Ready, Set, Engage!

By Hank Berkowitz • November 17, 2015

Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser
Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser

Experts share tips and best practices for connecting with all-age members and our research backs it up.

If you’re a membership director or work closely with one, there’s rarely a day when you don’t hear the word “engagement.” It’s one of the most widely-used terms in association-speak these days, but what exactly does membership engagement mean? I certainly don’t have the answer, but my colleagues and I have learned a lot by surveying and interviewing association industry thought leaders over the years. Let me share a few nuggets with you.

At a breakout session I attended at the ASAE annual conference, David Gammel, CAE, executive director of Entomological Society of America, said engagement occurs when someone invests their time, money or resources with an association in exchange for some kind of value. “The more of these precious resources they invest, the more engaged they are,” Gammel said.

Gammel, who wrote the book Maximum Engagement: Moving Members, Donors, and Customers to Ever-increasing Levels of Participation, mentioned this notion in his blog as far back as 2009.




The only way you’ll understand member needs is to ask them. The worst thing you can do is guess. LilTweetablesSmall

Think of yourself as a Chief Problem-solving Officer. How do you identify industry problems, and how do you solve them for your members? LilTweetablesSmall

When it comes to identifying member needs, what members don’t say is often more powerful than what they do say. LilTweetablesSmall

Taking it a step further, ASAE’s president John Graham once told me that high-performing associations have a way of giving members “what they want, when they want it, how they want it, on the platform they want.” We’re getting closer, even though that’s a pretty tall order to deliver. The 2015 edition of our annual Association Communication Benchmarking Study found that the inability to communicate member benefits effectively continues to plague most associations. This shortcoming was the second-most frequently-mentioned member communication challenge in our survey — cited by nearly three in five respondents (59 percent) in 2015, up from 55 percent in 2014, and 32 percent in 2011. Information overload was the only challenge cited more frequently. Here are some other ‘engagement killers’ that our 2015 research uncovered:

  • Struggling to customize communications to different member subgroups is now the third-most frequently-cited challenge by association leaders (53.6 percent said so in 2015, up from 45.6 percent in 2014, and 23.1 percent in 2011).
  • Struggling to engage young professionals (cited by 52.3 percent of respondents) was the fourth-most frequently-cited association communication challenge.
  • Inability to overcome technical barriers to reach members was the fifth-most frequently-cited association communication challenge (mentioned by 44.5 percent of respondents in 2015, and 44.7 percent in 2014).

Top Member Communication Challenges 2015

There was one positive trend in our findings: Associations are finally improving their ability to help members find appropriate information quickly. While that’s still a shortcoming for more than two in five associations (41.9 percent), that number is down significantly from 47.8 percent of associations who cited this challenge in 2014.

What this data tell us is that ‘one-size-fits all’ no longer cuts it in this era of what John Graham calls “mass customization.” You need to develop a unique relationship with each member and volunteer — especially new and prospective members — and you need to find a way to deliver it to them in the way they prefer to receive it or find it, not how you like to push it out. As John Hoyles explains in today’s Corner Office profile, the Canadian Bar Association customizes its e-newsletters and blogs for 32 different sections and eight forums.

Importance of career development and professional education offerings

One thing our research clearly showed is that career development and professional education offerings are increasingly the main reason professionals join associations. According to Brian Choate, executive vice president of Timberlake AMS Solutions, “Associations that provide certification capabilities and ongoing education are drivers for professionals to join an association.” Jim Thompson, vice president of association management at Capitol Hill Management Services of North Carolina, agreed. “With the uncertain economy, people feel the need to sharpen the tools in their toolkit to make sure they are valuable and relevant. You can’t just be status quo anymore.”

Margaret Rehayem, senior director of strategic initiatives and communications for the Midwest Business Group on Health, concurred. “It’s important for individuals to stay ahead of the curve. They need to understand their industry and learn how their job or company fits into the larger picture.”

Understanding member needs

As mentioned earlier, the “inability to understand member needs” was one the most frequently-cited association challenges that our annual benchmarking study uncovered. Timberlake’s Choate said it’s important for the association to offer multiple channels that enable members to reach its staff. “This includes succinct surveys that probe into the events, certifications, online association resources and so much more,” said Choate. Rehayem noted, “The only way you’ll understand member needs is to ask them — the worst thing you can do is guess!”

Peggy McElgunn of Global Professional Services, LLC said her organization is finding that even with the younger generation, you can’t do everything online. “You need to reach out actively to engage members in a dialogue, develop trust, and then identify needs. As is often true, it is what is not said that is the most deafening needs of all!”

If a great message falls in the woods, does anybody hear it?

Another disturbing finding our research uncovers every year is members continue to ignore at least half of all the communication pieces associations send them. What is the solution to this serious communication gap? “Oh boy, if I had that answer I wouldn’t have an issue selling our association services,” said Thompson. “Seriously, I think it goes down to customization and having the ability to send segmented messaging. But it’s hard to do that affordably.”

Rehayem noted there are two things you should always keep in mind: One, ask your members how they really want to be communicated with; and two, make sure you provide information they are really seeking. “Don’t push a communication out to all of your members just because you have an event coming up,” Rehayem said.

McElgunn recommended using the phone. “Emails are not enough. You need to make calls, calls, calls.”  Also, for engaging younger members, she recommended “gamifying activities.” There’s a different way to connect with each generation, she added.

Timberlake’s Choate said you should ask yourself four key questions before reaching out to members:

  1. Are you using the correct medium for each situation (i.e., Twitter, email, Facebook, USPS, etc.)?
  2. Are you sending communications so frequently they have become overwhelming?
  3. Is the formatting of your message too simple or too complex?
  4. Are you including the type of information that’s really important to the member?

Overcoming tech barriers

As mentioned earlier, nearly half of all respondents to our annual benchmarking survey said technical barriers prevented them from reaching members effectively, including one-third who said their current technology setup made it too difficult to customize communications for members and better understand their preferences. As one survey respondent lamented, “We have the technology, but the data organization needs improvement.” Another respondent said, “We struggle to identity what each member segment may want and the availability of staff time and finances is always an issue.”

Timberlake’s Choate said most AMS vendors provide very capable member communication platforms and there are third-party offerings that specialize in member communications for associations. GPS’s McElgunn said, “We use the latest technologies because I need a flexible and powerful database. But, unlike many CRM systems, the database system I use requires a more in-depth understanding. No monkeys pushing buttons here!”

Connecting with next-gen members and prospective members

Nearly every association professional is wrestling with how to connect with the next generation of leaders in their industry — the group that’s really going to make them earn their trust. McElgunn recommended using the phone, FaceTime, and face-to-face networking opportunities, not just online and social media. According to Capitol Hill’s Thompson, “Associations are going to have to do a much better job of explaining the ROI. You’re really going to put some thought into how you let these [younger] audiences know that you are solving their problems. I just finished writing an article about how everyone in an association needs to be the CPO (chief problem-solving officer). We all have to think about how we, as associations, identify those problems, and how we solve them for our members.”

Rehayem said you must have a social media presence and provide information in “quick snippets.” She also said you need to make it quick and clear to your members and website visitors how they’ll benefit [by associating with you], and how you can provide them with actionable recommendations. “Gone are the days of endless blah, blah, blah,” Rehayem said.

Jill Andreu, vice president of content strategy and development for Naylor Association Solutions, agreed about the importance of having a social media strategy. As Andreu explains in her column in today’s issue, “Social media gives your association exposure and helps cement your status as an industry thought leader. Once an individual makes the basic choice to like your page or follow your feed, you have control.”

Choate offered four ‘quick-hit’ suggestions for closing the engagement gap:

  • Conduct weekly updates on the association website so the content is very relevant.
  • Ensure that your website design and member service areas are mobile- and tablet-friendly.
  • Offer shorter term memberships with an automatic credit card billing capability.
  • Ask your content experts to become very active on Twitter and other platforms to attract the next-gen members with quick bursts of expertise.

Enlist your volunteers

A happy and committed volunteer can be one of your best membership development advocates. But according to Lowell Apelbaum, COO of the American Society for Parental and Enteral Nutrition, it’s the organization’s responsibility to get to know their volunteers and put them in the right roles that make best use of their unique stills and talents. (See the latest episode of Association Adviser TV for more insights from Apelbaum.)

CBA’s John Hoyles explained that at the end of the day, the strength of any association is its volunteers. “I’ve never had a volunteer say ‘no’ to me. We get about $50 million a year worth of volunteer time. That really allows us to punch way above our weight!” (See the Corner Office profile for more insights from Hoyle.)


From the microscopic focus of the Entomological Society of America to the giant infrastructure focus of the Associated General Contractors, developing a unique and personal relationship with your members and volunteers will give you a leg up on the competition.

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