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Promoting your Chapter

It's the beginning of the school year for many students in the optics world (apologies to our friends in the Southern Hemisphere). New students are arriving on campus, perhaps lost and trying to navigate the foreign environment. Senior students are headed back to the more hectic academic calendar after a summer of relaxation, research, and relative focus.

As a chapter officer, the new academic year means it's a perfect time to recruit new members to the chapter. What are some of the best ways to recruit members and market your chapter? How do you form an identity as a group? This article will describe some best practices that can bring your chapter to a strong level of membership that remains active over time.

Student Club Members from HUST host SPIE Director Peter Hallet and pose for a group photo. Photos not only commemorate and event, but help to establish group identity.

Recruiting New Members

Strong chapters spend effort on recruitment the whole year, but the first part of the school year is often the most critical time. This is when people are assessing their time commitments and goals for the year, and trying to find solutions for the challenges they face. Therefore, it's a good time for you to have a conversation about the benefits of becoming active in the chapter with them.

Recruitment also should entail renewing your relationships with the existing members and other officers in the chapter. Don't necessarily expect people to be able to maintain their same commitment level from year to year, so checking in with the executive group is essential to identifying any potential gaps that need to be filled.

The first thing to recognize is that there is a lot competing for a student's time - classes, teaching, research, exercise, any other personal pursuits, and trying to maintain some sort of a social life. Where does an extra-curricular activity like an SPIE Student Chapter fit in to all of this? The trick here is not trying to make the chapter a competing element for all of these other concerns, but to use the chapter to address these other interests while still accomplishing the goals of the chapter. To do this, you have to ask questions and learn what the people in the chapter want out of it.

Does your institution have lots of speakers and resources, but no one talks to one another? Then the chapter might want to focus on social activities. Or perhaps there is strong camaraderie, but few career options for graduates? Then the chapter might want to focus on company visits and professional skills development.

This brings us to the first two tips - Goals and the Value Proposition:

1. Be able to describe the goals of the chapter - as straightforward as this sounds, its takes some practice to articulate them. If you don't currently have chapter goals, ask existing members what they need! An online survey tool like a free one through surveymonkey.com can be useful.

2. Be able to help potential members specifically understand "What's in it for me?" when they are considering joining the chapter. The right value proposition might appeal to their ideals: "We can help a lot of people get interested in optics if we work together," provide role-models: "Your advisor is a member and recommends the networking available through SPIE", or simply swap effort "I'll help you practice your talk if you help me recruit for the chapter."

The next step is to find potential members, have these conversations, and invite them to join the chapter and SPIE.

3. Exhibit at the campus activities fair - get in front of a lot of people and show an eye-catching demonstration. Use this as a way to start a conversation with them using Tips # 1 & #2. Invite interested people to your chapter kickoff party where they can learn more. Have this event scheduled in advance.

4. Find allies in different departments who will let you have 5 minutes to address their class or research group - use the SPIE member directory to find these professors and researchers. This implicit endorsement by an authority figure is often quite effective in academia.

5. Engage your graduate studies department - use their email lists or have them send a message to all the science faculty regarding your kickoff event. Invite those who might be optics-curious.

6. Free food! This is a good time to use your chapter activity grant to get some pizza and drinks for the recruitment or kickoff event.

When recruiting, make sure you actually explicitly invite people to the event or to take the action you want (like "go to the SPIE website and sign up as a member"). Simply knowing about something is very different than being asked to do it.

Building and Branding your chapter

Ok, by now you have had a great initial recruitment meeting. How do you form this random group of people into a team that can accomplish your shared goals? There are many ways to accomplish this, but this article is going to focus on the somewhat slippery topic of marketing and branding. As scientists and engineers, we often avoid these terms because they relate to changing people's perception, and therefore they imply deceit.

While there may be a kernel of truth to that, many things are determined by perception, particularly those that involve human opinions and feelings. Naturally, we want interactions with the chapter to produce good feelings and help people perceive themselves as belonging to the group. Here are some steps to take to accomplish that.

1. Make sure that new members are introduced to the veterans and encouraged to contribute. There should not be anonymous members of the chapter. Learning someone's name and greeting them is the first step to making new people feel welcome. If they do not feel welcome, then you probably won't see them again.

2. Use branded materials to identify the group, such as t-shirts, stickers, and banners.

All SPIE Student Chapters in good standing have received a large vinyl banner from SPIE with the chapter logo. When you do an event, get a photo with the group and the banner. If you want to purchase promotional items such as pens, stickers, or t-shirts for the chapter, this can be done with the chapter activity grant. All chapters have a unique logo that they can use to identify themselves and their events - just look on your spie.org chapter webpage. The main SPIE logos can also be used with permission. Most universities have a list of vendors that they work with to produce promotional items and your student activities office can probably help you select an appropriate company.

Of course, with a limited budget, there is an appropriate balance between buying promotional items and actually carrying out activities. Try to make things that will last (don't put the year on it!) and really weigh the benefits of providing a promotional gift item to each group.

Student Chapter outreach events are a great way to promote both optics education and your chapter. Make sure your chapter members are identifiable!

3. Use the media and marketing resources of your Student government or campus events center. Most centers have lists of vendor contacts, media representatives, alumni, and other groups that can help make an event successful. The media specifically is often interested in STEM education efforts in the community, and you might develop some strong allies if you take the time to publicize the efforts. If there is a campus magazine or newsletter, this is a great spot to highlight your volunteer outreach efforts.

4. Advertise events anywhere that students congregate - department break rooms, refrigerators, and coffee machines, mailboxes, email, and Facebook. If you want the public to attend, there are often free weekly newspapers that will post event announcements for free.

5. Use social media to promote the good works of the group. It may go without saying these days, but Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and the rest of the media pantheon are a great way to document an event. Most people like seeing pictures of themselves in action, so it can be a very effective means of establishing a group identity.

The start of the school year is full of potential. With a little early planning and some of these tactics, your chapter can get a great start both on recruiting new members and helping them become effective members of the chapter community.