Data Shows Associations ‘Not Getting and Not Asking’

By Hank Berkowitz • January 18, 2013

Hank BerkowitzMahatma Gandhi, the revered Indian humanist and spiritual leader once said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” While sales folks have adopted Gandhi’s wisdom to mean: “Don’t be afraid to ask for the order,” association professionals need to take it a step further. You already have the order (i.e., member dues), and now you have to ask members if you’re delivering on what you promised them.

  • Associations need to do a better job of asking members the right questions about what’s expected of them and how they should deliver it.
  • There are four simple steps for overcoming information clutter.
  • Many associations still make decisions based on internal meetings or what their boards tell them to do.
  • Make a commitment to ongoing measurement and improvement.

“You just described my life,” related Carol Meerschaert, director of marketing and communications for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in Fairfield, N.J. “The staff and board feel we communicate our value prop, and yet our members don’t always feel that. In response, we’ve engaged a branding agency to research, clarify and solidify our value prop for individual members and our corporate partners.”

As our recently completed annual communication benchmarking study discovered, Meershaert’s not alone. More than 72 percent of associations indicated they had difficulty communicating their member benefits effectively (up from 32 percent in 2011), and it wasn’t for lack of trying. According to our data, more than 75 percent of associations feel members ignore at least half of their communication efforts, up 13 percentage points from 2011.

Percentage of associations who feel members ignore at least half of all communications sent to them

Source: Naylor, LLC, and Association Adviser, N=674 in 2011; 390 in 2012

Robert Blumenfeld, executive director of ACG New York, which represents private capital and deal-making professionals, said that’s because the message and required call-to-action is often unclear. “Email is somewhat like radio; it takes eight exposures to get a person’s attention,” added Blumenfeld. “The offer needs to be concise and delivered in a number of ways—at meetings, snail mail, conferences, email and your website. You need to repeat the value proposition over and over again.”

Battle for relevance

Associations’ biggest challenge right now is a “primary battle for relevance,” and it’s not just a competition with other trade publishing companies, according to Naylor CEO Alex DeBarr.

Bob Zagami, show director of the New England RV Dealers Association, agreed: “Associations must change and change quickly. Otherwise, they will simply become irrelevant to their communities, and they will be replaced by others who have mastered inbound marketing techniques and how to communicate quickly and effectively to the constituents.”

Dave Murillo, director of member services for ACEC California, which represents engineers and land surveyors, said associations should ask themselves, “How do we maintain relevance in this industry? How do we communicate the value of what we do?” “People’s attention span is so small. We’re not selling a service, we’re selling an idea,” he added.

Eric Wulf, CEO of the International Carwash Association®, said you hear so much about the aging baby boomer demographic, but there are two other trends associations shouldn’t ignore: globalization and industry consolidation. “There are fewer mom-and-pops and a different type of person joining the industry,” he said. “They’re more finicky, and you need to adjust since they tend to be from larger enterprises. They want more data and customer intelligence. And they’re really looking at the membership ROI,” Wulf added.

Ask and deliver (then ask again)

Fortunately the solution may be simpler than you think. “Just ask members: ‘What information do you really need and how do want to get it from us?’” said DeBarr, who added that expecting people to come to you “just because you built it” doesn’t exist anymore. More importantly, even after you’ve asked your members what they want and how they want it, you need to go back every six to eight months and ask them if they think you’re still delivering, advised DeBarr.

According to Zagami, many associations are trying to take “outdated printing and in-person meeting habits into the digital world and failing miserably.” Life on the computer, he said, is very different from live interaction at a chapter meeting or reading a printed newsletter that “one feels obligated to fill with a lot of necessary information, much of which is outdated.”

As Association Adviser’s latest research showed, the biggest challenge for associations is clutter. “Associations know what the challenge is, but not how to overcome it,” observed Charles Popper, Naylor’s vice president of association relations. “Having worked with hundreds of associations in 80 industries, we’ve found there are four simple ways to do it: (See related video in today’s issue.)

  1. Know what members expect of you.
  2. Deliver it in a format in which they prefer to consume it.
  3. Measure all your communications to make sure they’re achieving the object that you want.
  4. Make a commitment to ongoing improvement—what’s working today is not likely to be working in the future.

Popper said our research also revealed that 90 percent of associations are communicating more today than they were three years ago—but they don’t seem any surer about whether or not they’re communicating effectively.

See our article in today’s issue about setting SMART communications goals.

On average, how many times are you connecting with members each month?

Source: Naylor LLC and Association Adviser 2011-2012, N=674 in 2011; 389 in 2012

“At the ASAE national conference in August, we surveyed 38 associations about the types of information they thought members wanted—lobbying, advocacy, industry news, events and career development,” Popper related. “Only three had developed a mechanism for prioritizing their communication efforts based on what members told them they wanted. Pretty scary. The rest were just making decisions based on internal silos or what their boards told them to do. These days we have to reach out beyond that [way of thinking].”

When Association Adviser asked association leaders who they would hire if they could add just one more person to their communication teams, a wide variety of responses come in. Many were unconventional, but ACG’s Blumenfeld may have summed it up best: “Someone who can create specialty groups of members and encourage topic discussions.”


While an expert “facilitator,” “member engager” or “moderator” may not fit into your organizational chart or hiring plans today, you might want to make room for that role soon. As New England RV Dealers’ Zagami cautioned, “Older members may want to keep traditional communications and personal meetings, but younger members, fully versed in social communications are finding their information in other ways and in other places.”

Or, as Gandhi supposedly said after a deep contemplative sigh, “You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

We strongly suggest taking some action and really get to know your members.

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