More Isn’t Necessarily Better When It Comes to Member Communication

By • November 5, 2012

By Charles Popper

A couple of weeks ago, I received an article about why marathon runners make such good employees. The gist of the piece was this: “When you have a goal that is as huge as running 26.2 miles, it will keep you honest.” Running a marathon is not like a smaller goal that you can announce to your friends, family and co-workers and then put off or fake your way through. It’s not like saying, “I’m going to lose weight this year.” A marathon has a specific date in which you must toe the line. It’s a specific distance and there’s only one route you can take.

Once you sign up and pay your entry fee, commit to months of training and finally take your first steps off the starting line on race day—you’d better have done your homework. As the old saying goes, “There is no glory in training, but there is no glory without training.” The same applies to business as well as to your member communication strategy. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and there will be challenges and adjustments all along the way.


  • Many associations feel they have to communicate with members more than they used to in order to get through to them.
  • You must be very realistic about what you can and cannot provide members over the long haul before launching new communications initiatives.
  • Adequate preparation, combined with an honest self-assessment of your organization’s resources and core competencies, is the only path to success in today’s hyper-competitive communications age.



If you are preparing for a race and have not put the necessary thought, planning and hours into your training, everyone knows the outcome will be less than ideal. The same lack of preparation will undermine your communication efforts if you’re blasé about the preparation it takes before launching a new program. Have you done a thorough analysis of your current communication vehicles so you know what’s working and not working as well as it should? Are you using the optimal media mix? Do you really know what your readers and advertisers are thinking? Have you talked to them recently and documented their feedback and shared it throughout your organization? Once you’ve captured all this intelligence, are you putting it into the correct context considering your current staffing resources?

Sounds simple, but in reality, associations are generally not subscribing to these fundamental principles—and if they are, our latest research says they’re not practicing what they preach. Association Adviser eNews recently conducted one of the most comprehensive benchmarking surveys ever attempted for association communication professionals. The goal was to learn how associations are really communicating with their members today, how they’re allocating their precious resources, how they’re measuring the success of their communications programs, and what their biggest concerns are.

Nearly 700 association professionals from 90 different industries throughout North America participated, with more than 80 percent of respondents holding senior management titles such as vice president, executive director or CEO. The results, which my colleague Hank Berkowitz explores in more detail in today’s issue, validate that there are some big disconnects between what association leaders say they should be doing and what they actually are doing on the communication front.

For instance, when survey respondents were asked to describe their biggest communication challenges, 54 percent (the most common response by far) cited: “Dealing with information overload/Cutting through the clutter.” Yet, most associations who took part in the survey said they were communicating with members much more frequently than they used to. What’s more, fewer than half thought their members would say the communication vehicles they’re receiving from the association have improved significantly from three years ago.

Many examples throughout the survey seem to be in direct conflict with the above challenges. For example:

  • 65 percent of respondents say that they either do not use, or will not change, the frequency of their readership surveys. But the lines of communication between readers, advertisers and publisher/association must be open and clear of obstruction. In this era of information, more asking and listening must be taking place. Not the status quo.
  • As I mentioned, associations tell us their biggest communication challenge is “cutting through the clutter.” However, 69 percent of associations do not have recency/frequency standards to control how often they’re communicating with members, or if they do, they’re not adhering to those standards. Predictability and consistency is one key fundamental that must be in place to get association information to stand out in a crowd.
  • More frequent communication from association to member was a common theme, especially with the addition of social media. That said, nearly half (46 percent) of associations tasked administrative or IT staff with the responsibility of maintaining their online and social media presence. This leads me to question the quality of content when one utilizes staff whose skill sets typically reside in other areas.

The best runners I know are not necessarily faster than the rest of us. They’re just brutally honest about how fit they are at any given time and about how much time they really have to train for upcoming races. It’s only after reviewing this honest self-assessment that they begin to think about which race distance to attempt next and what their projected pace will be.

This same discipline applies to association communications. Only after you honestly evaluate your staffing levels, your budget, your team’s core proficiencies and your members’ needs, can you determine the path that your communications plan must take. As with athletics, there is no glory without the preparation and goal setting done up front.

That’s an axiom you can run with.

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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