A new report shows associations did a fantastic job communicating with members during multiple crises, but a top challenge remains: How to better sustain member engagement. An association expert offers some ideas for breaking through the noise.
Association communications reached an all-time high in 2021, but groups are still struggling to communicate efficiently and effectively with current and prospective members, according to Naylor’s 2021 Association Communications Benchmarking Study [registration], which surveyed nearly 500 senior leaders.
Top of the list? Seventy-two percent of the leaders said there were no improvements in combating information overload and cutting through the clutter.
And even though eliminating clutter is a widespread obsession, not many people are that good at it. “When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future,” says organization guru Marie Kondo.
‘Put Fear Aside’
Associations are faced with challenges that existed before the pandemic. But now they are more severe, and groups are operating under a cloud of uncertainty about when revenue will return to pre-pandemic levels. Fear, it seems, is definitely an impediment to moving forward.
“You really have to put fear aside and focus on getting the smartest people in a room you can,” said Alex DeBarr, president and CEO of Naylor. And then address the big issues like finding new and prospective members and monetizing engagement to build back nondues revenue. It’s not a time for incremental strategies or fear; instead, it’s time to start with very specific goals and execute them with an integrated strategy, he said.
However, DeBarr cautions against making change just for the sake of it, recognizing that many association executives are facing pressure from their boards to change. “This is a moment in time for associations to think about developing a top-down strategy,” DeBarr said. “It’s not just about communicating. It’s how to build value in the eyes of the member and communicating is just one way to do that.”
Clean Your Data
The foundation of communicating and engaging effectively starts with good, clean, well-organized data that has been enhanced with solid demographic information. That allows for segmentation and access to people beyond membership, which is how you find new customers, DeBarr said.
“The number one thing that associations should do is develop a much stronger data strategy,” he said. Good member data will help fine-tune and effectively target marketing and communications messages. “The key to building a bigger membership is to get more intelligence and names to build your file and then market intelligently to it,” he said.
Cut the Clutter
Fighting through the clutter requires maximizing print and digital media and segmenting the kind of content that goes into those platforms. And it means thinking through how to connect print and digital media with other areas of content, like events or career centers.
“It comes back to building an integrated strategy for reaching people and using all the tools,” DeBarr said. For example, a career center is a great creative angle for communicating, because it’s not a print magazine or a face-to-face tradeshow. “It’s a different vehicle for communicating and getting active engagement with a member, or a member company,” he said.
Everyone is dealing with clutter in their lives and lots of competing interests. Getting back to fundamentals, clarifying goals, working toward them, and recognizing the unique advantages associations have is essential.
“I’m not sure they’ve ever had a better time to shine, or a better time to succeed,” DeBarr said.