100 Years Young: How One Association Reinvented Itself at the Century Mark
On the cusp of its 100th birthday, and with a new executive director and strategic plan in hand, the National Association of Secondary School Principals decided it was time to reimagine itself.
On the cusp of its 100th birthday, and with a new executive director and strategic plan in hand, the National Association of Secondary School Principals decided it was time to reimagine itself. One big change: bringing an advertising agency in-house to revamp the organization’s marketing, communications, and public relations efforts.
Milestone birthdays can evoke a sense of jubilation. They may also highlight the need for change.
The latter was the case for the National Association of Secondary School Principals as it was approaching its 100th birthday. Although it doesn’t hit the 100-year mark until 2016, NASSP’s anniversary, along with the arrival of a new executive director, served as a catalyst for an organizational overhaul that included an updated brand, website, communications and marketing strategy, and, ultimately, culture.
Specifically, the results of a comprehensive management study, conducted soon after JoAnn Bartoletti came on board as executive director in 2012—as well as the directives of a new strategic plan—highlighted the need for change.
“A number of priorities were outlined, and it was quickly acknowledged that NASSP lacked many of the necessary resources to successfully implement the plan,” says Dennis Sadler, deputy executive director of operations at NASSP, a 25,000-member organization representing middle-level and high school principals, assistant principals, and school leaders. “There were a number of areas that needed attention.”
For one, the association’s technology infrastructure was sorely outdated. A tech audit led to a number of updates, including a complete reimplementation of NASSP’s association management system, an overhaul of various websites, and an upgrade of hardware and software tools across the organization.
But an area in need of more considerable change was NASSP’s outreach efforts.
“Marketing and communications needed to be more robust, more strategic, more data-driven,” Sadler says. NASSP brought in Marketing Design Group (MDG), a full-service marketing and public relations agency that specializes in strategic marketing campaigns for associations and tradeshows, to provide an external analysis of the association’s marcomm work.
Out of that came one of the biggest changes NASSP underwent: a move to bring MDG staff in-house at the association permanently.
“Once the strategic plan was finalized by staff and adopted by the board, we recognized that support from an agency was going to be crucial to our success because it gave us an opportunity to engage with a group that had the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that we really needed,” Sadler says.
Filling in the Blanks
As part of the new partnership, nearly two dozen MDG staff set up shop at NASSP headquarters in Reston, Virginia, to support each of the association’s departments—advocacy, membership, professional development, and so on.
MDG Director of Strategy Jennifer Johnson, CAE, oversees the account and reports to NASSP leadership.
“What makes this work is that we are able to provide onsite, day-to-day support, yet still have the resources and expertise of a full-service agency behind us,” Johnson says. “Between the 20 MDG staff operating out of NASSP’s office, and the rest of our staff in other offices, we have the experience to execute anything from a market research initiative, to video production, web editing, et cetera, without relying on a multitude of vendors who need to get up to speed on the intricacies of NASSP.”
The arrangement, which took effect in July 2014, was not undertaken lightly, Sadler says. But NASSP department directors now have the freedom to focus on the association’s strategic priorities, leaving the heavy lifting of marketing work to MDG staff.
“That’s been a big change—for the better,” Sadler says. “And staff have been great in both embracing this new relationship with MDG and in adopting a culture of purposeful change with transparent communication across the organization and at all staff levels.”
With more time and space to think strategically, NASSP staff are also able to ask important tactical questions—for example, is there a better or more efficient way to get the same project done? And, most important, does that project align with the strategic direction of the organization?
“We’re making smarter decisions,” Sadler says. “There is less of a focus on just being busy with the status quo, and, instead, we stop and ask why we are doing something.”
Hitting the Books
With MDG in place, one of the first major initiatives was a full rebranding of NASSP and its student leadership programs—the National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Elementary Honor Society, and National Association of Student Councils.
“The goal was to strengthen brand awareness across our constituents at all levels—students, educators, principals, administrators—and modernizing the organization’s profile to resonate in today’s environment,” Sadler says.
New branding was introduced immediately in several areas, including a refreshed logo to give it a more contemporary feel, modernized signage and updated messaging for NASSP‘s annual conference, and new membership acquisition campaigns.
When MDG began digging into membership last fall, for example, “there was not much in the way of data that was driving how acquisition, retention, and engagement were working, so we were pretty much starting from scratch,” Johnson says. “The first thing we did was conduct a needs assessment to really help us understand the messaging that needed to be improved.”
Meanwhile, to help build repeat attendance at NASSP’s annual Ignite conference, MDG worked on making the content more timely and made sure it was hitting on hot topics such as technology in the classroom and college and career readiness. “We wanted to demonstrate that for principals and assistant principals, Ignite is a must-attend event every single year,” Johnson says.
In addition to marketing, MDG assumed responsibility for NASSP’s communications, which led to a strategic review of the associations’ several print vehicles.
“We were a little bit concerned about some of the timeliness and the expense of that communication,” says Jennifer Jones, CAE, MDG director of communications, who led the overhaul. “Advertising revenues were falling, and expenses were growing, so one of the first things we did was conduct an association-wide communications audit, which mostly consisted of surveying current members about their preferences in terms of the types of vehicles, the frequency of those vehicles, and how they wanted to hear from NASSP.”
From that audit, MDG began a redesign of the association’s two flagship print magazines—updating their look and feel as well as their content—revamped the main NASSP website, and phased out a print newsletter in favor of a blog.
The Arithmetic Is In
Since partnering with MDG last year, several of NASSP’s conferences and programs have experienced sizable jumps in attendance and participation:
- Attendance at its various student leadership conferences has increased by 6.5 percent, with one location selling out.
- Attendance at its annual meeting increased by 26 percent.
- The number of new National Elementary Honor Society chapters increased by 30 percent.
- Its National Association of Student Councils chapters saw a 15 percent jump in membership.
Both Sadler and Johnson say the partnership model that helped bring about these growth numbers succeeded in large part thanks to a fresh strategic plan and dedicated reflection on how NASSP was going to carry it out.
“The thing to keep in mind is you’ve really got to have a good understanding of where you want to go strategically as an organization, and we were very fortunate that we had just come off the development of our new strategic plan,” Sadler says.
He advises looking at organizational change as an investment, rather than a series of savings and expenses, and says that leadership should focus on identifying and setting priorities while staff works on strong project management and effective team building.
Also, get comfortable with the idea that change is a process, Johnson adds.
“This was not us flipping the switch overnight and suddenly everything was shiny and different,” she says. “We knew that it was going to be incremental for the organization and that we were going to celebrate those improvements while at the same time making sure that we were soliciting honest feedback on how this relationship was working.”