Does Membership Size Matter?

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

By Hank Berkowitz

As we discussed last month, our latest proprietary research study shows that associations of all shapes and sizes are striving to avoid information overload and communicate their membership benefits more effectively. Since more than 70 percent of the 674 respondents to our just-completed  2011 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey are in senior management roles, we also got an earful about the challenges of maintaining their status as the No.1 source of information in their industry, keeping members adequately informed about legislative and technical news and realistically customizing their communications to appeal to different sub-segments of their membership.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to how associations go about communicating with their members, how they get feedback and how they measure the results of their communications efforts. (See Listen First in today’s issue to learn how world-class organizations are listening to their customers and members).

  • More than 90 percent of associations are communicating with members more frequently than they did three years ago, but more than half of their communications efforts go unread.
  • Larger associations are the most prolific communicators—and the group most likely to overestimate their success and operate communication programs in the red.
  • Midsize associations struggle the most to communicate their member benefits and maintain their position as the industry’s No.1 source of information.
  • Smaller associations have the most difficulty keeping members abreast of important legislative news, technical updates and events they’re holding.

One thing’s for sure, the old “push it out and hope for the best” strategy isn’t going to fly anymore, regardless of your membership’s annual dues stream, reach, age, industry or geographic location. But, if we had to look at a single factor that allowed us to isolate more unique characteristics of our data than any other, it was membership size.

Sure, staffing and operating budgets are big factors, too, but there are plenty of cases in which an organization with a small membership (fewer than 1,000 members by our definition) was better staffed and had a larger operating budget than a mid-size organization (1,000 to 5,000 members) or even a larger organization (more than 5,000 members). Again and again, membership size was the most telling line of demarcation when we sliced through all the data.

As expected, our data showed that larger membership associations had on average better staffed publishing/content creation teams (see below) and they were more likely than smaller associations to have a dedicated person or department (with content expertise) handling their online presence.

Staff Size and Duties by Association Size

Staff composition




Have more than 10 total F/T staff




Have multiple F/T staff on publishing/content creation teams




Have a dedicated online person/department




Use admin or IT staff to handle their online presence




Source: Naylor, LLC, and Association Adviser enews, 2011
*Total exceeds 100% due to ability to choose multiple responses

However, larger associations also faced more complex communications challenges. Larger associations were more likely to be under pressure to customize communications for different member sub-groups, they were more likely to need “fully integrated” communications platforms, they were more likely to need cross-platform advertising and sponsorship packages for their vendors and they were more likely to be battling multiple for-profit competitors for their members’ attention.

READER NOTE: Interested in drilling down deeper into our brand new association communication benchmarking data? Click here for more information.

“Time is our biggest challenge,” said Jeanne LaBella, Vice President of Publishing at the American Public Power Association (see Jeanne’s Corner Office profile in today’s issue). “We once published a weekly newsletter and that seemed challenging. Now, with no extra staff (albeit with more streamlined production methods) we are producing a weekly newsletter and a daily newsletter, plus publishing content just for the Web and posting to Facebook, Twitter and producing podcasts and short video clips to accompany our Web presence.”

While larger organizations were more likely than smaller organizations to have recency/frequency rules and more sophisticated metrics for measuring their online and social networking efforts, they also had more communications waste and were more likely to be running communications programs as cost centers than as profit centers. Ironically, larger membership associations were the size group most likely to rate their own communications efforts as “above average” or “best in class.” Does hugeness breed hubris?

Communication frequency and perceived value





Associations who communicate with members “much more” frequently than 3 years ago




Associations in which members are thought to read only 25 to 50% of what’s sent to them




Associations whose communications vehicles operate as cost center vs. profit center





Source: Naylor, LLC, and Association Adviser enews, 2011
*Total exceeds 100% due to ability to choose multiple responses

Regardless of size, information overload was the most frequently cited communications challenge across our survey sample—although it was most pronounced at larger membership organizations (see table below). Larger organizations were also the ones most likely to be wrestling with the challenge of customizing their communications for various member age groups and special interest groups. While larger associations (to their credit) were more likely than midsize and smaller associations to have communication recency/frequency rules in place (65 percent versus 43 and 31 percent, respectively), they were less likely to enforce those rules.

Large Association Stress Points

Communications Challenge




Combating information overload/inbox clutter




Customizing communication to different member age groups and SIGs




Recency/frequency rules not strictly enforced




Source: Naylor, LLC, and Association Adviser enews, 2011

“Our biggest challenge is really understanding the opportunities in publishing without being overwhelmed by their complexity,” related an executive at a large healthcare association.

Midsize Association Stress Points

Communications Challenge




Communicating member benefits effectively




Maintaining position as industry’s No.1 source of info




Source: Naylor, LLC, and Association Adviser enews, 2011

Our data revealed midsize organizations are the group most likely struggling with ways to keep members abreast of all the benefits they’re entitled to and maintaining their status as the most trusted source of information in their respective industries. “Communicating with” as opposed to communicating to” is the biggest challenge for the executive director of a midsize building and construction association. “Developing better two-way communication channels” is a top priority according to the publishing director for a midsize insurance association.

Small Association Stress Points

Communications Challenge




Keeping members informed about new events, continuing education




Keeping members abreast of legislative, regulatory, technical updates




Source: Naylor, LLC, and Association Adviser enews, 2011


Like their larger brethren, smaller membership organizations battle information overload. They’re also the group most likely to be struggling with ways to keep members informed about their events, their continuing education opportunities and their industry’s legislative, regulatory and technical updates. “Simply finding enough volunteers to help with everything” is what’s keeping the past president of small media production association up at night. “Just getting the information out is a big enough challenge for us,” related the operations director of a small association serving the broadcasting industry, who added, “We have a marketing and communications director on staff, but he does not touch our members on a regular basis
only when there’s a legal issue or event to be promoted.”

So how much are your peers touching members these days?

As expected, larger membership organizations are the most frequent communicators (9.7 times per month via print and online), but smaller organizations are communicating with their members at least as frequently as the midsize organizations, if not more. Sometimes, smaller organizations have fewer organizational hurdles to clear. As Marc Verhoeve, executive director of the 1,500-member Ontario School Counsellors Association (OSCA) explains, “We are small enough to make changes at speedboat pace, but we have ocean liner horsepower to implement those changes.”

Monthly Communication Frequency Via Print and Online Vehicles

Communications Challenge








10+ times per month




Source: Naylor, LLC, and Association Adviser enews, 2011

While smaller membership organizations do seem to be holding their own on the print and online communication side, our data shows they’re less actively using social media. That surprised us due to social media’s relatively low cost and ease of implementation.

Frequency of Member Connection Via Social Media Channels (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn)

Communications Challenge








Multiple times per week




Don’t use social media




Source: Naylor, LLC, and Association Adviser enews, 2011

“Engaging members in new media is a challenge as we still have lots of members in the fax generation,” lamented the publishing director of a small association in the southeastern U.S. “It’s a constant balancing act between those who want all electronic communication and those who don’t,” said the head of a small building and construction industry association. “We don’t want to overwhelm our members,” said OSCA’s Verhoeven. “Our emphasis is on colleague networking more than on social networking.”

Encouraging Developments

On a more positive note, we found great strides being made by associations in all size categories. On the large association front, about four of five respondents said they have some type of recency and frequency rules in place and more than 70 percent allow members to opt in (and out) of the communications they wish to receive. On the small association front, more than half of respondents said they are using webinars and social media to listen to their members. More than half of midsize associations told us they are making their member magazine content available on the Web and more than one-third are actively investing in mobile media applications and platforms.

Finally, while smaller organizations generally have to do more with less and don’t always have the manpower they need to accomplish their goals, there’s something to be said for knowing one’s organization inside and out. My colleague Charles Popper will be speaking about breaking down silos at next month’s ASAE Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference in Washington, DC. Or as a senior exec at a small media association put it: There’s something to be said for “knowing where all the bones are buried.”

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.

Click here for more information about ordering a copy of the full 2011 Association Communication Benchmarking Survey.

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




Rate this article 5 (Excellent) to 1 (Poor). Send ratings and comments here.