What Associations Can Learn from Bumper Stickers

By Hank Berkowitz • June 12, 2015

Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser
Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser

Most of your members are in your corner, but don’t ever take them for granted. They can peel away fast.

I saw a great bumper sticker on the drive to work yesterday: “Sorry for Driving So Close in Front of You.”

Sorry For Driving So Close in Front Of You
Snarky, or what? Whether we’re talking driving habits or association membership, things aren’t always what they seem.

If that wasn’t snarky enough, the message was in small type, so you had to be on the verge of tailgating the driver to read it. Disclosure: I have a lead foot at times, but I was at a stoplight when I came across this particular bumper sticker.

The point is, things aren’t always what they seem. It’s all a matter of perspective. Depending on whom you ask, dues-paying organizations are either on the verge of extinction or about to enter a golden age of member engagement, connectivity and professional development offerings. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. One thing’s for sure, the landscape has certainly changed since we launched Association Adviser in early 2010.




Associations still aren’t customizing the bulk of their communications for different member subgroups. RealLilTweetables

Associations are concerned about losing their newest and youngest members. But longtime members can become at-risk members any time. RealLilTweetables

Smart associations position themselves as trusted sources of information and products for members—not the exclusive providers of them. RealLilTweetables

Doing a great job for members isn’t always enough

“Competition is fierce,” observed Alex DeBarr, CEO of Naylor Association Solutions. “There are a lot of things that associations have to compete with for eyeballs, whether it’s other media companies, other associations, bloggers or social media. When I think about what’s evolved the most over the past five years, it’s the recognition that there are more tools for associations to use. If associations are ready to grab all those tools and use them properly, then they’ll probably have a better chance of succeeding than they ever have before.”

But it won’t be easy, even though many associations, such as the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), have really upped their game in terms of relevant content, membership benefits and advocacy. Chip Deale, NPPA’s Executive Director told us in a recent video interview that member surveys keep showing that NPPA is doing a “great job” in its primary function as an advocate and voice for visual journalists. But at the same, they say “’I’m not sure about the value.’ So that’s a disconnect we have to overcome,” Deale noted.

Sound familiar?

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution

One thing you can do is customize your communications for different member subgroups. No matter how small your dues base is or how narrowly defined your industry niche is, you can’t go wrong by making every single member feel like you know what makes them tick each time you reach out to them. As our just-completed association communication annual benchmarking study revealed, only about half of associations are customizing their communications for new members. Just about one in three are customizing for young professionals, less than three in ten are customizing for student members and just more than one-third are customizing for other member subgroups.

Do you customize communications for your member subgroups?

For new
For student members For young professionals For other
Somewhat or highly customized 50.7% 28.4% 32.4% 34.0%

Source: Association Adviser and Naylor, LLC 2015

Christopher Williston
Christopher Williston, IBAT

You can also partner with some of the external contributors that DeBarr mentioned above. Christopher Williston, senior vice president of the Independent Bankers of Texas (IBAT), suggested that associations position themselves as “arbiters of information” for their entire industry. Rather than creating a competitive environment, he asked, “Why don’t we harness partnerships with [industry players] and let the associations take the lead by looking at what partners are producing? Not salesy pieces, but things that can truly benefit our members.”

Karl Ely
Karl Ely, ASAE

As ASAE’s Karl Ely explained in a previous article, when done well, “The content leads and the brand follows.” That can apply to anything to white papers, informational videos, webinars, product demos, resource guides and more.

Williston explained there are many companies that service your members and who really want to get in front of them. “Too often we see them as people who are trying to compete with some of our own programs, products and services for members.” Instead, he explained, there’s an inherent value to having the association play the role of “cutting through the clutter of all of the information available to its members and saying, ‘We’ve taken a look at this, this has value and you ought to consider looking at it.’”

Clare Reagan, IOM, CAE, Reagan & Company
Clare Reagan, IOM, CAE, Reagan & Company

Clare Reagan, IOM, CAE, senior vice president of Reagan & Company and former executive director of the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association agreed. “We’re all about enhancing the value of the profession. Show members how constituent groups such as sponsors, suppliers and vendors are bringing you products and information that you can’t get on your own. They’ve got big dollars for research that you, as a small business or professional [often] don’t have the ability to get.”

June 2015 update: We regretfully note that Clare Reagan passed away in March 2015. This interview occurred in August 2014. We have chosen to include her wise words in this article as a tribute to her work with GVMA and the larger association community.

As our 2015 association communication benchmarking study revealed, the most important topics for members are: how-to/best practices, industry trends, lobbying/advocacy efforts and career/professional development. Among those four topics, career/professional development saw the biggest percentage gain in importance (5 percent) since 2014.

Career centers benefit ALL members, not just active job seekers

Carrie McIntyre
Carrie McIntyre, Boxwood Career Solutions

Carrie McIntyre, senior business development director of Boxwood Career Solutions, said one of the biggest changes she has seen on the association landscape over the past five years is the growing number of organizations who are looking at their career center as something “strategically important” in their organization. The career center, she said, is not just an “isolated job board,” but an important member benefit that’s integrated with other programs and services they offer. That includes professional certification, company profiles and career development tools for the non-active job seeker.

As McIntyre explains, “Most of your website visitors have at least a passing interest in career opportunities. Even if they aren’t actively looking for new opportunities, most are still curious about which companies are hiring. And, in niche communities of professionals, it’s not uncommon to see a job listing and know the person who used to have that job.”

Mick Fleming
Mick Fleming, ACCE

That’s especially important to millennials, explained Mick Fleming, president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives in today’s Corner Office Profile. When it comes to relationships with their employers, “they have more of a ‘gig mentality’ than older generations do.”

Generations and at-risk members

About two-thirds of early respondents to our unscientific reader poll this month said they’re most concerned about losing their newest members—those who’ve belonged to their organization for three years or less. What’s more, the 700-plus leaders who responded to our annual association communication benchmarking survey said longstanding members seemed more than three times as likely as new members to be “highly engaged” with their member communication vehicles.

Jenny Matthews, TNSAE
Jenny Matthews, TNSAE

Jenny Matthews, executive director of the Tennessee Society of Association Executives (TNSAE), observed that Baby Boomers may have joined an association because it’s the right thing to do and they want to be involved. They think it’s honorable. But, the younger generation really wants to know ‘What am I getting for my dollar? Show me that benefit.’

Reagan agreed. “One of the things you have to remember with membership, whether it’s getting new members or retaining members, is what’s in it for them. What matters to them? Why do they join? Why are they part of your organization? That has to be the forefront of everything that you do.”

By the way, you’ve got to use more than social media and mobile apps if you’re worried about losing newer and younger members. A marketing executive from a small, regional association who responded to our survey said that while online resources are important, “Information gathered from phone calls or speaking one-on-one at events can go a long way toward creating a relationship in which the individual will think to call upon, and stay connected with, the association in the future.”

Steve Smith AAHPM
Steve Smith, AAHPM

Steve Smith, CEO of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM), said that for today’s association the “constant morphing of what you do” is what makes associations so unique. “We have this great blending of business knowledge and people who actually do the work in the field coming together to determine what needs to happen and how to advance whatever industry you’re in,” he said.


At the end of the day, bumper stickers are just another way of showing your allegiance to a group, whether it’s to a team, school, membership organization, political affiliation, or a group of people who share your ideals, pet peeves or worries. As the father of a newly-minted teen driver, another bumper sticker caught my eye the other day : “If you don’t like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalk!

Stay Off The Sidewalk

Again, it’s all a matter of perspective. You’re probably doing a better job of staying on track with members than you get credit for. But, take your eyes off the value proposition wheel for even a split-second today, and you can see your dues-receiving privileges revoked before you know what hit you.

About The Author

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.