Does Your Online Member Marketplace Need an Overhaul?

Many associations have an online marketplace where they sell books, gear, and other swag to members. But not all e-commerce platforms are created equal. An association executive shares his secrets to creating a marketplace that engages members and maximizes sales.

The holidays have arrived, and that means many of us are shopping—and we’re doing a lot of it online. Last month, Black Friday broke records for online sales, and last year, 76 percent of U.S. consumers said they did most of their holiday shopping on Amazon. (You’re welcome, Jeff Bezos.)

Maybe your association is seeing a seasonal bump up in online sales too. I love how the American Chemical Society highlights holiday items on its gift-giving page and how the Brewers Association’s bookstore has all the required reading for the beer nerd in the family.

This time of year provides a good reminder to associations to promote sales and analyze their members’ online shopping habits, says Matt Baehr, executive director of the Book Manufacturers Institute, Inc. In addition to his association day job, he’s the owner of Big Frog Custom T-Shirts, a custom apparel company with a robust online presence. He says associations should make continuous improvements to their e-commerce platform.

“Even when we’re looking at our own store, we’re always asking questions about how to be better,” Baehr says. “For an association that’s selling to members, you have to start with the site’s intent, then set some overarching goals and work toward testing.”

To take that first step. “the first question I always ask is: What do you want your online store to do?” he says. “It can either be in service to your members, or it can be a source of nondues revenue. Sometimes it can be both.”

For associations that look at their online marketplace primarily as a source of nondues revenue, it may be necessary to devote budget and resources to staff, inventory, and logistics to support enough sales to produce a profit. “Like anything, whether it’s books or apparel, there are going to be economies of scale for an association to first consider,” Baehr says.

Smaller-scale operations can consider options like third-party fulfillment and print-on-demand publications, which don’t require in-house staff or warehousing to support. This approach makes it easier for a small-staff association to launch and maintain an online store geared to members’ interests.

But no matter how well-supported and user-friendly your online marketplace is, it won’t produce sales without marketing. Too many associations let their online stores remain hidden in plain sight without adequate promotion, Baehr says.

“An association might say they’re marketing to members, but really it’s a single link buried at the bottom of a newsletter. That isn’t marketing,” he says. “You need to focus on your messaging and strategy to get members to buy.”

He suggests tapping into the power of digital word-of-mouth marketing techniques. Consider creating functionality that allows members to rate and review products online, or establish coupon and referral codes that encourage people to buy and recommend products.

“That could be the nudge someone needs to click ‘buy,’” Baehr says. “And it’s the type of incentive that you can test to see if it’s working.”

Does your association maintain an online marketplace? What strategies or tactics have worked well to engage member buyers and help you meet your e-commerce goals? Post your comments below.

(William_Potter/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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