I met recently with the head of a prominent state association who told me he wanted our help selling advertising and driving revenue in his organization’s member magazine, e-newsletter, website, print and online directories, tradeshow and more. Normally I don’t shy away from an assignment as long as the project and approach to market are well thought out. From our conversation, three things were clear to me: he was, in fact, committed to delivering tangible value for his members’ dues; he was clearly under pressure to generate non-dues revenue (our forte) and he was confident that both could be achieved by simply layering on more products to the communication mix.
When I asked him how he came to this decision and why he felt that the timing was right for such a bold move, he simply said it was his opinion and that the decision was fully supported by the board of directors.
He wants to deliver value – great! “Have you asked the members what they feel is valuable?” I asked. The fact was that this question had not been asked to the readers/members, nor was it asked to the advertiser community that he hoped would fund these communication initiatives.
In short, there was no data to back up the plan – not from his members or from the larger association community that addressed the rapidly evolving world of communications. Although I offered to conduct this type of survey (at no cost) for him, my offer was declined, and I knew that my time and the company’s resources were best spent in other areas.
Dictating to your members what you think they want is a losing proposition. You must first ask them, and ask them in such a way that tells you what you need to know – not necessarily what you and your board may want to hear.
Surveying members – whether done in print, online, telephone or face-to-face – is a great way to start. But that shouldn’t be your only point of reference, and it’s important to do them right. If you don’t have time to do a definitive survey of your members, outsource it, but make sure your survey results are not presented in a vacuum. By that I mean you need to gauge your results against a representative sample of associations of similar size and industry composition.
That’s where benchmarking comes in. It’s not just knowing the facts; it’s knowing the facts relative to a larger universe of organizations who may be wrestling with the same challenges you are or perhaps competing with you for your members’ attention.
At Naylor, we participate in more than 300 association meetings a year. The same questions always come up: “What’s going on in the marketplace?”; “What are other organizations like ours doing to stay relevant to their members?”; “Which best practices should I be following?” and “How much should I be investing in various communications initiatives?”
Let’s face it. The world is changing very fast. It’s hard for associations to keep up with all the changes they’re facing demographically, economically, legislatively and more recently, socially. We want to show how print, online, events and social media are each relevant and each an effective tool for staying top-of-mind with your members. And if used correctly, they will ensure you keep attracting and retaining highly engaged members and volunteers in any economy while generating non-dues revenue.
It takes courage to ask the questions you need to know, not what your board or inner circle wants to hear. But they don’t have “skin in the game” like you do. You need to ask your members, vendors, suppliers, and academic institutions what you can be doing better for them to keep them in your fold.
In the coming weeks, we’ll tell you more about how we’ll be giving you the best practices and data you need to make confident, well-informed decisions about your member communications strategies and investments.
As the old saying goes: “You don’t get if you don’t ask.” After all, how can you expect to sell your organization’s value, increase member retention and revenue if you don’t ask? (See related story, Like it or Not, You’re in Sales.) So, by all means ask the questions and be prepared for the outcome, whatever it might be.
Charles Popper is Naylor’s Vice President of Association Relations. He has more than 15 years of business-to-business and consumer publishing experience.
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