Evolving State of Member Communications

By • November 5, 2012

By Charles Popper


Each year, I look forward to attending the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) annual conference and expo. As always, this year’s recent gathering in St. Louis provided me with an opportunity to catch up with many of Naylor’s clients and meet new ones as well. But of equal value, the conference provided me with a concentrated platform for listening. I left St. Louis with a better understanding of the climate that associations face today and, more importantly, with an assessment of how well equipped associations are (or are not) to deal with the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead of them.


  • Research shows associations’ biggest challenges are cluttered communication, confusion about member benefits and competition for No. 1 share of voice in their industry.
  • Cutting your communications costs is not a long-term strategy for communication effectiveness.
  • Smart organizations are integrating their member communications channels—but consulting with readers and advertisers before implementing bold changes.


One particular session I attended can summarize my overall assessment of where associations stand against the headwinds of today. To be purposely vague, this session dealt with evolving communications and utilizing the correct media mix; for example, print, online, digital, etc. As we have learned from our communications benchmarking survey, the top three communication concerns facing associations today are:

1. Cutting through the clutter.

2. Communicating member benefits effectively.

3. Maintaining or becoming the No. 1 source of information in their marketplace.

These topics should come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this column. I was sure that they would be addressed in the ASAE presentation I attended as it was billed as a session for educating the audience about “transforming their publishing programs.”

The first two presenters used the word “strategic” multiple times to describe their communications programs. However, the actions they described sounded more like expense reductions to me.

They described how well (or not) the tracking and engagement of their members and readers was and how they have had minimal complaints, so they must be on the right track.


Beyond Cost Cutting

The presenters were simply evaluating their actions of today without putting them in the context of where they came from or ultimately where they wanted to go. Can you offer an opinion about how well a runner is doing in a race if you don’t know how long they’ve been running and how much longer they need to go to get to the finish line? Clearly not.

Yes, the presenters and their organizations were successful in reducing their costs, but expense reduction alone does not make a strategic plan to tackle your communications. Nor does it address any of the top three concerns associations have about their communication effectiveness as previously cited.

Like his fellow panelists, the third presenter leaned heavily on the word “strategic,” but his definition, as defined by his actions, extended well beyond expense management. The others put expense priorities ahead of their readers and advertisers, and it was with the readers and advertisers that the third presenter started. This individual walked the audience through the process that he took. It began with clearly articulating his communication goals, objectives and bottom-line expectations. After solidifying his plans, he took it to his customers—the readers and advertisers—to validate and finalize the approach to be taken. After implementation, he measured for effectiveness.

Keys to Effective Association Communication


The final presenter’s approach closely mirrors the one that we shared during a recent presentation to the members of the Georgia Society of Association Executives (GSAE) at its annual conference. We illustrated what the key core activities were for a communication plan:

Step 1: Approach your communication with an integrated mindset. One key component to integration is being able to articulate each communication vehicle’s purpose, goal and objectives.

Step 2: Perform a gap analysis. Knowing how your goals and expectations stack up against the demands and expectations of the reader and advertisers is essential.

Step 3: Measure. Are you being effective? Too many people use “gut intuition” instead of fact or statistics to back up their assumptions or hypotheses.

Step 4: Make ongoing improvements or mid-cycle course corrections.

The process ends with beginning anew and repeating.

The third ASAE speaker validated this process by articulating the results that he had achieved. After conducting the steps, at the end of the day he saw expense reductions of 30 percent while growing revenue by $100,000. His was the only plan that reduced expense and grew revenue.

In today’s business climate, that’s the kind of approach associations need.

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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