Four Ways to Make Marketing Part of Your 2021 Comeback Story

With tight budgets and a challenging road back to in-person events, it may be tempting to rein in your marketing spend. But reminding people why your association is vital can lead the way to a robust return, as well as supporting members as they navigate their own unfamiliar territory.

By Melissa Bouma

If 2020 left your organization hurting due to lost business and revenue opportunities, know that you’re not alone. Many other associations are facing the same challenges. But the new calendar year, while it doesn’t end the pandemic, offers an opportunity to reset and fully embrace the new normal. And how you react to that new normal can help set the stage for your comeback story.

With strained budgets, it can be natural to look toward austerity measures and other forms of cost-cutting, but these have their limits, especially from a long-term perspective. To turn the tide, ultimately, your association needs to invest, but that investment should be thoughtful and evaluated for performance early and often.

A great place to invest is in your brand’s identity and differentiator. It’s one of the best things that you can do to reverse your fortunes. The Corporate Horizon Index, a 2017 McKinsey study of for-profit companies, found that organizations willing to invest in their long-term fortunes tended to grow 47 percent more, and with less volatility than organizations that were more focused on the short term.

And marketing is a great vehicle for reinforcing the importance of your association at a time when members may be reevaluating their reasons to renew their dues. It’s the industry-specific relevance that your organization provides that can help members overcome 2020 difficulties. The question is how to strategically invest those marketing dollars when your budget may already be stretched thin. Here are four ways to do this:

Focus on recruiting new members with a new acquisition campaign. Three of the biggest reasons people join associations are for networking, education, and recognition. Yet these benefits may have lost their luster in 2020—a year where meetings, the primary conduit for such exchanges, came to a standstill. Start off 2021 strong by leveraging an ad campaign or direct marketing (more on that, next) to reinforce your organization’s value in these key areas and promote what makes being part of your association so valuable—and help to offset any member drop-off seen in 2020.

Employ free or low-cost marketing efforts to retain existing members. A member retention campaign doesn’t need to be an expensive endeavor. Use email or retargeting to remind existing members of your value, or even introduce new initiatives or services they may not have known about. Consider adding a new member recognition award program into the mix, and explore other ways to amp up virtual member recognition until meetings return full force.

Target this messaging with performance marketing. This approach, which represents a combination of brand marketing, paid search, and social media advertising, helps marketers target very specific audiences. (It even has its own association, in case you were curious.) One of the benefits of this strategy—and part of the reason it’s growing in prominence—is that it’s rooted in results by design. That means there is a direct correlation between money spent and the people who are being brought into your association. And ultimately, money spent to bring in new members and to engage existing ones is critical at this time, as they will provide the basis for any future organizational efforts.

Be ready for meetings to return. So maybe this year won’t be when in-person meetings make their big comeback. But that moment will come eventually. Consider directing some of your funding into long-term event marketing, so that when attendees are ready to come back in force (in the back half of 2021 or beyond), your association is ready.

The challenge, of course, is that the pressure to return in a big way is high for every organization that found itself sitting out most of 2020, or drastically shifting its strategy into virtual realms. And that means everyone wants a comeback story.

This is going to be like a thoroughbred race. Whoever gets out of the gate first is probably going to win the race.

Don’t miss the opportunity to make your next steps count.

Melissa Bouma, president of Manifest, has more than 15 years of experience building insight-driven branding and content strategy, with a client base representing large companies, major universities, and prominent associations.

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