trahern, with helping us adapt. She encouraged agility. She urged us to have the courage to change or eliminate activities that no longer made sense. We gave everyone permission to reimagine. That freedom empowered us to ask big questions. We committed to accepting the answers without excuses.”

The group didn’t want to be trapped by traditional assumptions or by imagining that members simply didn’t understand the organization. The tables were turned. It was CMA that had to learn more about its community.

Be Relevant

“If you’re a member organization, and you’re not asking about both personal and professional needs, then you are not relevant,” Tiffany observes. “Those two aspects of life are intertwined. And, when you work with people you need to lean on data. We wanted to understand all the human behavior occurring throughout our organization.” Including–

The Solutions Day audience
  • What members are looking for as professionals and people
  • Whether CMA has resources to meet those needs
  • How members interact with each other, the organization, and the profession
  • Why some country music professionals are not members
  • How relevant the association is to its constituents
  • How the music business is evolving
  • Where opportunities lie and whether CMA is agile enough to capture them
  • How the organization’s value proposition needed to change

To develop an accurate picture of the association’s internal and external status, CMA conducted an assessment and analysis of organizational and industry trends. These areas were among the avenues for exploration:

  • Studying member data and membership criteria
  • Evaluating members’ consumption habits and industry trends
  • Reviewing the strategic plan, policies, procedures, and other infrastructure resources
  • Conducting a listening tour with key audiences
  • Distributing member surveys

CMA began using this information to build solutions that would inspire current members’ loyalty and motivate a new generation of music professionals to join.

Dig Into the Data

“When we examined the data, we saw patterns of behavior that we would not have imagined,” Tiffany recalls. “We’re still processing the information we learned about the purchasing habits of younger people. We also discovered the answer to a mysterious phenomenon. Artists were experiencing rows of empty seats at “sold out” concerts. Research revealed that when younger people purchase their tickets months in advance, the money’s been spent for so long that they don’t feel obligated to attend the event. When you dig into the data, you uncover significant surprises.”

CMA also had to confront a  shrinking member base. “When I started with the organization nine years ago, we were at over 10,000 supporters,” Tiffany recalls. “Today that number is 6,000 to 6,300. We were experiencing weakness in some membership categories. We wanted everyone in our community, artists, songwriters, engineers, publishers, and bus drivers to see CMA as home. But we needed to do a better job communicating that inclusivity.”

Awareness of the challenge is beginning to create change. “All membership and trade associations are at the service of others,” Tiffany notes. “When you put people first and you make sure that they understand that they are the focus. Your business starts to improve.”

Be a Big Tent

“It took two years to reshape and redefine our membership,” Tiffany advised. “We updated criteria and added new tiers. Our statistics indicate that 40 percent of our business comes from individuals outside of country music. So, we opened the membership to anyone in the music industry. This was a controversial move. But we gained direct sightlines to shifts in our broader environment.

Tiffany Kerns, Kevin Ordonez, .orgSource President and Managing Director of Digital Strategy, and I

“Students are now eligible to join at age 15, which is a new pipeline to the next generation of talent. Our diversity strategy puts Inclusion at the center of all our activities.”

Get Old School

CMA launched an array of programs to promote engagement and collaboration among their community. One of their most impressive strategies is old school. Because a personal interest in your well-being is a powerful incentive to belong. The team watches data and member behavior. They pick up the phone and call people to find out why they aren’t participating and learn what they might need. It’s an intentional effort to develop influencers, brand ambassadors, and member loyalty.

To stimulate camaraderie and idea-sharing throughout the organization, CMA created a discussion program. Member Sips brings people together to exchange insights on issues of interest. Some topics, like licensing, are serious or practical. Whereas others, like Taylor Swift Trivia Night, are lighthearted. The point is that both the conversations and the invitations are strategic, allowing CMA to gain a broad-based understanding of what is on their members’ minds.

A Women’s Leadership Academy along with an emphasis on partnerships with organizations where interests align are strategies that strengthen CMA’s infrastructure and the industry’s future. Discovery Education videos, an initiative aimed at third to twelfth-graders, address those coming years directly. The project educates youngsters about careers in the industry. 

To ensure that the organization is equipped to innovate, digital systems and platforms are being redesigned to promote flexibility and prepare for growth and change in a shifting business environment.

Open Doors

CMA approached their challenges with vigorous and broad-based problem-solving. If I had to pick a single takeaway from their experiences, it would be to look forward. Pay attention to your people instead of your past. Technology gives us access to members’ hearts and minds. That insight is the door to relevance. The wider we open it, the more value we allow inside.

If you missed Solutions Day this year, save November 2 for 2023.