Fire, Ready, Aim!

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

Top line results from the 2011 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey

By Hank Berkowitz

When it comes to delivering timely and relevant information to their members in the most convenient format possible, association leaders give themselves high marks. But, as our latest research study shows, many associations lack the staffing, resources and processes to accomplish their ambitious communications goals, let alone know what’s working.

According to our just-completed 2011 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey, associations are communicating with members much more frequently than they used to, but less than half (45.8 percent) of the 674 respondents believe members would say they’re communicating more effectively.

  • Associations are communicating with members much more frequently—and in more ways—than ever before.
  • Nearly 60 percent of association leaders rate their communication vehicles “above average” or “best in class,” but admit there is plenty of room for improvement.
  • Survey respondents think their members read less than half of their print and online publications on a regular basis.
  • Associations need to improve their measurement capabilities across all channels.
  • Associations need to align resources more closely with what members value—not with what they think will be perceived as cutting edge.


“Our members are very busy, so our biggest challenge is to present our information as concisely as possible for those who have very little time to read it,” related the communications director for a mid-size association for educators. Our data seems to support this assessment. For instance, 62 percent of respondents believe their members read less than half of the publications they send them on a regular basis. Respondents lament the fact that members don’t seem fully aware of all the benefits their dues entitle them to, and they no longer believe members automatically consider their association’s publications and online media offerings as the No.1 source of information for their industry. What’s more, only half (55.6 percent) of respondents check in regularly with advertisers, sponsors and exhibitors to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth, and more than one-third (35.4 percent) of respondents said they don’t bother to measure their online and social media offerings.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, nearly three in four respondents (73.6 percent) feel their staffs can “clearly articulate” the distinct purpose of each member communication vehicle they produce, and nearly 60 percent of respondents rate their communications vehicles “above average” or “best-in-class” in comparison to their peers. But, as my uncle likes to say at large family gatherings: it’s all relative.

Despite their strong self-assessment of communication effectiveness, fewer than half (45.8 percent) of survey respondents believe their members would say their communication efforts have “significantly improved” during the past three years. More than half (53.6 percent) of association leaders say “combating information overload” is their organization’s biggest communication challenge, far ahead of “communicating member benefits more effectively” (32.1 percent), or maintaining their position as their industry’s No.1 source of information (28.4 percent), or customizing communication to appeal to their SIGs and sub-communities (23.1 percent). Customization not only pertains to members with disparate professional interests, but to members of different ages and media consumption habits. “Engaging members in ‘new media’ is a challenge,” said the communications director of a small regional association in the Southeast. “We still have lots of members in the ‘fax’ generation.”

So how much are your peers touching their members these days?

Our data finds associations are hitting their members, on average, 8.3 times per month with their print and online publications combined, and nearly one-fourth (22 percent) touch members at least 11 times per month. That’s on top of their social media engagement (e.g. Tweets, Facebook posts, LinkedIn updates) which occurs at least weekly, according to 49 percent of respondents or daily, according to 12 percent.

Next month we’ll look at how the frequency of member communication varies by an association’s size, budget and staffing, and the results may surprise you. Suffice it to say, associations as a group have significantly amped up the pace and volume of their member communication efforts without commensurate processes in place to staff, maintain and measure those efforts.

As my marathon-runner colleague, Charles Popper, likes to say, “It’s a lot easier to start things than to keep them going for the long haul,” (read related story in today’s issue). So, while associations of all sizes are touching members more frequently with more types of vehicles than ever before, they haven’t increased their staffing commensurately. More than 90 percent of responding organizations say they have no more than five employees dedicated to their publishing/communication teams and more than half (51.5 percent) have only one. While two-thirds of respondents now have a dedicated employee or team responsible for their online presence, nearly half told us that function is assigned to the administration, IT or other non-member-facing department. It’s generally not being handled by an editorial or communication professional.

Alignment of resources

The survey data also uncovered some inconsistencies in the association world’s allocation of communication resources. For instance, nearly half (48.1 percent) of your peers told us they plan to allocate more resources to social media, particularly to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and video, even though just 34 percent felt their members would rate social media “very” or “extremely valuable.” And nearly one-third of respondents (32.1 percent) are increasing their investment in mobile media, despite believing that fewer than 14 percent of members currently consider mobile “very” or “extremely valuable.”

By contrast, less than 16 percent of respondents are investing more resources in print media, even though 55 percent think members still find print media “very” or “extremely valuable.” Similarly, only 35.3 percent of associations plan to juice their budgets for live events, even though 70 percent of respondents think their members still rate their events “very valuable” or “extremely valuable.”

“Two years ago we discontinued print publication of our quarterly newsletter to reduce costs,” related a West Coast membership director. “This has been a failure, and feedback from members and vendor members has been overwhelmingly in favor of bringing back a print publication. The problem is still finding a way to pay for it as advertising is down significantly throughout our industry.”

Addressing information overload

Because information overload is such a pressing concern for many association members, we found that more than half (51.5 percent) of respondents currently have, or soon plan to have, policies in place to govern how frequently they can touch members. But are those rules being enforced? Generally not. Nearly 30 percent of respondents admit their organizations don’t strictly enforce the rules they’ve established or they cut back “only when the board or members complain.” Another 44 percent of respondents say they have no policy at all for monitoring the frequency of communication to members.

Encouraging developments

On a more positive note, we found that nearly three in five associations allow members to opt in or opt out of specific communications they wish to receive and 29 percent are now customizing their communications for individual SIGs or other sub-segments of their membership. We also learned that 70 percent of respondents make their member magazine content available online or in e-zine form; 58 percent are developing online-only premium content for members; 57 percent are offering, or planning to offer, virtual attendance options for their live events and the majority of associations (66.3 percent) will be using their websites, webinars and social media more frequently to listen to members and gain meaningful feedback from them.

About the survey

Our 54-question survey was sent via e-mail to more than 5,000 North American association leaders in December 2010 and January 2011. Nearly 80 percent of respondents who started the detailed survey completed it. Other than offering a $5 Starbucks gift card, no cash incentives or sweepstakes were used to incent respondents to complete the survey. More than 70 percent of the 674 survey respondents classified themselves as senior management, including 55 percent who held the title of executive director, president or CEO. Surveys were sent to a mix of small, medium and large trade associations and professional societies representing 90 industries and professions across North America. The majority of respondents worked for associations that had fewer than 25 employees, fewer than 5,000 members and annual operating budgets of less than $5 million.

The $50,000 question

When asked how they’d spend an extra $50,000 if it unexpectedly appeared in their budgets, more than half (51.5 percent) said they’d upgrade their publishing tools and technologies and 44.9 percent said they would improve the quality of their existing products. These quality-driven responses encouraged us as they exceeded “hiring more staff” (33.3 percent) and “launching new products” (31.5 percent).

We hope this survey overview—and related commentary from my colleagues in today’s issue—will further your understanding of association communication benchmarks and best practices during these rapidly changing times. Stay tuned for more analysis of this groundbreaking research and send us a note if you have a membership communication success story that you’d like to share with our readers and online community members.

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



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