Game Plan 2014: Seeing Around the Corners

By Hank Berkowitz • December 17, 2013

Remember Jon Cleary’s novel, “You Can’t See ‘Round Corners”? It’s about an Australian bookmaker/army defector who is constantly on the run from law enforcement and the military police. We’re not recommending a life on the lam for 21st century association leaders. But, our experts tell us if you want to stay relevant with members (and potential members), you need to be a little paranoid and never stop looking out for what’s coming around the corner. Of course, that’s more easily said than done.

  • Associations and their boards need to develop clearer and better researched priorities—then make sure they have the right staff or outsource partners to execute.
  • Think 365-day-a-year engagement for your events—whether they’re live, virtual or hybrid.
  • Many associations lack member communication plans that are fully integrated.
  • Most associations agree non-dues revenue is essential, but our research shows very few ask advertisers and sponsors for their input.

What surprised us most in 2013?

Tracy Tompkins, group publisher for Naylor LLC, said she’s surprised by the number of associations that make decisions about member communications from the “confines of their staff or board room.”

Naylor CEO Alex DeBarr observed that “anecdotal feedback, board feedback and sometimes dated assumptions still seem to guide their efforts.”

Naylor Marketing Manager Dana Plotke said she’s surprised by the number of associations that are still grappling with the print versus digital question. “What they should be doing is acknowledging that it’s really about integration and understanding there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution,” she said.

David DuBois, CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), said he’s surprised that associations aren’t being more aggressive about marketing live events via mobile devices. “If you do not have an app for your live events available weeks in advance of your show, then you are missing out on opportunities for growing education, economic development and exchange of ideas.” DuBois added that webinars and virtual events are also a great way for non-members to sample the great programs, content and speakers you have at your live events before committing to attend. Hybrid events—virtual attendance of a live event—are also wonderful, DuBois said. “They’re a multifaceted approach to showcasing your association’s benefits and value.” If you give customers enough store samples of your candy, “they’ll eventually buy the whole bar,” he quipped.

According to DeBarr, one reason associations aren’t more proactive is that they are still under heavy financial and competitive pressure with staffs stretched very thin. “Many associations are unable to focus entirely on some key functions and are facing difficult choices about the value they provide for the dues they charge.”

365 day-a-year engagement

IAEE’s DuBois observed that association live events may happen for three days, but you need to think about how you can make them relevant for 365 days. “Make sure your content has a long shelf life after presenting it. Make sure it’s captured on your website and accessible via your search capabilities.”

Camille Stern, vice president and group show director at NaylorCMG, agreed. Year-round, 365-day engagement through technology and social media is one of the biggest trends she has observed. InfoComm International, the audiovisual association, is one organization that does this very well, Stern said.

Re-thinking membership

Plotke said it’s all about mobile and engaging the next generation member. Kelly Donovan, Naylor’s team leader for online marketing, agreed. She’d like to see associations offering more membership options. In the fall, we talked about customizing the membership experience and doing more for long-standing members in the later stages of their careers.

“Associations also need to do a better job of reaching out to Millennials with an updated, more non-traditional membership experience,” she said.

DeBarr said some associations are thinking about reducing their dues. Instead, they should be making sure that constituents better understand the benefits of membership. According to Donovan, providing more opportunities for members to get involved in an association’s activities, education programs, board or staff is part of the larger topic of “change” that everyone has been talking about this year.

Wake up and smell the coffee

Plotke lamented that associations tell her non-dues revenue is more important than ever. Yet our research shows that very few associations— just 1 percent of respondents to our 2013 association benchmarking study—”embrace advertiser input when setting their content and communications strategy.”

DeBarr explains that many associations still don’t have a fully integrated communications plan that utilizes member data, evaluates member information needs, targets content, manages the association brand, customizes how members want to receive information and determines what suppliers are willing to support as advertisers and sponsors.

Tompkins agreed, explaining that many organizations still communicate with members in a segmented fashion—”membership sends X, events sends Y”—and neither consults with the other.

According to Stern, associations are still having a hard time making the “connection” between the exhibitor and the attendee, which stems from the education program. They need to focus on attracting the attendees with whom the exhibitors want and expect to see with the right education.

Measuring social media

According to Donovan, the need to measure social media isn’t confined to associations, as social media eats increasingly into marketing time and budgets. She pointed out that Facebook and Twitter have debuted better measurement interfaces this year. Instagram will probably offer a measurement program soon because it is now showing ads in users’ Instagram streams, she said.

Steve Rappaport, who authored the soon-to-be-released “ARF Digital Metrics Field Guide” for the Advertising Research Foundation, said the idea behind measuring social media is not just to identify and assign a number to something, but to really understand what that measurement means. Rappaport, who coined the term “humetrics”—the human side of the numbers—said it’s important to shift your mindset from mass media, such as: “What is my advertising doing to people?” to the social/mobile perspective of: “What are people doing to my advertising?”

What’s flying under the association radar?

“Easy,” said Plotke, “The prominence of video and the role it is going to take in the future of B2B communications.”

DeBarr agreed. “Video content has emerged as a highly versatile tool for associations to communicate with members—and it can be utilized and monetized for multiple purposes.”

Stern said the associations need to do a better job of connecting with Millennials. Younger people want face-to-face interaction, but in a different way than the Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y generations do. We need to find a better way to “bridge the gap.”

A whole generation of professionals could also fly under the radar if we’re not careful. As Plotke observed: “You hear so often that Next-Gen doesn’t need associations but, as long as associations continue to evolve and to embrace new ways of thinking and acting, then [industry] up-and-comers are going to want a seat at the table, and will indeed join.”

Speed may be part of the answer to connecting with younger members and potential members. Erica O’Grady, vice president of operations for the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA), said that Boomers can tolerate a four-week wait to get their exam results, but Gen X and Gen Y wants the results the second they walk out of the room.

For more on the Millennial’s perspective on associations, see Kelly Donovan’s Front Lines column.

Can associations improve their IQ (innovation quotient)?

“When I think of innovation, associations are the last group that comes to mind,” said Naylor’s Tompkins. “They’re often waiting for others [to react], or too afraid to take risks to try something innovative or proactive.”

Stern agreed. “Most associations are slow to change. Bringing new products and services to the market (depending which industry we are talking about) can be slow. Social media has been out for years, and most major associations are just now starting to embrace it. Hopefully more will follow the model of The Biotechnical Industry Organization, which Stern said is doing an excellent job of embracing Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare and other social platforms.

Michael Hoehn, vice president of business development for health care association management company CMInnovators, said his firm works with organizations that are looking to grow in response to changes in both the health care and the association landscape. To be innovative, we need creative individuals willing to rethink business and operations, and we also need strategic governing boards that are willing to take risks and try new ideas.

Dr. Joseph Nadan, a founder and executive committee member of the International Association of Innovation Professionals (IAOIP), is a staunch advocate of the disciplined, scientific approach to innovation. Nadan, who won a 2002 EMMY for Scientific and Technological Advancement, said things today happen a lot faster than they used to and some of the biggest mistakes organizations make when introducing new products and services are:

  • Not evaluating opportunities properly,
  • Acquiescing to the “higher ups” who always think they know what the customer/member wants—but most times don’t,
  • Just winging it to see what sticks, and
  • Not using Innovation Science.

Reader Note: Learn more about the science of innovation by attending IAOIP’s Innova-Con annual meeting next month in New York City.

Lori Spears, CAE, executive vice president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools, said her organization takes a different approach. “We see things coming down the pike, and we’re willing to try things if we think members will appreciate it,” she said. “We’re willing to put resources—both staff and financial—into some of these new technologies to see how they work. We’re not afraid to say if something’s not working, then back up and re-engineer it or abandon it all together if that’s what needs to be done.”

According to DeBarr, associations do bring new products and services to their members, but they struggle at times because they are often resource or expertise-constrained. “Associations and their boards need to develop clearer and better researched priorities, then make sure they have the right staff or outsource partner to execute,” he said.


Mignon McLaughlin, a 20th century magazine journalist who wrote “The Neurotics Notebook,” once quipped, “Courage can’t see around corners, but it goes around them anyway.” If you want to stay in the association game today, you’ll find a way to see around the corners, too. You’re brave, clever and resourceful. You’ll know you’ll find a way to get it done in 2014.

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