Association Communication 2010: Evolution or Revolution?

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

By Hank Berkowitz

Whether you’re in the business, government or not-for-profit sector, it’s an exciting time to be in the information and communication business, said Alex DeBarr, CEO of Naylor, LLC, at a recent roundtable discussion of association leaders hosted at the company’s Gainesville, Fla. headquarters.

Thanks to the Internet, a bone-rattling economic climate and important demographic shifts that are having a profound aging effect on many organizations, associations face unprecedented choices and competition for the time, attention and trust of their members. And despite some early stumbles, they’re rapidly adapting to the speed of Web 2.0.

“It’s just a faster, more competitive world from a communication and information standpoint,” noted Naylor’s executive vice president of sales & marketing, Chris Caldwell. “Members aren’t going out to find the news from you; the news is finding them first. The only way you can stay top of mind with your members is to keep reinforcing the power of your brand and the deep relationships you have with your industry. It’s an ongoing process and you have to keep working it every day to be the trusted voice of your industry. If you don’t, the train will pass you by.”

  • There have always been generational gaps at associations, but now you must find ways to communicate effectively with each member on his or her preferred delivery format. If you don’t, someone else gladly will.
  • Rushing into social media just to show members you’re on the technology bandwagon is not a strategy. It can backfire and drain valuable resources at your organization.
  • Not all social media is the same and each tool has a unique purpose in a balanced communication plan. You need a communication plan that’s flexible, that ebbs and flows with the times.
  • To distinguish themselves in an increasingly cluttered marketplace, associations must strive to be the No. 1 voice of their respective industries and leverage the trust and collective buying power they represent at all times.

When you live in a world in which anyone armed with a keypad and Internet connection has the platform to become an instant global communicator, “you better get to them first or someone else will,” noted Patty Long, director of communications for the National Asphalt Paving Association (NAPA) based in Lanham, Md. “Let’s face it, everyone, regardless of their age, does their research and due diligence on the Web. It’s the first place they turn for information about you and the industry you’re in.”

Almost anyone can pose as an industry expert on the Web, lamented Rebecca Roberts, marketing communications manager for the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI). The danger, she said, is that many people, especially new entrants to the profession, can’t tell the difference between bona fide experts and pretenders. “That’s a real concern when you represent a hazardous industry,” and that’s why ADCI is being very selective about how it uses social media and other Web 2.0 applications, she said. For instance, ADCI will allow Twitter postings at its conferences, but not on its official Web site.

But association communicators have a difficult balancing act to sustain. On one hand, they need to maintain technical accuracy, content control and integrity. On the other hand, they need to show members, industry suppliers, their boards and prospective members (especially the younger generation) that they can communicate at Web speed on the platform that each member prefers—and do so on a frequency that’s perceived as timely and fresh, without being too much.

“Our membership director is concerned that we’re giving away too much valuable content on the Web to non-members,” said Jeanne LaBella, vice president of publishing at American Public Power Association (APPA) in Washington, D.C. “But our PR director wants to get the word out to as many people as possible about what we’re doing for the utility industry.”

“It’s a constant trade-off between impact and control,” concurred NAPA’s Long. “With social media, you can have incredible reach at minimal cost—but the further you push it, the less you can control it.”

“We want to be out in front, not a decade behind,” said LaBella. “We’re being very aggressive about getting our Web site and social media up to speed. These days, if you don’t get there now, members will get there without you.”

A recent Naylor study of 212 association directors revealed that nearly four out of five (79.4%) respondents wanted to improve their understanding of “members’ interest and use of social media” and 81.3 percent wanted to do a better job of “understanding where their members went first for must-have information (print, electronic, etc.).”

Click here for more results of Naylor’s 2010 survey of association executive directors.

“I spent 20 years at a large business-to-business media company earlier in my career,” related DeBarr. “We told our publishers they had to strive to be the biggest brand in their respective industries, the No. 1 source of information. And you know what? In many cases, they could because the associations representing those industries often weren’t doing a great job of taking a leadership position. There’s no excuse for that. As an association, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be the No. 1 source of information, the go-to source that members and non-members alike trust for answers. You’re all about the industry.”

As NAPA’s Long explained, “The real value to our members is our research and technology section. It’s the key technical stuff they want that helps them win big contracts. It’s OK if it’s a few months old, even in the Internet age. The main thing is, it’s got to be right. That’s what they trust us to deliver over everything else.”

“Today everyone’s just a highly trained skimmer,” lamented Michael Berens, director of research & knowledge solutions for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) in Washington, D.C. “Our members use the Web to manage information, not so much as a destination for news and ideas about our profession. There’s so much content out there, how much can you say is really proprietary? We used to put a great deal of effort into crafting in-depth stories with exquisite design. Now it’s more about using your content as a lure to get members (and prospective members) deeper into your Web site—keep them from defecting to someone else’s site.”

So how do association publishers and communications professionals keep up with the myriad communication options evolving when budgets are tight, information technology is growing exponentially and the competition for member attention is tougher than ever before?

If you build it, will they come?

In the past, member communication meant you had a magazine. Maybe a newsletter and a few e-mail blasts. It was pretty simple. If you built it, they pretty much had to come to you. That game’s over today, said Caldwell. You have to find a way to communicate with each of your members on their own terms using a delivery platform they know and trust. “You need to have a communication plan that’s flexible, that ebbs and flows with the times,” said Caldwell. “You can’t be overcommitted to any one medium, but you’ve got to keep experimenting and tinkering to see what works and doesn’t work for your members. I wouldn’t throw out any of the communication tools you’re exploring.”

As APPA’s LaBella shared, “We have a daily and weekly e-newsletter and post stories to our Web site and send them out via RSS feed. We also do weekly NPR-style podcasts that touch on hot topics from the newsletter.” They’re not all home runs, she said, but each is developing a unique and loyal following, especially among younger members.

As NAPA’s Long explained, “On the Web, you only follow who you choose to follow. That’s the world we live in. You must be very careful not to abuse that trust.”

Josh Spradling, communications & marketing manager for the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE), concurred. He said TSAE is exploring custom feeds and a number of other social media offerings, but is rolling them out slowly and closely monitoring how much e-mail they send their members’ way. “We’re very aware of the risk of over-communicating with our members,” he said.

Each social media tool has relevance and association communications professionals should spend time learning how to use each tool for its optimal purpose. It’s also important to consider that people (and organizations) don’t necessarily have the same personality in all social media situations and platforms, according to Steve Rappaport, knowledge solutions director for the New York-based Advertising Research Foundation and author of a new book on listening in the digital age. “Someone’s Facebook page often has a distinctly different tone from their blog and that can be radically different from their LinkedIn site, for instance,” said Rappaport.

TSAE President & CEO Beth Brooks said her organization is helping members develop separate Facebook pages for business purposes only. “We found out they really want to separate their personal lives from their business lives. I guess my momma’s advice still holds true.”

Deconstructing the three legs of the balanced communications stool

Medium Application
Print Still the preferred medium for many of your longest-standing members. “It’s the only tangible member benefit they can see, touch and feel,” said APPA’s Jeanne LaBella. Regardless of age group, print is the best medium for in-depth features, analysis and trend stories that are oriented toward best practices and that have evergreen shelf life. It’s no longer where you want to focus your breaking news or “fast-facts” energies.
Digital Speaking broadly, this is the medium that “tweeners” (mid-career professionals) are most comfortable with. Think Web site, e-newsletters, blogs and e-zines. It’s your most “transitional communication,” said Naylor’s Caldwell.
Social Media Most commonly adopted by younger members, social media is not so much publishing as it is a platform for member-generated content. Speaking broadly, we’re talking about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and user groups. Social media is a great way to build your brand by featuring dynamic (preferably highly relevant) content. “This is where you want to take the pulse of your members and have a one-on-one dialogue with them, to ask questions and probe their needs and concerns,” said Naylor’s Caldwell.

So how do associations balance all the different communication offerings they have to consider, when staffing and resources are tight and you still have to strive to be all things to all people? “You have to simplify and you have to brand it,” said Caldwell. “Whether it’s print, digital or social, you have to have a branded leadership position in all three platforms. And if you don’t have the resources to do it all internally, you’ve got to find an outsource partner to keep you in the game.”


Whether it’s a magazine, newsletter or yearbook, your editors and designers should always be thinking about which articles are most likely to be photocopied, scanned or even faxed to fellow members with hand-written comments and sticky notes, noted Caldwell. “Make sure you include URLs to your Web site and all your digital and social media assets in every print communication piece you produce,” he said. Print is also best suited for complex charts and tables. For advertisers, it’s the ideal medium for branding.


“Here’s where you want to blend ‘feature-y’ content with breaking news, links to readers’ polls and surveys and short form analysis about news and trends affecting your industry,” said Caldwell. Brief charts and tables work well here, but in-depth graphs and data tables are best left to print. For advertisers, it’s a great medium for using white papers, dowloadable podcasts, sponsored surveys and other tools helpful in the prospect’s “further learn” phase of the decision process.

Social Media

“Think of your editors as moderators, not gatekeepers or journalists, who guide and facilitate discussions between members and keep those discussions relevant, on track and professional,” said Caldwell. “Social media is a great forum for sharing real-time information from industry gatherings and events (including photos — check out these photos from Naylor’s recent executive roundtable event), providing links to insta-polls, surveys, useful articles on Web sites, e-newsletters and blogs (including your own).”

Why you need to be the premiere voice of your industry

Experts contend that if you become the No. 1 voice of your industry, then suppliers and members will support you financially. If you look closely at most major industries in North America, they have at least one, if not several commercial publishers and Web site owners serving them, in addition to various trade associations. The commercial players may have bigger overall audiences and more sophisticated reader databases than the association publishers serving that industry. “But they generally can’t match the collective buying power of the association’s members,” said Caldwell. “At the end of the day, an advertiser’s goal is to be in front of the decision makers who’ll be purchasing their products and services. It’s not about how many eyeballs they reach (i.e. cost per thousand); it’s about how many of the right kind of eyeballs they can reach. When we go out and sell advertising on behalf of our clients, we’re not out there selling a four-color magazine. We’re selling the association, not the industry.”

Added Caldwell, ”I haven’t seen any commercial magazines or Web sites fight for an industry the way an association does. And whenever the news media needs an authoritative quote about an issue pertaining to an industry, guess who they turn to? That’s right, they always go to the head of that industry’s leading association first.”

Case in point: Right after the 9/11 attacks on New York City, the news media was looking into other possible threats such as how we could safely move large cargo trucks in and out of the city. They didn’t call the media or the publishers of the many trucking and transportation trade magazines, Caldwell said. They called the executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association.

If you’re committed to being the No. 1 source of trusted information, best practices and answers pertaining to your industry, then you can’t go wrong.

  • The mainstream media will seek you out first as the voice of your industry.
  • You will continue to attract new members.
  • You will continue to derive substantial non-dues revenue in the form of advertising, sponsorships and exhibit space at your events.

“No matter what game you’re in, people always want to be with a winner,” Caldwell said. “That’s never going to change.”

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

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