Q&A: Planning for an Uncertain Content Year

By Association Adviser staff • September 21, 2020

We love a good Q&A session after a webinar. During our August 2020 webinar about our most recent Association Communication Benchmarking Report, our attendees showed up with a plethora of great questions about everything related to member communications: strategic planning, data management, how to start a podcast, social media use, and email engagement during a pandemic to name a few.

We always try to answer as many questions as possible during the webinar, but we had so many we couldn’t answer all of them in one hour. So we’ve written out answers to every question asked – including the ones we answered live – to continue the conversation. We enjoy learning what’s on your mind when it comes to member communication, and we hope these answers are useful!

Our webinar Q&A will be divided into three parts. This initial installment addresses association executives’ questions regarding strategy and planning, staffing and member surveys. Part II about data management and Part III about podcasting are coming soon.

Is there something Association Adviser can clarify further for your communications staff? Email Sarah Sain, director of content, with your questions.

Download the free 2020 Association Communications Benchmarking Report here!

What programs do you recommend for virtual exhibit halls and why?

The right virtual exhibit hall platform will depend on your association’s needs. Do you want to provide a forum where exhibitors and attendees can engage in multiple ways, or will a simpler listing of exhibitors suffice? We like Jordan Schwartz’s breakdown of virtual events into education, networking and commerce, and his brief analysis of which tools might be needed to make for a satisfying experience in each category. For details about specific virtual event platforms, check out this guide from Capterra.

What is the difference between an online community website and a private online community?

Usually, the difference between an online community website and a private online community is who is allowed to access it. A login is required with a private online community, and anyone who has access to it must be a member of the association or has been granted access for a specific amount of time related to an event. Online community websites are open to anyone who has interest in being a part of the community. Facebook is an online community and so is Twitter. Not everyone belongs to them; however, as long as you have an email address you can join.

There are pros and cons to hosting an open community versus a private community. Open communities tend to be larger. They can have more diverse voices bringing more diverse perspectives to the discussions happening. But you may host some people that are more tangentially related to the community and therefore just don’t have as much knowledge or insight to contribute. With a private online community, you can keep the membership very focused on a topic at hand. Often, private online community managers will require members to sign a code of ethics or conduct. If anyone violates these rules, managers are usually pretty quick to warn them and then remove them if that behavior continues.

The look of a private online community can oftentimes be customized more than an open community. Private community platforms sometime come with fees, but you can then brand them to your association and your industry to make it feel like an extension of your website or your association itself.

How can I convince my VP that we need to start using our social media channels more effectively other than sending them these awesome slides post-event?

Social media has come a long way in the 10 years or so since businesses started using it as an official form of promotion and brand communication. However, only one in three associations we surveyed consider social media a high priority for their organization, even while acknowledging that it’s the No. 1 traffic driver to their websites. Using social media “effectively” can mean a few things, so we’ll lay out a few tailored answers:

If your association isn’t officially on social media, you’ll need to show that your members are already gathering on social media and talking about your industry and your association. Those conversations are taking place whether your association is present for them or not, so you might as well jump in, if for no reason other than to simply observe what they’re saying. You can’t fix any grievances they air if you don’t know about them in the first place. You might want to show your VP how competing or peer organizations are engaging members on social media so that she or he can see what’s possible.

If your association has an official social media presence but it’s underwhelming due to lack of staff attention or knowledge about how to navigate social media: Time to brush up. We published a beginner’s guide to social media last year that is a good place to start. For someone who knows how to use social media personally but wants ideas for how to navigate it for business, check out Sprout Social’s Insights blog.

If your association has a social media presence and is putting in the work of maintaining pages or accounts, but still isn’t seeing the level of engagement you would like to see, it may be time to step back and re-evaluate what you want out of social media and how you know if you’re making progress toward those goals. Peter Drucker famously said, “You can’t manager what you can’t measure.” Decide which KPIs will define success at using social media for your association, and then strategize how you’ll improve upon those KPIs.

What is the best way to assess which area to outsource? We have staff in all areas, but we are ALL spread so thin, it’s hard to do our best job on any one task.

Conduct an audit of all your activities. Which areas require the most resources in terms of time, people power and money? Once you’ve answered that question, find out which activities earn your association the largest return on investment. The activities for which investment and ROI are inversely related – high investment but low return – should be outsourced.

Many associations today outsource some aspect of their communications program and rely on partners to help them accomplish their goals: Nearly two in four outsource production and design, more than one-third outsource advertising and sponsorship sales, and nearly one in four outsource their magazines. Be brutally honest with yourself and your team about what you do best. If you’re not highly competent or feel there are areas where bringing in an expert could take your communications to the next level, there are many excellent vendors and consultants who can not only provide these functions but be a valued extension of your staff. By outsourcing these critical functions, you and your team will have more bandwidth to focus on what you do best. By doing so, your members and your bottom line will be much better served.

We struggle with planning and creating an integrated communications calendar each year. Can you speak about how to get this started and get everyone on the same page?

You certainly aren’t alone. Planning out integrated member communications is something that many associations struggle with every year. It can be difficult at the start of your planning process to look at a blank page and think “Well, what are we going to do next year?” In moments like right now when many of us are tackling issues day to day, planning an entire year can seem overwhelming. Just know that it’s a challenge other associations deal with as well.

One thing we recommend is to have your communications department sit down and have conversations with other departments. We talk about how you need an overall strategy for all of your different communications so you can create original content, cross-promote pieces and repurpose other content. That’s impossible to do in a siloed communications department. It’s important to know what is going on with your education team, membership team and so forth in order to create a comprehensive member communication strategy that will give members the information they want most. What topics are your education team finding very popular? If your membership team has done ten webinars and two of them attracted an attendance high above all the rest, your communications team needs to make that connection and put more of that in your member benefits plan – and then shout about it! Tying important topics together such as legislative news and advocacy activity, or education offerings and certification requirements, is important for helping members feel like they’re getting a good return on their investment of membership dues and fees.

It could be useful to have an editorial committee if you don’t already. Having such a committee doesn’t necessarily mean that those members are in charge of creating all of your content. You might have a staff or writing team for that. However, it can be helpful to get a larger group of directors from multiple departments together to give your communication staff insight into what is keeping them, and members, up at night. If you’re hearing from your editorial department that something important needs to be talked about with members, then it’s likely that it’s something that interests your membership as a whole, and you should weave that idea or concern into your content plan. Listening and learning before crafting a plan is a good place to start.

With 2020 and 2021 rapidly changing what’s on people’s minds, is there anything you would suggest to make traditional magazine committee tasks more agile, as opposed to setting a content calendar so far in advance, like we would in a normal year?

The world still does feel uncertain at this time. We find it harder to imagine what changes our associations and industries could face even a few months down the road, let alone an entire year. In some ways, that makes it more important than ever to have a thoughtful strategy about how and what to communicate to members. Create an annual plan to guide your association’s time and resource; however, know that things may go off book or need to be adjusted if circumstances change. Include areas of focus within your plan that give your team – whether that’s your staff or volunteers – added flexibility and the ability to focus on timely content. All this doesn’t mean you scrap the plan entirely, but instead plan and allow for updates to your content strategy throughout the year that reflect changes as they happen that build on your already strong foundation.

For example, create an editorial plan with general themes that you know are of interest to your members, and then work with volunteers throughout the year on how to address those broader ideas through specific content that is relevant in the moment. Relevant is the key word in that sentence. Your communications team and volunteers can create content all day long, but if it isn’t valuable to your members and speaks to the issues they’re talking about each and every day, it’ll largely go unseen or unread.