Research Shows Social Media Rocking Association World

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

By Hank Berkowitz

Social media has taken the association world by storm. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube get the lion’s share of attention and resources, but private social networks and dozens of other platforms and apps are emerging as effective tools for staying relevant with younger and otherwise increasingly mobile members.

That said, most associations admit they’re in an experimental “fire, ready, aim” mode. According to our research and in-depth discussions we’ve had with association thought leaders across North America, social media is not particularly well understood, well measured or well used, despite high adoption rates.

  • When it comes to measuring social media, association leaders are torn between showing clear ROI numbers and showing member enthusiasm and engagement.
  • Nearly 80 percent of associations are placing a priority on social media even though two-thirds (68 percent) do not have social media policies or strategies in place.
  • Experts say associations will need specialists responsible for listening, extracting and interpreting what’s being said about them online without interfering with the conversation.

More than 90 percent of associations told us they are communicating with members more frequently than they did three years ago (on average 8.3 times per month using conventional and online channels, and an additional 8.2 times per month via social media). That’s not surprising. But, according to last month’s Association Adviser reader poll, fewer than one third (31.9 percent) feel they have a social media strategy and policy in place right now. See today’s Did You Know column for more info.

As our 2011 Association Communication Benchmarking Study discovered, many of the nearly 700 associations who responded to our in-depth questionnaire have significant gaps between the communication vehicles they’re investing in and the vehicles their members value (see charts below), but in these challenging times, we salute embracing the future.

Percent of Associations Allocating More Resources to:


Social media 58.1%
Online media 48.1%
Live events 35.3%
Mobile media 32.1%
Print media 15.9



Percent Believing Members Find Each Medium “Very/Extremely” Valuable:

Live events 69.7%
Online media 60.2%
Print media 55.4%
Social media 34.2%
Mobile media 13.8%


“Social media is all about connecting people peer-to-peer without an intermediary,” noted Terrance Barkan, CAE, director of SocialStrat and a frequent association roundtable participant. Or as Forbes columnist David Kirkpatrick noted last month, “People are changing faster than organizations. Thanks to social media, ordinary people have the tools to force you to listen to what they care about and to demand respect. You better get out of their way or learn to embrace them.”

Are associations connecting the social dots yet?

“If associations want to maintain a healthy membership level in the future, they must appeal to young professionals and social networking is a necessary way-of-life for the young,” noted Richard Boale, a longtime association event planner who’s now head of operations for AppNation Conferences. “Associations typically just follow a Facebook or Twitter model without really investigating what would work best for their membership.”

SocialStrat’s Barkan said you need to allow frank, unvarnished remarks about your organization in order to make it work. “That will give you street cred, especially with younger people and non-members.” But you also have to have people with the training and maturity to understand ethics, copyright, netiquette and some filtering skills about what’s relevant and appropriate, he added.

Marc Verhoeve, Executive Director of the Ontario School Counsellors Association, still thinks too much association communication is a one-way street. “With social media, we’re trying to foster more member-to-member dialogue as well as member-to-association dialogue. We’re also adding a third dimension–narrowly focused discussions for different levels of professionals at different levels of their organizations. For instance, a new entrant to our profession just doesn’t have the same issues and concerns as a mid-level professional whose concerns are very different from those of a school superintendent.”

Sarah Power, Executive VP of the online media communications firm, Initiative, said, “Just like at a cocktail party or focus group, the loudest voice isn’t the only one that matters. We have to get better at listening to all the voices, especially the quieter, less frequent ones.” Kim Kadlec, Worldwide VP of Johnson & Johnson’s global marketing group, who joined Power at the Media Post/OMMA panel discussion last week in New York said, “trust and transparency are key to your social listening strategy, as are generosity and reciprocity.”

Barkan noted that since social media is relatively new, most organizations don’t have policies, procedures and strategies in place like they do for “legacy” issues such as PR, governance, financial controls and advocacy. Also, there’s the fear of the unknown. If the CEO and the board don’t believe in social networking, then the staff can push it only so far, he lamented.

Measuring social ROI

OMMA panelist, John Bellinger, of New York advertising agency J.Walter Thompson said, “You can measure ROI, but you shouldn’t just measure from your own selfish standpoint. You should also measure from the audience’s goals. What do they get out of it for taking the time to participate in your social platform?”

Brandon Evans, CEO of online agency Crowdtap, argued that you can look at business metrics such as qualified leads, purchase intent and transactions, but you also have to look at things like advocacy as a key metric. “What’s the value of having a customer or member willing to go to bat for you in a public forum like the web?” he asked. “That’s huge.”

Measuring social ROI is a conundrum, according to SocialStrat’s Barkan. The executive director will tell you ROI is the most important thing. What kind of return are we getting for the resources we’re investing? Lots of tools can tell you what members are clicking, posting, engaging with. But, for some reason, it seems difficult for organizations and their leaders to “connect the dots,” Barkan added. Some CEOs want to see crystal clear, transparent numbers for everything they do. Others just want some kind of evidence that members are talking and engaging. “My best advice: start small and pick a single event that you have every year. Try promoting that event using only social media this year and compare the results to last year when you used your full array of channels to get the word out.”

Who should be responsible for your online reputation?

If the association has a magazine or other publications, then it should be the responsibility of the publishing department, said Boale. “It’s an editorial function and must be monitored to avoid anyone ‘going-off-the-rails’ in a blog.” Reggie Henry, chief information officer of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) predicts many associations will soon have a “Chief Content Curator” responsible for bringing to the surface all the relevant discussions, tidbits, resources and debates heard on the social web.

According to Barkan, the responsibility logically falls into the communications, marketing or membership bucket. But, he thinks a new skill set is what’s really needed: “Online Community Manager.” You’ve got to know when to step in to the conversation and when to step back and just listen. You’ve got to know how to get relevant information out of the discussion and share it with management in a meaningful way.

Experts say social media dashboards such as Hearsay, Hootsuite and TweetDeck can help organizations monitor everything that’s being said about them on thousands of online channels. Meanwhile, tools such as Vocus allows you to drop and drag your social media goals into its interactive tool and its spits out the most effective tactics to engage your audience. It’s an imperfect science, but these tools can help.


While social media missteps, blemishes and banal chatter abound across the web, we salute many organizations for courageously trying to figure it out. Just as today’s members no longer join organizations simply because “it’s the right thing to do,” associations are no longer risk-averse gatekeepers of the status quo.

As the late Steve Jobs famously said, “Stay foolish. Stay hungry.” Chances are you’re reading this article on one of the devices he created as a result of that mantra.


READER NOTE: Neither Naylor, LLC, nor Association Adviser enews has a commercial relationship with any of the vendors and suppliers mentioned in this article. Inclusion in this article should not imply an endorsement of the products or services of the companies mentioned herein.

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

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