Association Leaders Reflect on Peer Surveys, Sustainability and the Web

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

The year 2010 was better than expected for some association leaders, disappointing for others and for many more, the jury’s still out. But, no matter how you look at 2010, you can’t say it was boring. When a volatile economy is mixed with sweeping technological advances, powerful demographic shifts and an uncertain tax future for many not-for-profit organizations, you have a recipe for agita that has associations large and small rethinking the very core of their member value proposition, not to mention their recruitment, retention and sustainability strategies.

After speaking with clients, industry thought leaders and respondents to our reader polls one thing is clear: The tipping point has finally tipped. A membership dues renewal check has to be earned—it’s not implied—and thanks to the web, there are a myriad of forces competing for your members’ attention. You’re not the only game in town, even if you’re the largest.

As a result, associations are searching for a new frame of reference in this “new normal” era and it may surprise you to learn that less than one third (31.7 percent) of surveyed Association Adviser eNews readers say they benchmark themselves against other associations within their industry. What’s more, only 18.6 percent benchmark themselves against organizations of similar membership size (see Charles Popper’s story in today’s issue for more on association benchmarking). What they’re looking for most is relevancy.

  • Membership renewal must be earned every year—it’s no longer implied.
  • There are more forces than ever competing for your members’ attention and wallets. You need to stay relevant and get inside their heads to see what makes them tick.
  • You need to look beyond associations of similar size and industry composition to find organizations to benchmark against.
  • The more our society goes digital, the more important face-to-face interaction becomes with your constituents, members and suppliers.

“Lose your relevancy and you’ve pretty much signed your death certificate,” cautioned Patricia Dameron, executive director of the Professional Retail Store Maintenance Association (PRSM). Or, as Amy Davidson, assistant director of membership for the National Court Reporters and Captioners Association (NCRA) reminded us: In this hyper-competitive environment, members expect to be able to reach you 24/7 and get an Amazon.com-like customer service experience from you. Davidson didn’t agree with our polls that showed association leaders thought members were becoming more demanding. Instead, she said associations have to realize their members are customers first and foremost. They expect associations to offer the same on-demand resources, customer service and web capabilities that any other business or retailer provides them with every day.

The days of a standardized, one-size-fits-all membership experience are fast receding into the rear view mirror as well, lamented Joe Syrowik, director of membership, marketing & member service for the 160,000-member ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).

“You have to customize the experience for your various sub-segments and get inside their heads to see what makes them tick,” he said. Or, as John Graham, president of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) is fond of saying, “They want what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.” [Read Association Adviser eNews’s interview with John Graham here.]

And when you think you’re delivering on what they want, you better be ready to measure your progress in real time. For instance, nearly half (46.1 percent) of Association Adviser eNews readers measure their web traffic at least once a week, with nearly 3 in 10 (27.3 percent) measuring it on a daily basis.

Tough times force innovation

If there’s a silver lining to these challenging times, it’s that many associations have been forced to come up with new and economical ways of bringing members together and furthering their professional advancement.

Take virtual conferences. In flush times, many organizations would be hesitant to open their events to members who couldn’t afford to attend in person. But now, with tight budgets impacting travel allowances and time out of the office harder and harder to justify, associations are increasingly allowing members to attend their educational tracks, and sometimes their exhibit halls, remotely. More than half (50.1 percent) of our readers say they now make some, if not all, of their conference content available to virtual attendees, and an additional 24 percent of readers surveyed said they plan to do so within 12 months. While few organizations can charge attendees the same registration fee for a virtual event as they can for a live event, they’re getting a decent share of it back and are recouping hundreds of thousands of dollars in otherwise foregone revenue.

Does your organization allow members to attend your live conferences virtually?

Yes, full conference 24.2%
Yes, partial conference 25.9%
Plan to do so in the next 12 months 24.2%
No 25.8%

 N = 170. Source: Naylor, LLC and Association Adviser eNews, 2010

“I’m all over anything that uses technology to make us smarter and more efficient,” said Renato Cruz Sogueco, chief information officer for the Society of American Florists (SAF) and a frequent panelist at association technology roundtables. “However, it can be a tough sell internally as many conference planners don’t want to experiment with anything that might cannibalize registrations to the live event.”

Richard Fischer, Naylor’s San Francisco-based director of business development, said nothing replicates the networking capabilities of a face-to face-event, but from a content and learning perspective, virtual events, particularly web seminars, have become very impressive in terms of program delivery, engagement and audience segmentation capabilities. “The more tightly focused the audience, the more worthwhile the experience for everyone, from the attendees, to the speakers, to the sponsors,” he said.

Sogueco said he did several presentations in 2010 that were streamed in real-time to virtual attendees. “It’s pretty much the same experience as a totally live presentation, except the conference facilitators ask you to stand in a certain portion of the stage so the camera can see you. At one of my presentations, about a third of the total attendees were virtual and probably half of the questions came from virtual attendees—and they tended to be really good questions. It shows virtual attendees were coming just as prepared for the presentation as the live attendees and possibly more engaged.”

Using virtual events to test proof of concept

Fischer says savvier organizations are looking at webinars, webcasts and other virtual events to “gut check” program topics they’re considering for potential live events down the road. “It’s a much safer way to gauge member reaction and it spares you the expense and long-term commitment needed to stage a live event before you know it has legs.” Better yet, adds Fischer, anyone who registers for the virtual event is an instant qualified lead for your live event, should you decide to go that route.

But, are we getting too digital?

SAF’s Sogueco acknowledges that nothing replaces face-to-face interaction, but for getting across “short bursts of knowledge,” virtual events can be very effective and are gaining more and more acceptance. “We’re in a tough economy which hurts travel budgets, but the technology keeps getting better and the quality of the experience keeps getting better,” he said.

Phil Russo, executive director of NAFA Fleet Management Association, said his organization has plenty of digital offerings in the pipeline, but he’s also upping the ante on face-to-face interaction with members and suppliers. He personally calls or visits every one of the several hundred companies who exhibit at NAFA’s annual conference to see how their experience was. He also meets personally with an advisory council made up of lapsed or otherwise unhappy members to see what NAFA can do better to serve them. “I wear full body armor” to that meeting, Russo joked, “but I don’t have my board there to protect me. Attendees really appreciate that.”

Concerns about membership sustainability

On top of concerns about the overall economy and the health of their respective industries, two in five (40 percent) readers surveyed said they were worried about the impact of the aging Boomer population on their membership base. A similar percentage expressed concern about rising cost pressures on their organizations when even modest dues increases are hard to come by. Thirty percent of readers reported concern about social networking’s potential to undermine their communication initiatives, although a surprisingly small number of respondents expressed concern about staffing shortages and the dearth of academic programs tailored to their industries.

Concerns about membership sustainability

Both NAFA’s Phil Russo and NCRA’s Amy Davidson said they’ve been pleased with the recent growth of university classes and degree programs catering to their respective industries and expect more academic institutions to follow. Krista Gulbransen, vice president of marketing & membership for the Western Independent Bankers (WIB) association, said industry consolidation was a major issue for her organization and was surprised it didn’t show up higher in our list of reader concerns. “Consolidation means fewer potential members for us even though the size of the member organizations is larger. I know this is a challenge facing other industries.”

As with community banking, Texas Pharmacy Association’s Kurt Wehrs said his industry is facing both generational and economic pressures as pharmacies are increasingly owned by corporate entities, not by local families. Corporate entities are taking a more active role in the training and education of their pharmacists, which naturally puts pressure on all pharmacy associations like his. Wehrs was quick to point out that while younger members are stereotyped as the always-connected digital natives of many associations, they crave face-to-face interaction, too. “They’re not going to be happy with just a magazine and a monthly dinner meeting,” he said. “They want to go out in the field, give something back, volunteer at a clinic, go outside the practice setting and spend more time with patients. They need an organization and community that supports that mindset.”

So the more things go digital, the more it seems members of all ages crave face-to-face interaction with each other and with the communities and industries they serve. So abandon your online shopping cart for a while. Go outside. Get lost in the crowd and experience the frenzied holiday season in person. It may be cold, crowded and inefficient. But, it’s a lot more fun.

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