Secret to Success: Deliver Meaning

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Accomplishment. Beauty. Community. Creation. Duty.

Those are five of the 15 “meanings” identified in a hot new business book about the bottom-line importance of creating meaningful customer experiences.

Making Meaning: How Successful Companies Deliver Meaningful Experiences, by high-end business consultants Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff and Darrel Rhea, suggests that if businesses “innovate with an eye to what is meaningful in your customers’ lives, your products and services are more likely to be adopted and retained, not tossed aside when the next new sensation arrives.”

An added bonus: The employees of companies that make meaning are more likely to invest “time and creativity, labor and a commitment to quality and loyalty to the company and its offerings.”

The youth field certainly has stories of customer loyalty – such as young people who have spent their lives in the Scouts and families whose children have all attended a camp or a program for generations – as well as tales of employee loyalty. But turnover of both youth and youth workers is on the minds of funders, program planners, researchers and policymakers who have argued for the expansion of after-school programs.

Low rates of youth participation in many programs work against calls for increased program funding. For example, a research review conducted by the Rand Association for the Wallace Funds reported last year that none of the programs reviewed had waiting lists and that many had sharp dropoffs in enrollment after the first month.

In addition, high staff turnover rates worry planners and policymakers concerned about improving the quality and quantity of after-school and other youth programs.

Could one part of the problem be chronic inattention to the importance of meaning? Have we – in our efforts to justify public spending on these programs by emphasizing their value in fighting crime, reducing risky behaviors, bolstering academic achievement and supporting working parents – sold programs to policymakers and funders but failed to convince the customers?

The question is worth asking. Each year, Diller and colleagues interview more than 100,000 people around the globe in the course of helping companies develop products and services that suit their markets. They ask questions not only about brands, costs and product features, but about what people are looking for in their lives and how products and services come to be associated with deeply valued meanings. The 15 meanings list came out of this research. In addition to the five listed above, the other meanings are enlightenment, freedom, harmony, justice, oneness, redemption, security, truth, validation and wonder.

Apple Computer and the Walt Disney Co., the authors note, are hands-down winners in creating a positive total customer experience. Many of the 15 meanings are almost automatically associated with these companies.

Other companies have used the value of meaning to their advantage: Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign appeals to customers who value accomplishment. Jaguar appeals to those who value beauty. The Sierra Club caters to those who want to be regularly enlightened about the environment. Google (my personal favorite) is almost synonymous with information freedom.
I know what you’re thinking: Youth work isn’t big business. We’re not selling a product. We’re not competing for customers.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Look at the list of 15 meanings. What parents wouldn’t want their children to spend a few hours a day in a place where highly motivated adults helped them experience a sense of accomplishment, beauty, community, creation, duty and enlightenment? What children or teens wouldn’t voluntarily return to a place where they regularly experienced freedom, harmony, justice, oneness, and redemption (defined by the authors as “atonement or deliverance from past failure or decline”). And what workers wouldn’t think twice before leaving jobs in which they felt they regularly offered security, truth validation and a sense of wonder to those who came through the door?

These experiences make life meaningful. These experiences make young people show up loyally to some programs and walk away from others.

A recent study conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation helps to pinpoint what makes participating in youth programs meaningful, and the answers should come as no surprise. The program features that most predict positive youth outcomes are opportunities for engagement (reflecting, setting goals, making plans and having choices), and opportunities for authentic interaction (partnering with adults, working in small groups, and feeling a sense of belonging).

It seems strange that companies are being coached to appeal to the human need for meaning in order to better position their products (Nike athletic gear = Just Do It = accomplishment), while youth organizations are coached to lead with products (e.g., tutoring) and downplay their real value.

Finding meaning may be a lifelong endeavor, but it is imperative for adolescents. Helping young people find meaning is the essence of youth work.

Let’s take a page out of the corporate book. It’s time to sell our soul.