Marketing & Communications

Essentials to a Winning Communications Program, Pt 1

By • November 5, 2012

By Dana Plotke
That stack of magazines you’ve been meaning to read is a mile high. Your inbox is full of electronic news, alerts and Webinar invitations. You couldn’t fit all the conference brochures you’ve received into a suitcase—let alone attend them. Sound familiar? If so, imagine how your members must feel. Like you, your members are inundated with information on a daily—make that hourly—basis, and even the things making it into the high-priority, “must-read” pile sometimes get neglected. So, how do you ensure that your organization’s important communications are cutting through the clutter?

It takes persistence…and a plan.

You need to stay top of mind with a variety of targets, from members to vendors to legislators. With so much media competing for their attention, your success depends on how well you relay that message. How will you do it? Follow these five easy tips for creating high-quality communications that will guarantee that your message makes an impact with its target audience and stimulates a call to action.


  • Clearly define your goals. From membership development to promoting legislative agendas, knowing what you want to accomplish will help you get there.
  • Make sure the team doing the work understands your market, can produce a custom piece that falls within your established budget and has a plan for driving non-dues revenue.
  • Find out what type of information your members want and how they like to engage. Then tie these two pieces back to your overall goals and objectives to determine the right mix of communications for your individual audience.
  • Make your communication piece reflect and reinforce the association brand through complementary design.
  • Develop powerful content that is timely, relevant and keeps readers engaged.

1. Clearly define your goals

It sounds simple, but you would be surprised how many association professionals forget to outline their goals and objectives before hitting the send or publish button. Is your primary goal to attract new members, to stay connected with current members or perhaps reconnect with lapsed members? Do you want a persuasive piece that helps your lobbying efforts? Perhaps you want a final product that delivers all four. You should have a good understanding of what you are trying to achieve. With clear objectives, you can craft a targeted message, resulting in action from the readers.

Goal-setting checklist

m What are you trying to achieve with this communications project?

m Who will do the work?

m What is your budget?

m What combination of communication vehicles is best for delivering your message?

m When do you want your members or prospects to receive it?

2. In-house or outsource: What’s an association to do?

Now that you have a plan in place for creating your next communications piece, it is time to consider how all the work will get done. Like many associations, budgets may be tight, and it may not be possible to hire the staff you need to accomplish your goals. If that is the case, outsourcing can help. You may want to ask yourself the following questions to determine the kind of outsource partner that’s right for your organization:

  • Does the potential outsource partner really understand my market?
  • Will they customize a product specifically for our needs or do they offer a cookie-cutter approach?
  • How much will outsourcing really cost both in terms of dollars and staff time?
  • Does the outsourcing partner have a plan to help us drive non-dues revenue or are we simply shifting costs?

3. Determine the right mix of media for accomplishing your goals

To use a golf analogy, you wouldn’t use the same club to make a long drive down the fairway that you would for a short putt two feet from the hole, would you? So why wouldn’t you want to have a full set of clubs at your disposal to increase your chances of playing a great game? The same is true for your communications program.

A weekly e-newsletter is a magnificent communication tool, but if you are short on resources and you’re having trouble producing timely, relevant content, then you need to consider the alternatives. Moving to a monthly e-newsletter is an obvious choice, but creating a bi-annual print or digital magazine might be another option. The answer will depend on a variety of factors—not the least of which include:

  • What type of information do your members want to receive?
  • How does your audience like to engage (print, online, face-to-face)?
  • What do you hope to accomplish with the communication, e.g., member retention, greater member engagement, new memberships, etc.

4. Reinforce your brand image with design

You’ve worked hard to build your brand image. Don’t lose sight of that just because you are in a hurry to get that magazine or directory out the door. Consider your readership—the goal is to entice them to pick up your publication and read your message. Here are a few ways to do just that.
  • Win the name game. Be sure the title of your publication fits your association and your industry.
  • Develop an appropriate look and feel. If you want to convey hard-hitting news or research, a more text-heavy design may be suitable. If your articles are on the lighter side, go with more photos, white space, and lighter colors.
  • Choose the right fonts and colors. Love your logo? Want to emphasize your association’s colors? Here is an opportunity to highlight your existing graphics while creating continuity and visual appeal.
  • Illustrate wisely. Most readers are first attracted to a story based on its graphics. Use images that provoke and attract the reader.
  • Hook ’em with headlines. Use strong adjectives, powerful words and concise language to compel your audience to dig into the stories.

Brand-building checklist

m How will you entice your audience to read your message?

m Who is in control of how your brand is portrayed?

m Are you adding value—and revenue—with advertising?

5. Develop powerful content

Visual appeal is the first step to getting readers interested in your publication, but it’s the content that will keep them engaged. Strive for articles that are clear, concise and speak to the things your audience cares about.

There are many resources available for securing editorial copy. You can search for free articles on the Web. You can solicit articles from your members, or you and your staff can prepare the copy. But sometimes outside resources are helpful—or even necessary—to get the work done. In such cases, you might hire freelance writers or outsource the work to a publishing professional. Whatever route you choose, it’s vital that you maintain control over what you say and how you say it. This is your message, and you should have full control over how your image is being portrayed.

Next month we’ll look at ways to integrate, streamline and monetize your communications plan.