By Hank Berkowitz
With a perfect storm of economic, demographic and technological forces bearing down on trade associations, the pressure to retain members and maintain their status as relevant industry thought leaders has reached a new sense of urgency.
Data from our 2011 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey indicates that associations of all shapes and sizes are communicating with members more frequently and on more platforms than ever before—but not necessarily more effectively. For instance, 90 percent of the 674 association leaders who took part in our comprehensive survey said they were communicating with members more frequently than they did pre-recession, yet fewer than half (45.8%) believed members would say they’re communicating more effectively with them. What’s more, almost two-thirds (62%) believed members were ignoring at least half of the communications sent their way.
How much longer will time-pressed, information-overloaded members accept this disconnect?
READER NOTE: Fellow Association Adviser enews columnist Charles Popper will be speaking about breaking down silos and building association brands at next month’s ASAE Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference in Washington, D.C.
At the end of the day, the communication buck stops with executive directors, who may have one of the hardest jobs in business, observed Alex DeBarr, Naylor’s president & CEO. “They’re extremely busy, with lots of competing interests, lots of outside forces. They’ve got members, the board, volunteers, the travel schedule and the day-to-day responsibilities of running a business in a tough economy all bearing down on them. It’s no picnic,” he said. “On top of that, they’ve had to reduce their resources at a time when membership communication has never been more important.”
Fortunately, most well-run trade associations have built up tremendous brand equity that connotes trust, credibility and prestige. So, while short-staffed associations may occasionally stumble trying to adapt to the fast-changing media consumption patterns—and expectations—of their members, experts say they’ll be permitted some leeway as long as they keep the lines of communication clear with members, suppliers and their board.
“Change is scary,” observed Charles Sadler, executive director of the 4,000-member Society of Government Meeting Planners (SGMP) “but as the old saying goes: ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’”
Our latest research shows there’s been no shortage of changes on the association media horizon. For instance, a resounding two-thirds (66.5%) of associations have changed their organization’s flagship communication vehicle during the past three years. The member magazine is no longer the association flagship by default. Nearly one in four associations (24%) cited their primary e-newsletter as their organization’s flagship and more than 20 percent told us their website now serves as the primary member communication vehicle.
“The toughest part is keeping your eye on your organization’s core mission,” said SGMP’s Sadler, whose organization serves 1,800 federal and state government meeting planners and 2,200 supplier members.
“Sometimes I think to myself: ‘Wow, I’ve got a lot of people to please,’” shared Phil Newsum, executive director of the Association of Diving Contractors International, Inc. (ADCI) which has 500 member companies and furnishes services and support for the conduct of safe underwater operations. “Sometimes I feel like a public school teacher who has so many kids to help and so little resources to do it with. I’m juggling so many balls in the air—and they’re all made of glass.”
“Unfortunately, some of the loudest voices in the E.D.’s ear are from those not necessarily best qualified to give advice,” quipped DeBarr.
Great time for associations to be aggressive
Despite the tough economic climate, DeBarr said now is an opportune time for associations to get a leg up on their for-profit competitors. Many trade publishers are grappling with painful reorganizations and strategy shifts without the relatively stable cushion of membership dues and professional education revenue that many trade associations have. In sum, there has never been a better time to build out the association brand.
“I used to run a multitude of brands for a large for-profit trade publisher,” recounted Naylor’s DeBarr. “It used to be very easy to run circles around the association in each of our markets. Not so much anymore.”
As DeBarr and other experts shared with us, there’s a big opportunity for association publishers to fill the gap while their for-profit competitors are struggling to get their bearings in this “new normal” communications era.
Integrating communication to weather the storm
DeBarr said associations that weathered the recent economic storm the best were the ones that had well-integratated communication strategies—i.e., each communication vehicle had a clearly defined content owner, with a clearly defined audience, frequency and purpose that wasn’t being duplicated by another group within the same organization. Our recent benchmarking survey data supports this hypothesis.
For instance, our data suggests that associations with integrated communications programs are more than three times as likely as non-integrated associations to rate their communications initiatives best in class (23% to 7%); twice as likely to say they were above average (52% to 28%); four times as likely (24% to 6%) to say members were reading at least 75 percent of the publications sent to them regularly; twice as likely (57% to 29%) to say their communications efforts have improved significantly over the past three years. They’re also four times as likely (28% to 7%) to say they have frequency/recency rules in place to monitor the volume of member touch points; and one-third less likely (12% to 36%) to have an administrative person handling their online presence.
According to Sadler, SGMP tries to ensure that everything it sends to members—regardless of the channel used—has true value to the recipient. “Let’s say there’s a new ruling out about per diem limits for government meeting planners,” said Sadler. “After verifying the story is true and that it’s relevant to members, SGMP will consider how long the story’s going to be relevant and which channels are best suited for disseminating that information. We’ll use our alerts right away to get out a short notice about the rule change to members. We’ll also put the news on our website so members can drill down for more information and then start developing a full story, with analysis, for our magazine.”
Why, then, can’t more associations integrate their communications? Staffing challenges, for one. Our latest data shows that while most associations have dramatically increased the number of communication vehicles in their arsenal, staffing hasn’t increased commensurately. More than 90 percent of associations have fewer than five full-time employees on their publishing/communication teams and more than half (51.5%) have only one.
“We have nine different irons in the fire,” said ADCI’s Newsum. “You have the board, members and vendors. Everyone has an agenda. It’s very hard to keep everyone happy. There’s so little time to sit back and reflect on what we’re doing–so little time to focus on strategy.”
The power of the association brand
“Associations have a responsibility to be the leaders in their industries and they need to develop a leadership brand to make their voices louder and stronger,” said Naylor’s DeBarr. “Associations tend to think: ‘If I’m saying it, people will listen.’ That’s just not so. They shouldn’t assume they have members’ attention just because they have their dues. They shouldn’t take any member for granted just because they’re the main association for their industry.”
SGMP recently did a substantial branding overhaul to emphasize that it speaks for the government, said Sadler. What prompted the new branding? “Lots of people didn’t get what we stood for. The logo, magazine and website looked tired. Some of our branding hadn’t changed since the association was founded in 1981. We changed the name of our member magazine from Advantage to Government Connections to emphasize how we’re the voice of government workers. It has a good, simple logo and is all about travel meetings, trends and best practices specifically for government meeting planners, most of whom are on tight budgets,” said Sadler. He added that the magazine has really strengthened relationships with state chapters and helped recruit new members.
In the past year alone, Sadler said SGMP’s membership has increased 19 percent, the staff has grown to seven from four, revenue is up 33 percent and four new state chapters have been added.
As the communications director for a mid-size teaching association shared with us in our 2011 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey: “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.” Not surprisingly, 53.6 percent of associations said information overload was their top communications challenge, more than 20 percentage points ahead of the next biggest concern: communicating member benefits effectively.
Membership retention is SGMP’s biggest challenge, according to Sadler, and “standardizing our branding and messaging between the national organization and all the state chapters. It’s very important that all the chapters give members the same type of education experience, the same messaging, the same look and feel.”
According to ADCI’s Newsum, the biggest challenge for his organization is not just communicating with members on the right frequency, but communicating accurately. “We’re in a very liability-driven industry. We can’t just make assumptions. For members, you have to make them feel you have their best interests in mind. For regulators, you have to assure them that safety is at the top of our list. For end users—like oil and gas producers—they’re very savvy. They have very high expectations. It’s very important getting folks to understand that more isn’t always better.”
Nearly 30 percent of associations said maintaining their status as the No.1 voice of their industry was the top communications challenge. “If you come with good content—real, valuable information, and promote your status as a leader in the industry and exclusivity—key content that members can’t get anywhere else—that translates to member value,” said DeBarr.
SGMP’s Sadler agreed: “Trust and guidance is very important to our members, many of whom have been thrust into their demanding jobs with little or no professional training. We always want to be the place they turn to first.”
Thinking and acting like a brand
“The days of ‘Let’s join the association because it’s the right thing to do’ are long gone,” added DeBarr. “If you don’t constantly pay attention to your brand, you fight an ongoing battle for diminished membership.” Other leaders agreed.
“Our brand not only implies trust, it implies that a member company has been vetted for equipment, operations and personnel standards,” said Newsum. “Believe me, whenever there’s an unfortunate incident involving underwater objects—the Minneapolis bridge collapse or trouble with the aqueducts that supply New York City with water—every news media outlet is calling me for a quote.”
“The power of the our brand is that when we give information to members and the industry, it’s the most objective, unsanitized, apolitical timely news about standards and codes you can find if you do business in the Northeast,” said Larry Caniglia, executive director of the Northeast Spa & Pool Association (NESPA). “If you can help members win business and consistently keep them out of trouble, then you won’t have a hard time convincing them to keep coming back at dues renewal time,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever lost a member who’s used our Help Line in a pinch.” (See profile of NESPA and Larry Caniglia in today’s Association Spotlight column.)
Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.
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