Social Media’s Impact on Association Member Service

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

Whether you represent a global corporation, a local small business or a mid-size professional association, social media’s on everyone’s mind these days. Advocates say it’s the most effective new tool they’ve seen in years for listening to customers, cementing relationships and allowing them to interact in a free-flowing public forum. Cynics say despite all the buzz, social media’s a tremendous drain of time and energy resources opens the door for myriad reputational and compliance risks to one’s organization, not to mention the potential for fast-spreading negative brand impact.

To help sort it all out, we reached out to a nationwide cadre of new media experts last week to get their views on why it’s so important for associations to get up to speed on social networking, how it can impact member service efforts (and reputations) and why it’s so frequently misunderstood and misused at organizations large and small.

The yin and yang of social media
 “Social media has been a double-edged sword for associations and their member service departments,” observes Richard Boale, show director for the upcoming AppNation 2010 Conference in New York City and a veteran events manager for several national associations and association management companies. On one hand, it’s been a very powerful tool for getting the word out to members, constituents and the press about important conferences and events they’re holding, successes they’ve achieved and awards they’re received, adds Boale. On the other hand, it’s given dissatisfied members unprecedented power to make their complaints heard and unhappy experiences spread virally throughout the Web.

  • When it comes to social media, listening isn’t just a skill; it’s a strategy.
  • Smaller organizations are some of the most aggressive users of social media. They have fewer compliance restrictions and are more likely to need low-cost/high reach communications tools.
  • Your organization doesn’t need to be the gatekeeper, just the facilitator.
  • Smart organizations are using social networking to establish and maintain connections.
  • Social media raises the bar on customer service. Dissatisfied members, no matter how small, have unprecedented power to share their experiences globally and do so at lightning speed.
  • Social media without a strategy can be counterproductive for your organization and can be a great drain of time, energy and brand equity. Consult experts you can trust before diving in.
  • Whether through Facebook, YouTube, blogs or another new media entity, your organization forfeits a critical competitive advantage if it is not an active participate in the conversation.

“Often times the highest maintenance members are from the smallest organizations paying the least amount in annual dues,” quips Boale. “They’re the smallest source of revenue and they expect the most. In the past, they were the ones most likely to complain to your board of directors. They may still do that, too, but more often than not their first stop will be the Web and various social networking tools such as Linked In, Twitter and Facebook.”

Enhance peer to peer networking among members wherever possible. Let members help answer each other’s questions and provide referrals, advises Boale. “Your organization doesn’t need to be the gatekeeper, just the facilitator. I learned a long time ago that an association’s staff will never be on the same level as its members. Don’t try to be something that you’re not. Unless you’re a bona fide expert, it’s better to be a skilled facilitator to bring members together than to try to inject yourself in the conversation.”

You also have to remember that whether your association serves engineers, scientists, architects or scrapbookers, we’re an instant gratification society. Your members want answers from you and they want them ASAP. They don’t want to navigate your voice mail system or scroll through your Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) they want to call you or email you directly and get an answer. If they can’t, they’re going to take their issue straight to the Internet.

Leveling the playing field

 “Social media has been a boon to the smallest operators,” concurs Rick Telberg, president of Bay Street Group Research. “Some of the smallest organizations are some of the most aggressive users of social media. It’s easy, it’s cheap in professional service areas like accounting, law and engineering, smaller firms have far less issue with compliance and staff manuals.”

But it’s also been a powerful way for larger organizations to enhance their customer service. “One I work with in the tax software sector reduced its customer service costs by 90 percent this past tax season.”

Whether they’re vendors or associations, Telberg says savvier organizations are learning that social networking isn’t just for making or influencing a sale, generating a conference lead or recruiting new members. “Smart organizations are using social networking not to establish a connection, but maintain a connection.”

“Is social media dangerous for associations?” asks Rick Telberg. “Actually the most dangerous thing about social media is ignoring it.”Brand management 2010 style

 The real impact of social media is the retention and continuous engagement of your brand and reputation, according to Steve Rappaport, knowledge solutions director for The Advertising Research Foundation and author of the new book The ARF Listening Playbook. “It’s the ability for the organization and the members to get to know each other over time and better understand each other. It’s not just the association or its brand talking, it’s the whole community of people engaged.”

Rappaport recommends these steps for setting a strategic “listening” initiative at your organization:

  • Set goals in relation to brand objectives;
  • Determine the voices and conversation sources best suited for listening;
  • Establish methods for collecting, harvesting and processing conversations;
  • Engage in listening;
  • Analyze the conversations by breaking them into topics, subtopics, themes and by people;
  • Evaluate and iterate.

A recent Naylor survey of 212 association directors nationwide found that nearly half (44.7%) had Facebook pages on behalf of their organizations; more than two in five (40.5%) had Linked-In communities; nearly one third (31.3%) were actively using Twitter and nearly 15 percent had a presence on MySpace or other social media sites.


Associations Can Use Social Media for Customer Service

 By Maddie Grant, CAE and Lindy Dreyer
Excerpted with permission from CalSAE’s THE EXECUTIVE – March/April 2010

If we think about our four customer service goals – complaints, feedback, help, ideas – we can see that as long as someone mentions our association’s name in such a way that we get alerted to their Tweet or blog post (or comment) then we can respond to that “mention” and take action.
The fundamental shift in the way companies and organizations do their work as a result of the so-called social media revolution has to do with a very basic change in how we now can communicate with our stakeholders (whether that’s the public at large, our specific target markets or our membership base) from one-way push marketing to two-way conversations. One specific area that has seen massive changes is customer service. Let’s look at some business objectives that could be transformed through experimentation with social customer relations.
Listening on the Social Web
Listening on the social web means, essentially, doing regular online searches to see what people might be saying about our organizations. On her blog, How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, Beth Katner notes: “Listening is knowing what is being said online about your organization, field or issue area. Listening uses monitoring and tracking tools to identify conversations that are taking place on the social web. It is a prelude to engaging with your audience. At its very basic, listening is simply naturalistic research, although more like a focus group or observation than a survey. Listening is not simply scanning a river of noise. The process involves sifting through online conversations, from social networks to blogs – many voices talking in many places. The value of listening comes from making sense of the data and using it to inform your social media strategy.”
Everyone can start the listening process TODAY – it does not actually require having any kind of social media presence (at first, anyway). In fact, associations that are unsure of whether to start with a Twitter account, Facebook page or LinkedIn group should not even worry about those tools until they have done some listening and figured out whether they have members or other stakeholders in any of those places.
Strategic Goals From a Customer Service Focus
Let’s imagine we work in the membership department of an association and we’re starting to do our social media listening. What goals and objectives might we have to justify the staff time and effort involved in doing this? What might we be trying to achieve from an organizational point of view? How about starting with these simple goals:


  • Complaints – to hear if members have problems with anything to do with the association.
  • Feedback – to find out if members want changes to a particular existing service or program.
  • Help – to find out what resources members are looking for and point them to the right place.
  • Ideas – to find out if members are asking for something new they need but the association doesn’t yet provide.

Suddenly, we can start using various monitoring tools (as simple as Google alerts) for our listening work, and rather than collecting “brand mentions” just to aggregate them, we now know what exactly we’re looking for and we can filter the conversation to just what we need to achieve our goals.

From Passive to Proactive Use of Social Media

Brand Monitoring
Brand monitoring – looking for mentions of an organization’s name or URL – is the most basic use of listening on the social web. But brand monitoring is something that can still be used very effectively for the customer service goals we’ve established. If we think about our four customer service goals – complaints, feedback, help, ideas – we can see that as long as someone mentions our association’s name in such a way that we get alerted to their Tweet or blog post (or comment) then we can respond to that “mention” and take action. As soon as we can take action our listening is no longer passive, and we can start to feel our way to actually using social media proactively. Let’s take an association’s annual conference as a “fishbowl” example. We’re watching the Twitter stream from our conference and we’ve got our Google alerts pinging us by e-mail whenever anyone mentions the conference on their blog. Going back to our four goals…

  • Complaints – If someone tweets that the microphones are not working or it’s so cold they can see their breath in Session Room A, we can immediately send someone over there to help.
  • Feedback – If tweets and blog posts coming out of a session are indicating the participants are feeling that they didn’t get enough useful information from that particular speaker or the session description did not match what was presented, we can take that information and know who to ask for more feedback (especially as official evaluations may be lacking in real information, should attendees balk at offending anyone, knowing evaluations get sent to the speaker. Ironically since the speaker can see this, too, participants might only give their true feelings on Twitter).
  • Help – If someone tweets that they are new at the conference and confused about where to go next, we can spot that and direct them to our “first-timer” booth.
  • Ideas – If blog posts appear that talk about how the conference was great but lacking a Gen-Y or Young Professional track which would have been really useful, you can connect with those bloggers and find out more about what changes might be made at next year’s conference to appeal to an underserved tranche of the audience.

Next month we’ll walk through an example of how customer service actions could result from basic brand monitoring.

Maddie Grant, CAE and Lindy Dreyer are principals of SocialFish.org, a consulting firm that helps association build community on the social Web.

Listening & Participating: Organizations can’t watch the action from the sidelines; they need to get in the game for themselves.

 By Toby Bloomberg
Excerpted with permission from PERFORM: The Marketing 2.0 Authority

Listening and participating in ongoing conversations enables organizations to develop a stronger emotional engagement with customers, prospects and other stakeholders.

These “virtual back fence” conversations, commonly called consumer-generated media or content (CGM/CGC), are found in the comments of blogs, bulletin boards, social networking communities and product reviews. The unfiltered, raw voices of peer-to-peer discussions are frequently rich in passion and emotion, thereby offering a window into a world that previously eluded traditional marketing research methodologies.

Since these virtual chats are Internet-based, they can be tracked, measured and analyzed. Consumer-generated media, therefore, becomes one more source of information that should be scrutinized to mitigate the risk in making business decisions.

Although monitoring social media is gaining acceptance as a complementary piece of marketing research strategy, marketers should keep in mind that there is a difference between data mined from CGM and the information derived from formal surveys or focus groups. Control of the sample is one varying element. CGM seems to have more in common with ethnogra¬phy than it does with a quantitative study. The information mined from consumer-generated media ranges from product review sites – where customers candidly offer their opinions and often vote on the best product within a category – to positive and negative customer service experi¬ences and trends. A significant benefit of keeping a watchful eye on new media conversations is the ability to tap in to information in real time. The opportunity for rapid response in a crisis situation can be a powerful outcome of consistent listening.

Trend analysis is gaining acceptance as a valuable tool for understanding CGM and dealing with “extreme” content contributed by specific individuals. At least one major automobile manufacturer, for example, began mining data at a high level to measure consumer attitudes toward specific models. This led to a more granular analysis of features and attributes, which then was used to provide insights for product design and development.

Although the customer purchase decision is complex and social media is but one influencing factor, information gleaned from listening to digital conversations can have an impact on how an organization conducts business and, in turn, can set internal cultural changes in motion:

  • From a C-suite perceptive, the challenge becomes how to integrate this new type of information to support customer-focused business decisions.
  • From an operational perspective, the challenge becomes how to develop internal processes that will quickly pass the right information to the people with authority to take action.
  • From a marketing perspective, the challenge becomes how to leverage the information to develop a better customer experience that supports the brand identity.
  • From an R&D perspective, the challenge becomes how to use this type of cus¬tomer insight to create new products and services that tie back to the brand.

What may appear at first glance to be an innocuous customer service complaint may find its way to a front page story in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal once it spreads around the Internet and becomes an online cause célèbre. In fact, it’s not uncommon anymore for a reporter to base a story on a blog post.

In summary, a successful social media strategy is one that involves two elements: listening and participating. Step one is to develop a continuous, action-focused listening strategy that tracks your customers’ conversations. Step two is to engage your customers with simple and genuine “people talk.” People want to do business with people they know and like, and consumer-generated media strongly influences the way your brand is perceived and how purchase decisions are made. Whether through Facebook, YouTube, blogs or another new media entity, your company forfeits a critical competitive advantage if it is not an active participate in the conversation.

Toby Bloomberg, is the president of Atlanta-based Bloomberg Marketing. Her background includes more than 15 years of traditional and new media marketing experience, and in the spring of 2004, Toby launched the Diva Marketing Blog. She is a national speaker and facilitator of social media and traditional marketing topics for organizations.

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