Association Communications Benchmarking Series

Fill the Gap with Outsourcing

By Adam Turner • May 1, 2020

With technology constantly changing, associations have more ways than ever to reach out to their membership. However, understaffing, budget shortages and insufficient training have prohibited many associations from effectively generating non-dues revenue, or NDR, from their content vehicles. Due to this insufficient funding, associations find themselves having to continue to rely on dues, which can dampen membership in this time of rising costs and competition. 

To counteract the problems caused by costs and lack of expertise, some association executives have been making the decision to outsource their most costly work to third-party vendors. According to Association Adviser’s 2019 Association Communications Benchmarking Report – a yearly survey of more than 400 association officials – production and design is the number one outsourced operation with 32% of respondents doing so. Outsourcing the sale of advertisements and sponsorships ranked a close second at 27%. Overall, two out of three respondents said they outsource at least some aspect of their communications program.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced associations, as well as businesses, into a position where they have to conserve their resources due to the global economic downturn. In uncertain times, associations prioritize their important role supporting their members, and some associations that may not have normally considered outsourcing might find that it is a useful option to better allocate their resources. While associations focus on supporting their members, third-party companies can pick up the slack in areas that aren’t as much of a priority during the pandemic, like the production side of member communications and acquiring advertisers for non-dues revenue.

Whether it is better to outsource communications operations or invest in an improved in-house communications department depends on the association. In 2019, 48% of associations said that they felt their organization was understaffed, and 49% said that this especially applied to their content or publishing teams. Outsourcing parts of your association’s operations can dramatically reduce your need for full-time, in-house staff, which helps your association save its two most valuable resources: money and time. 

By outsourcing your content production to a third-party company, you free up those who normally would have manned that arm of your association for other tasks. The Benchmarking Study found that only one in five association executives agree that they have a well-defined social media strategy, and less than half of them say that they dedicate a single voice to social media. In today’s digital-first world, a strong social media presence is a must-have for all associations, especially when it comes to attracting and engaging young members. By outsourcing part of your content operations, you can assign one of those employees to create a more robust strategy and tactical plan for your association’s social media accounts. Having a single point person who writes social media posts will give your social media a unified voice that would otherwise be more difficult to achieve.

The 2020 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey is now open, and we’re looking for association executives from organizations of all sizes, demographics, industries and budgets to tell us what their communication landscape looks like, what’s going well, and what needs improvement. Our annual survey, now in its ninth year, provides useful data about the state of association communications. It’s become a valuable tool for associations wanting to know how well their communications are performing compared to peer organizations, and what steps they should take to serve their members better through improved communication practices. This year, specific questions about the impact of COVID-19 have been added. Look for the results to be released in our annual benchmarking report this June.

Another key benefit of outsourcing is a third-party company’s ability to dedicate the time and resources to customizing content for various demographics. Different people care about different topics, and third-party companies have the time and resources to ensure they deliver the most relevant information to your membership. 

One new innovation within the association communication space is artificial intelligence-powered newsletters. This newsletter software sends out unique versions of a newsletter mostly centered around one topic to each member based on the articles they clicked on in past newsletters. The artificial intelligence learns members’ preferences and serves them articles with similar tags and keywords that they would be more inclined to read. Third-party companies are currently experimenting with this technology and are learning how to best apply it among their partner associations. With association leadership widely feeling that they are understaffed, the technological resources available from third-party companies can free up association staff for non-content, member-focused tasks. 

Half of those Association Adviser surveyed said they would invest more heavily in their content arm if they received an unexpected 50% budget increase. Problems caused by understaffing and low NDR, however, prohibit associations from being able to effectively and efficiently invest in improving their content vehicles. The technological and social landscape changes every day, and thriving requires staying on top of the latest trends as they come up. 

Outsourcing gives associations the option of collaborating with companies that dedicate their resources to engaging members through content, freeing association employees to focus on developing programs and initiatives to reassert the value of membership.

About The Author

Adam Turner is a content strategist with Naylor Association Solutions.