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Apr 11, 2013: Putting my money where my mouth is

(Boy, I don't blog much these days, do I?)

For those of you following, the Information Architecture Institute—which I co-founded with Christina Wodtke over ten years ago—is going through more existential angst than usual. The topic of the institute's future and its business model—or lack thereof—came up at the annual IAI town meeting at last week's IA Summit, as it does every year.

And every year for the past five or so, I foam at the mouth and launch spittle along with strong words about how the IAI should abandon its ill-guided dependency upon paid membership (remember, professional associations use an early 20th-century business model—almost as old as that of publishers!). Instead, I suggest that the IAI make involvement free and grow it ten-fold or twenty-fold in a year. Then make money from sponsors, who will be much happier reaching 14,000 people who are interested in IA, than the current 1,400 who are more likely to have IA as their job title.

I'm so certain that this is the way to go that I'm going to put my money—or, rather, Rosenfeld Media's—where my mouth is. Rosenfeld Media will pledge the following:

  • $2,000 as soon as the IAI adopts the free membership model, and draws up a simple plan to approach sponsors
  • $2,000 more as soon as the IAI increases its current membership by 50%
  • $2,000 more as soon as the IAI doubles its current membership
If we get beyond that, I'll be glad to discuss continuing, but let's cross that bridge when we get there.

What strings are attached? Well, I'll tell you one thing for goddamned sure: I don't want to see another IAI business plan for as long as I live. Too much analysis paralysis, folks, and too much for volunteers to create and, more importantly, maintain over time.

If anything, the IAI's business plan should be this: provide shared community infrastructure so that people interested in IA can learn more and further the field of practice. So, simple stuff—much of which is already happening—like:

  • World IA Day. It's awesome. It's the gateway drug for the community. More please.
  • Mentoring program. It's great; keep it going.
  • Job board. Duh.
  • Bring back IDEA or some other annual meeting in the fall (the season opposite the IA Summit). It'll make a little money and provide another opportunity for us all to get into one place.
  • Promote stuff. Really! It's not that hard! Those social media things can help.
  • Some legal infrastructure so these—and new programs—can be communally owned.
That's it, really.

Do this, and focus on that under-served IAI use case: the person who is never, ever, ever going to call themselves an information architect, but sure does need some basic IA skills to do their jobs. There are THOUSANDS of these folks out there—maybe tens of thousands. (BTW, IxDA has over 30,000 members!) Go after them. Sponsors want oh-so-badly to reach those folks, but the IAI—as a non-profit community thing—is so much better prepared to reach them.

And us sponsors? For every Rosenfeld Media, there is an Adobe, a Microsoft, and a bunch of other huge organizations that have sponsorship budgets that would make you pee your pants. Get them to donate with graduated amounts based on how many new members join the IAI. Work with them to develop some other, less quantitative metrics for success. And get them to shower members with freebies and discounts.

Those are the strings we sponsors have attached: help us get visibility among the "dark matter" of the IA world. Those 95% of the people practicing IA—often without realizing it—who could really benefit from some IA consciousness in the form of skills and connections to a community. We'll help you and you'll help us reach those people.

How many sponsors does the IAI need? I have no idea. But I'll personally go to other UX-friendly book publishers—O'Reilly, New Riders, A Book Apart, and so on—and challenge them to at least match our pledge. Now go find someone else to do that with large agencies, someone else to do it with recruiters, someone else to do it with academic programs.


Really. I promise you that the money will be there. And, I hope, the annual outbreak of existential angst will go the way of polio.

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Comment: Kaleem (Apr 11, 2013)

Thank you, Lou.

Comment: christina (Apr 11, 2013)

I suspect that the community is too nice. Hard conversations don't get had. People who can't contribute effectively can't be nudged on to better things. Radical futures that break with the past can't be brought up. I saw what they thought was "blowing up" the IAI and it was some procedural changes.

Nice is the path to death. You are offering a carrot, but I think it's time for a stick.

Comment: Brenda (Apr 11, 2013)

"Nice is the path to death." <--- putting that on a t-shirt

Comment: Aaron (Apr 11, 2013)

Love it Lou!

Comment: Jeff (Apr 11, 2013)

I missed the latest existential angst-fest, but attended in New Orleans and, I think, Denver. And of course, who could forget the classic "Damned Forty Dollars" thread on the list ca. 2009?

I agree with you 100% on this. Thanks for this.

Comment: Donna (Apr 11, 2013)

Best damn plan I've heard in a long time. And it would work

Comment: Chauncey Wilson (Apr 11, 2013)

You might want to discuss the business model used by the Boston UXPA group. We started small and years ago used a yearly conference, some good workshops, and other activities to fund our local UXPA (then UPA) group. We have attendance of 500-600 people and some good corporate support and have a successful yearly conference that provides sufficient funds to provide many free activities. Diana DeMarco and I helped make the first leap from dozens of members to hundreds and Chris Hass and the board have built it into a superb group.

Comment: Dorian Taylor (Apr 11, 2013)

I'd like to preface that I had zero input into what went down in that meeting (see the IAI-members list). I'm still trying to figure out if I have any influence left in that group at all.

I am likewise not convinced *at the present moment* that adopting the IxDA model on its face is optimal. But the bottom line is that it was a conversation we never got to thresh out. And it wasn't threshed out because there was nothing containing the discussion. This was my attempt at containing it:


Unfortunately we never got a chance to discuss it.

Note: that is not yet another business plan. That is a set of declarative constraints and assumptions about the environment. It is also only a sketch, intended to mature through feedback. Too bad nobody read it.

Do we want to be arbitrageurs of eyeballs? Because that's what relying exclusively on sponsors entails.

That is not a rhetorical question. At this moment I don't know. That could be exactly the right move, if properly weighed against the other things worth paying for.

Anyhow, I appreciate that you care. I'm frustrated too.

Comment: Michael (Apr 11, 2013)

Lou, nicely done. I've seen firsthand that the IAI has a ton to offer sponsors. You've spurred a few ideas to throw into the mix:

Keep payments -- as a behavioral motivator. Better than membership is motivated membership.

Every first-time membership is free. Just fill out a quarterly survey to keep it free the first year.

After that, everyone has to pay unless you:

1) Sign up to mentor a first time member for a year -- at least a once-quarterly commitment to talk to them on the phone.

2) Write a blog post about the IAI that links to membership signup

3) Connect your Twitter and FB account to the IAI, and mention the institute once a month. When you forget, the IAI sends a mention automatically on your behalf.

4) Suggest a direct sponsor contact that you know.

5) Be a member of a sponsor organization, which would motivate people to get their companies to sponsor, and then show an immediate value to continuing sponsorship in year two and beyond based on how many people in the domain of that org are members.

Now what you've got is an active list of professionals nudged into the behaviors that are mutually beneficial to the IAI, its membership, and the sponsor audience. This network of mentoring and publishing would adequately fund a content and community management team to spur even more engagement and connecting to continue strengthening the org.

Hope this helps!

Comment: Lou Rosenfeld (Apr 11, 2013)

Thanks all!

Mike, I love those ideas. You're talking about a continuum of engagement (or, to use a term I hate, membership). Some people pay with money, some with attention, some with time, some with combinations thereof. That, to me, is realistic, and also jives well with the fact that at different points in our lives, we're better positioned to make one type of contribution (e.g., time when we're starting out) versus money (when we're in more senior roles and are paid better).

Comment: Brian Durkin (Apr 11, 2013)

I have to say that I am not a member and one of the reasons is that I spent 12 years as a web designer and web developer before becoming an IA. I have been an IA for over 3 years now and in that time I have held onto the open-source mentality that information is or should be free and we can figure out other ways to make it work.

Make the membership $5, $20 and you get a book, $40 and you get a book and t-shirt and a fooBar. I like the idea about levels of membership but free if you continue to promote because you are essentially hiring that user to be an evangelist.

All I know is I have gotten my information for free for a while and unless I am looking for a service (mentoring, workshop/class, lecture/talk), I am just not going to pay and find the info someplace else.

Comment: christina (Apr 11, 2013)

Forgot to say, this is a wonderful strawman, Lou. I love that you have never stopped caring.

Some high level thoughts
a) define IA once, and stick to it. have an inevitable powerful clarity to the definition so people can rally around it. Not inclusive, but declarative.

b) price of membership has never mattered much. There is a lot of thinking that what you pay for you value. I like the PBS model. We ask you to join, but out of gratitude, not for lack of access.

c) Conversely, charge for things that cost money like events. Without money, you can't get stuff done. If B&A has taught me one thing, let it be that. Charge for World IA day, get IDEA up. OR go for sponsorship, like Lou says. Earn enough to pay full time folks. Hire thoughtfully.

D) the list is one of those things that should be free. If it's not dead. Work to get ppl touched by World IA day on it. It's proof of value, it's an education tool, it's an outreach tool. It shouldn't be a member bennie.

I'm angry because I still believe in my heart IA is critical for good products to exist. I think the IAI still is the tool to make sure the world gets out about its value. I hope your plan is considered seriously, Lou.

Comment: Andrea Resmini (Apr 11, 2013)

As the current president, thanks.

Thanks to Lou, with whom I discussed briefly at the IAS13, and thanks to all of you who are providing valuable feedback, ideas, and ways to solve the current (if not new) situation. Mike, those are great ideas. Brian, thanks, we are already considering some sort of a tier model. Those suggestions are precious.

We are listening carefully, and we are already working to implement some of this changes to the membership model, together with the changes that we discussed at the AGM and that we will bring to the members ML for further discussion in a few days (some of us, me for example, are still in the middle of some traveling).

I need to add, for the sake of clarity, that I was more than surprised to read that Dorian maintains he "had zero input into what went down in that meeting (see the IAI-members list)". The meeting and its content were a group effort and the result of months of conversations. Dorian was not only present at all of our conference calls, but voted and offered his opinions via mail, as usual.

As these evidently unresolved personal issues have nothing to do with the IAI, with what Lou has proposed here, and with the energizing conversation that is taking place and that we as a board heartily support, I can only assure you all we will try to better frame them when having the larger conversation on change on the ML.

Thanks again, everyone. It's great to be part of this community.

Comment: Dorian Taylor (Apr 11, 2013)

I voted to stay elections on the condition we would talk about and subsequently implement concrete actions toward revenue generation. I did *not* vote for what was presented at that meeting. I wasn't even part of that discussion because you had it at the ass-crack of dawn the day of.

Comment: Caleb Brown (Apr 11, 2013)

Hi folks, Caleb here, a veteran of the last great identity paroxysm in '09! I would argue that many MANY MANY of us care. What we want us a SIMPLE way to care for the community and get cared back. To me, the most transparent, understandable, easy-to-implement plan should win. I suspect most if us could get behind - and pay for, in whatever formulation we ultimately pick - a plan like that.

Maybe we should define what sucess for the IAI means, and see if a straightforward approach delivers. If not, try a different approach. What are we afraid of?

Regardless, I appreciate the initiative people are showing here!

Comment: Laura Creekmore (Apr 11, 2013)

I'm also currently on the IA Institute board of directors, and we are REALLY excited about this conversation. Honestly, I think this is a very healthy place for us to be right now. We are still a very young organization, and we're moving past the initial founding impetus into a need to define the long-term role of the organization. What I'm hearing from people is that there's an important role for the IAI to play -- and we can meet that need with some great thinking like we see here.

I think we all agree that the IAI has been an important force in this community and discipline, and we are excited to find a way forward that best serves the community. Thanks to Lou and many others for your leadership -- we are listening and excited to make this an organization that serves us all well for years to come.

Comment: Vicky (Apr 12, 2013)

A key thing about paid memberships is whether people feel its worth their money to be a member. Often paid models are only really value for money if you're in the US. For example, when I was in NZ, a couple of people running a local meetup for an international institute (that will remain unnamed) basically admitted it wasn't worth paying to sign up as most of the benefits were US based. Certainly fees aren't a bad thing, but if you're trying to have an international reach it's pretty unlikely that those who can't attend local chapters will join (even with the weak USD!)

Comment: Ronnie Battista (Apr 12, 2013)

Great ideas Lou. Wondering if you have seen a similar model in other professions? Between UXPA's dues-paying membership and the IxDA's more open model, there are plenty of swings at bat that have pros and cons. Just wondering if you (or anyone else here) can draw from other successful models outside of our crazy lil bubble...

Comment: Ronnie Battista (Apr 12, 2013)

Great ideas Lou. Wondering if you have seen a similar model in other professions? Between UXPA's dues-paying membership and the IxDA's more open model, there are plenty of swings at bat that have pros and cons. Just wondering if you (or anyone else here) can draw from other successful models outside of our crazy lil bubble...

Comment: Sean Van Tyne (Apr 13, 2013)

Are you using logic, Lou?

Comment: Keith Instone (Apr 14, 2013)

My view of the key to success: LOCAL, LOCAL, LOCAL. Focus on serving people in their local communities. Many great ideas here, but they would be better with a local focus. So, World IA Day is great, but there is nothing local the other 51 weekends of the year. Sponsorship, when done centrally and nationally/worldwide, should directly filter down to local events and local benefits. Just 1 possibility: central sponsorship money is used to pay for any local group that wants to create a Meetup group for IAI for their part of the world. And so on.

Comment: Nick Finck (Apr 15, 2013)

I think Keith said it best. If you look at the national members vs the local members, it really all happens on the local level. This is one thing IXDA got right. Their service address the needs of those at the local level, not at a national level. This is one of the things I see UXPA struggle with (to be quite frank) and why ASIS&T and ACM hasn't been able to get much traction at the national level for UX and related disciplines. That said, those sames organizations thrive at a local level not because of national support but because of local leaders. Look, we've been down a long path with UXnet in the past, I still think Local is where its at and offer this question: what can national organizations do for local leaders and local members.

That said, I will repeat what I said in my tweet. I will match your contribution if the plan is something I can get on board with. I am not saying free membership or anything, I am saying if its something that local leaders and members can benefit from, I will match 6k. It means that much to me.

- Nick

Comment: Laura Creekmore (Apr 16, 2013)

Wow, wow, wow. Y'all are AWESOME. [Go ahead...make fun of me for using that over-used word. I think it's pretty accurate here. :) ]

We are working on a couple of different plans at the board level and we'll be ready to share them for feedback very soon. We are all very energized by this response from the community.

Many, many thanks.

Comment: Boon Chew (May 5, 2013)

"Do this, and focus on that under-served IAI use case: the person who is never, ever, ever going to call themselves an information architect, but sure does need some basic IA skills to do their jobs. There are THOUSANDS of these folks out there—maybe tens of thousands. (BTW, IxDA has over 30,000 members!) Go after them. Sponsors want oh-so-badly to reach those folks, but the IAI—as a non-profit community thing—is so much better prepared to reach them." <== BINGO!!!

Thank you, Lou!!

I think I said something along the lines of this during the 5 minute madness at IAS13... "IA has many homes, and [IAS] is just one of them". Let's go and make more homes!

I'll pledge what I can afford. Where do I sign up?

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