Associations Need To Modernize – Here’s How

Many associations and professional organizations operate under a membership revenue model. This means that member growth and retention is key for the survival of the association.

But associations are seeing lower engagement, reduced perceived value, and slowed growth; which takes a toll on revenue. And organizations need to adapt to stay relevant.

Organization stakeholders and their future stakeholders want open and inclusive systems that embrace digital connectivity. If organizations aren’t actively building these networking and community paths for their members, they’re missing out on what their consumers actually want… and ultimately, member income.

The “safe” path, if that’s what your association is already doing, means you may be missing out on growth potential, membership value, and real opportunity.

Associations have their work cut out for them

Many organizations are tempted to stick to what they do best, and aim to increase their members’ awareness of their ongoing activities. After all, many board members have personally found value and success through the organization (that’s why they’re on the board!). So they feel that the value of membership just needs to be communicated more frequently, and louder, for potential new members to “get it”.

What many organizations (and their boards) may be forgetting is that the new-member experience is not so immersive and rich as it is for long-serving members. And simply reiterating the organization’s offering – Networking! Lobbying! Fun group activities! – is ignoring the reality of this new, digitally-connected world.

Did you know the average person spends ten hours per day looking at screens? If these same adults spent at least seven hours asleep, that means they’re spending more of their awake time online and on screens than they are in everyday, non-technology activities. You can access more members, where they are, by embracing digital connectivity.

By building a digital marketing strategy, associations don’t have to just survive, but they can grow and thrive in a changing environment. And they often have to internally convince a whole swath of stakeholders of both its necessity, and the specific path to success.

How do you do that? Implementing the double whammy of explaining relevance and building emotional connection to drive the perception of necessity for members.

First step: figure out your audience

Where is our revenue coming from? What’s working, and what isn’t? What does our membership model look like?

Your first job when looking to move forward is to fully understand where your organization is, right now. We’ve heard – from a number of sources – that many associations are unwilling, even internally, to admit that they’re struggling with decreased memberships and low engagement.

Starting with relevance

I don’t mean to say your organization is irrelevant. Just the opposite – associations and organizations are doing incredibly important work, on shoestring budgets, in every industry and field in North America. Huge accolades deserved.

What I mean is more “modern” relevance. Does your association have an accessible, professional, and user-driven website? Bad websites are like bad curb appeal – it doesn’t matter how important or wonderful your interior is, most people won’t get through the front door.

Ultimately, websites are about credibility. How can your organization look like it has a professional, driven, experienced membership if your website isn’t organized and doesn’t function well? Your member experience suffers, because their credibility suffers.

Modern relevance means understanding – and accepting – the reality of how people communicate. Worldwide, sixteen million text messages are sent every minute. Connection between people happens instantly, but in discrete, short chunks of focused attention. Fifteen seconds here, thirty there.

Instead of jumping to adopting a text strategy (please don’t), we should dive a little deeper. If association stakeholders are spending more time online, more time on smartphones, and less time in general on everything – how do you capitalize? How do you appeal?

Emotional resonance

It’s something that big brands have been wrestling with for a while: making their consumers feel something. With infinite access to information, data, and even other people, what stands out to consumers and are the things that tap into their deep, dark, ultra-human emotion pits.

Think: those emotionally jarring shorts that precede films at Cineplex. Or West Jet’s many viral feel-good ads. Heck, even the “I am Canadian” Molson commercial is a great example of stirring emotional resonance in a defined audience.

And it’s the only thing that stands out in an era of unlimited and infinite access to information. That explains why “pushing more” to get your event details, conference dates, and “stakeholder value” propositions heard by members isn’t working. Because, besides information, your stakeholders need to be emotionally invested before they even sign up.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to strategically design your communications and marketing strategies to incorporate digital relevance and emotional connection.

Okay, but how?

There are so, so many ways to innovate in the association sphere. Since professional organizations and associations are some of the last holdouts in digitizing, it’s a great opportunity: we can see what’s worked in other industries, and then we can do it first in ours.

Obviously, what you do depends on your audience, your business and revenue model, and your stakeholders. It even depends on your board – your board needs to be on board to make these changes.

Once they are, (maybe just show them this article… aren’t we convincing?) you can think about the following methods of emotional and digital engagement.

Embrace social

Get on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, whatever.

Then, post lots of stuff: details about upcoming events, photos of members, live streams of events and conferences, funny pictures, puns, all of the things! Better yet, get a coordinator to do all of this for you. Then hand them the reins.

Your social media stuff has to look like it’s from a person. It has to be human. Emotional connection, remember? Humans sometimes make mistakes. Humans use “I” and “we”. Humans have opinions. This is what your social media is for. Do not compromise on this, and don’t be scared of it – it’s an asset, not a liability.

Your social media accounts should look and feel like a community organizer. Find other organizations, groups, and online communities and join them. Congratulate others for promotions, laugh at their funny tweets, and engage with their rants. It’s all about personal connection. That’s how you build relevance and emotional resonance – just one person, talking to others online.

Do video

From Contently, a well-renowned content marketing organization:

“…digital video is best suited for either big breaking news stories or short, soft content that can be taken in without sound. The appeal of video is sensory. People following breaking news might like video because it allows them to retain information with a visceral sense of immediacy, bringing them closer to an important story.”

Video is the medium – not the end goal. Keep that in mind. But what it can do as a medium is hit the relevance/emotion balance in an interesting, exciting, and accessible way for your audience and stakeholders.

It’s easier than you think. You don’t need professional video editing software or a videographer, necessarily, because live videos are off-the-cuff and bring your viewer there. You can live stream conference speeches, addresses, meetings, networking events, and so much more. They’re fun, they’re free advertising, and they make your association look awesome.

Use unconventional data

A few weeks ago, our social coordinator got a call from an employee at Buffer, which is the software-as-a-service company we use to manage our social media accounts. When the conversation was finished, she came out raving: he has the nicest voice, he listened to all of her issues calmly and thoughtfully, and made some seriously helpful suggestions.

Ray, Buffer’s Customer Researcher, spends most of his time calling customers and having these in-depth convos. It’s part of their organization’s small and contained market research program. And it’s been a treasure trove of information that helps them build a more valuable brand.

They’ve been able to identif