In the runup to the 63rd annual STC Summit, now underway, I posted some thoughts on how the event has shrunk since the late 1990s. The post drew a lot of insightful comments about the Summit and about conferences in general. (I encourage you to read them.)
Two readers — perhaps picking up on my observation that STC membership has declined along with Summit attendance — suggested that STC itself, not just the conference, is struggling to remain relevant.
That’s the issue I’d like to focus on today: How can STC grow in both numbers and relevance?
First I’ll excerpt their comments. Then I’ll add my thoughts. Then I want to hear what you think.
Author and blogger (Every Page Is Page One)
To me, STC just seems old fashioned. The most striking example of this recently is the spam the society has been sending out listing ten different reasons to join STC. They are all about member benefits (many of them dubious, but that’s not the point). There was nothing about making tech comm better or making the world a better place through tech comm. It was very much a baby-boomer jobs-for-the-boys kind of approach that I just don’t think resonates with people today.
STC is trying to renew itself, of course. But most of that renewal seems to focus on doing the old stuff better. And it is doing the old stuff better. The problem is, it is still the old stuff. It is a preservation society, not a revolutionary society.
Former STC board member and probably the person most responsible for creating STC’s professional certification program
For more than 15 years now the strategy of STC has boiled down to “providing more value for members.” That’s been the campaign plank of every candidate for the Board (including me, twice). A lot of good presidents and Board members have devoted themselves to wringing more value out of the STC value proposition.
What’s the problem with providing value for members? Well, I like value fine; its the “members” part that’s the problem. When STC had, by my estimate, 25% of all practitioners worldwide, it was a great strategy. Today, we have only a quarter the members even as the profession has grown. “Value for members” is now a retention strategy, when a growth strategy is essential.
Readers of this blog know that I treasure my association with STC, that it’s delivered great value to me. Yet I totally get it when Mark and Steve portray STC as old-fashioned.
Is this tension between growth and providing value unique to STC? I don’t think so. Many, probably most, professional societies that were organized with a mid- to late-20th century business model are struggling to bolster membership numbers in a world where their biggest “products” — information and connection — are readily available to everyone at little or no cost.
When I was involved in strategic planning for STC in the ’90s and ’00s, the leadership envisioned STC as a “big tent” that invited all kinds of technical communicators and advocated on their behalf. I don’t know if the leadership still feels that way. (I doubt it.) The “big tent” approach, rather than unifying all the disparate strains of technical communication, seems to have led to a lack of focus that proved detrimental.
So should STC narrow its focus? No. As Mark says, the organization atrophies if it tries to zero in on (pick your term) technical writers/communicators/what-have-you rather than on everyone who “talks about technology.”
I chatted with STC Executive Director Chris Lyons after last night’s opening session. He pointed out that the last several Summit keynotes — like David Rose’s this year — have covered material much broader than traditional technical communication. He also mentioned that STC is reaching across to members of other communication-related professional societies to make them aware of what STC has to offer.
It sounds paradoxical: going after a bigger market while staying focused. But it doesn’t have to be. The key is choosing the right things to focus on.
Is there a case study of a professional society that has kept up with the times and figured out a way to grow and provide value? If so, what can STC learn from it?
Your turn. Tell me what you think.