Association Communications Benchmarking Series

Research Confirms Associations Communicating More Often But Less Effectively

By Hank Berkowitz • January 4, 2013

What do Arctic explorers and association communication professionals have in common? More than you might think. Sure, they both keep large stockpiles of chocolate on hand to keep them going when the sledding gets tough, but they also spend a lot of time navigating across a constantly changing landscape and often without a road map to follow.

I recently attended a presentation by John Huston and Toby Thorleifsson, two professional adventurers who will attempt to walk and ski their way 630 miles from the Canadian Arctic to the North Pole in March 2013. If their trek is not daunting enough, they’re going without a support crew and relying on old-fashioned wooden skis and wool clothing that was favored 110 years ago by their hero, the Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup.


  • 75 percent of associations believe members ignore half of what they send them—up from 62 percent in 2011.
  • 80 percent of associations suffer from communication clutter and more than 70 percent struggle to communicate membership benefits effectively.
  • Devise a communication strategy that’s customized, relevant, and reaches members when they’re good and ready to listen.
  • When a member reaches out to you in times of need, you better be ready to deliver.

While most of us don’t have to worry about dodging polar bears or staying warm in minus 50-degree weather, we do have to be resourceful without large support crews and we need to learn to adapt to constantly changing conditions.

And what do you think the explorers said was the No.1 key to surviving in the Arctic? Communication.

Like association professionals, Arctic explorers need to communicate constantly with each team member to make sure everyone’s roles are clear—they’re pulling their weight, they’re not duplicating efforts and they’re not dragging down the rest of the team. They also need to be sure that everyone’s in sync about the route, the equipment and the team’s goals for the day, the week and the month ahead.

We all know association members are getting younger, more mobile, more independent and less likely to join communities that can’t show them a clear ROI for belonging. But, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for Generation “C,” the always connected, always collaborating group of members who will be driving your organization in the future.

And maybe that’s the trouble. We’re all looking for a quick fix to a challenge that’s constantly evolving—like shifting Arctic sea ice that can cause explorers to wake up five miles away from where they thought they put their tents down for the night.

Beth Brooks, president of the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE), said association leaders should pay close attention to the technological and demographic changes that are altering the association landscape. If not, you won’t have an association much longer, she warns. See more of Beth Brooks’ observations in today’s Corner Office profile.

Unfortunately, as the results of our annual communication benchmarking study roll in, it looks like many associations are trying to navigate the communications landscape without a compass.

Here are some of the things we’ve learned from the 400 association leaders across 90 industries who took part in this year’s study. Information overload (which includes communication clutter) continues to be the No. 1 communication challenge, bar none. In fact, the number of associations that cited this challenge rose dramatically to 81 percent in 2012 from 54 percent in 2011.


Carol Fuchs, senior director of marketing for the 14,000-member Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, said association members are so inundated with communication that they can’t possibly pay attention to everything you feel you need to send them. The key is to be there at that “specific point in time” when they’re good and ready to listen and they have a need you can fill.

“It’s a bit of a crapshoot with all of our channels, but we’re constantly adjusting our communication frequency, calendar, and tools to find the best mix,” Fuchs related.


Our communication benchmarking study also revealed that trouble communicating member benefits really spiked. Nearly three in four associations (72 percent) cited this challenge in 2012, up from 32 percent in 2011. “We’re cutting through the clutter, but not always getting through,” agreed Christine Shaefer, executive vice president of the Valley Home Builders Association in Appleton, Wisc., who has cut back the frequency of e-bulletins and increased her investment in direct mail postcards and printed newsletters. Why? In order to bypass members’ overfilled inboxes, even though she acknowledges that it’s a slower and more expensive way to reach them.

“You can keep telling your dues-payers all about your great member benefits, but until a member really needs something, they’re not going to be aware of it,” Shaeffer lamented.

As Shaefer explained, a lot of her members are skilled craftsmen, but not great business people. “It’s only when they come to us with a contract full of holes in it that they realize we have lots of resources and RFP templates that can make their jobs a lot easier. You just have to help them out once when they really need a hand, then all of a sudden, they’re your best friend in the world.”

So it shouldn’t surprise you that 75 percent of associations now think members ignore half of what they send them, up from 62 percent in 2011. Maybe there are just too many choices. Social networking and videos are gaining traction at many associations, particularly with younger members and others in Generation C. But, as our latest reader survey showed, many associations still find their members want print or at least the convenience of having both print and digital.

Then there’s mobile. It’s not only a technology; it’s an adjective to describe a membership base that’s increasingly working away from their desks. They expect all their communities to be accessible 24/7 when they’re away from their desks—especially communities that charge them a fee to belong.

Like many experts, Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist for Principled Innovation, said associations have to go “all in” on digital because mobile is the “new paradigm” for connecting with on-the-go members and it’s what future stakeholders expect.

“I don’t mean you have to home grow everything from scratch, but the mobile device is THE connection point for social, video, audio, and learning where your members or potential members are spending their time,” De Cagna said.

Charles Popper, Naylor’s vice president of association relations, said organizations are obsessing about how they’re going to cut through the clutter, but no one’s clear about the strategy for doing so.

“People keep coming up with content and ideas within the walls of their associations, but they’re not out there asking the people who pay the bills what’s working—their members and advertisers,” he said. “If clutter is your biggest concern, you have to know what they’re expecting. And the only way you can really know is by asking them directly either on the phone or face-to-face.”

Four Keys to an Effective Communication Platform

  1. Know what’s expected of you by those who pay the bills—your members and advertisers.
  2. Integrate all of your communications efforts so you’re not redundant and not having people in silos speaking to your members.
  3. Measure your results frequently and consistently.
  4. Commit to ongoing improvement.

Source: Naylor, LLC 2012

Every good communication platform is built on a foundation of knowing what’s expected of you by members and your other stakeholders, added Popper. “Forget about using member satisfaction surveys to determine what your content should be. If you’ve got a communication problem in one of your media properties that’s supported by non-dues revenue, then you have to go right to the advertisers and sponsors and ask them what they’d like to see.”

Breanna Vanstrom of the Midwest Society of Association Executives agrees with the power of asking. See her guest column in today’s issue for the importance of including qualitative questions in member surveys.


If nothing else, 2012 taught us there’s no single killer app, per se; there’s simply more choice for association communicators. Whichever tool you use, you need to keep asking members and sponsors if those tools are working. Just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s better.

Explorers Huston and Thorleifsson said they chose the old-fashioned wooden skis to make a statement, but they were amazed by how well the old equipment was made and how well it performed under extremely harsh conditions. If your social, mobile, and video offerings are not well crafted, well thought, and well-integrated into the rest of your communication strategy, then they might freeze up under the demands of a 24/7/365 membership. And no one wants to leave members and potential members out in the cold.

Rest up. Enjoy the Holidays. We’ve got lots of work to do in 2013.

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