What Smart Associations Do Differently

By Hank Berkowitz • March 24, 2014

In case you missed it, two important anniversaries occurred last week. The Internet turned 25, and Association Adviser turned four. Whether reflecting on the past quarter century or past four years, remarkable changes have taken place. The world’s geography and climate has been changing before our eyes. The economy, financial markets and labor market are greatly improved (see chart below). So if rising tides lift all boats, why are most associations reporting flat or low single-digit growth?


  • Younger members are not necessarily your most tech-savvy members.
  • Demographics aren’t the only criteria for segmenting membership. Also look at learning preferences, technology adoption and topic interests.
  • Technology is not synonymous for innovation; some associations are having breakthroughs by going back to old tech.
  • Investing financial resources more efficiently will take the pressure off both dues and NDR.

It starts with one of their toughest competitors—the Internet. All the resources, connections and reach that associations used to have to themselves can now be found at little or no cost by anyone with a web connection. They don’t even need a computer. In response to this challenge, some associations have made impressive gains in their adoption of technology, particularly in the areas of mobile, social media, video, online learning, connectivity and more. But many of the legacy challenges remain: information overload, communication clutter, attracting and retaining younger members, maintaining their position as their industry’s No. 1 source of information, and succession planning as record numbers of boomers reach retirement age.

A snapshot of how times have changed since 2010:

2010 2011 2012 2013
Best Picture* “The Hurt Locker” “The King’s Speech” “The Artist” “12 Years a Slave”
Top Song** TiK ToK(Ke$ha) Rolling In The Deep (Adele) Thrift Shop (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis)
Super Bowl Winner New Orleans Saints Green Bay Packers New York Giants Seattle Seahawks
Stock Market# 11,577 12,217 13,104 16,576
U.S. Unemployment Rate (year end)## 9.4% 8.5% 6.7%

Sources: *Oscars (MPA); **Billboard Top 100; #Year end closing price for Dow Jones Industrial Average ##U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About this time a year ago, we observed: “It’s clear that associations are becoming faster and more agile, but are they agile enough to keep up with what ASQ Managing Director Michelle Mason called the “accelerated pace” of change?” Last year we said, “The jury’s still out.” Today we’d answer that question, “Yes and No.” Yes, high performing associations are doing a good job of keeping up with the pace of change, but less progressive associations are not—and the gap is widening.

As David Zepponi, president of the Northwest Food Processors Association (NWFPA), told us recently, the association business model is changing before our eyes. “It’s changing from a traditional, bricks-and-mortar, membership-and-committee-based organization to an online and multimedia-based structure.” And it’s no longer enough to be ahead of the curve, you have to stay ahead of the curve. Our [members] are already ahead of the curve, and I have to be ahead of them.” That said, not everyone’s willing (or able) to do that.

Joining forces to build membership

Start with the assumption that “every member is right” and take the time to build consensus, advised Chris Newtown, president of the Texas Food & Fuel Association (TFFA), who in 2012 spearheaded the merger of two longstanding associations, the Texas Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association and the Texas Grocery & Convenience Association. Since 2005, the two groups had jointly produced a successful annual show and realized that many constituents knew each other and were members of both associations. So, they decided to merge into the TFFA. Two years later, membership numbers (as well as membership value) have been growing as the combined organization has more clout, more reach and more operational efficiencies than ever before.

For more of Chris Newton’s insights, see his Corner Office profile.

Connecting with the younger generation via mobile

A new study from Iris Mobile and The Center for Media Research found that 75 percent of millennials (Gen Y) access the Internet via their phones. No surprise there. Researchers also discovered that mobile click-through rates are 34 percent higher than other platforms. So how important is it to make your association’s brand accessible via mobile to take advantage of this behavior? I checked in with two of my millennial colleagues to get their take.

“If you want someone to reference your website first, read your newsletter or sign up for a program when it’s convenient for them, a mobile site is essential,” said >Kelly Donovan, team leader for online marketing at Naylor, LLC. “Because we’ve grown up with computers and easily adapt to changes in digital life, we expect others to do the same. When our favorite sites aren’t easy to use, we quickly find alternatives.”

Hillary Levitz, an online marketing specialist at Naylor, agreed with Donovan that a mobile site it a must have. “However, how far I dive into the website depends on the industry,” she said. “Most the time, I am on a mobile website because I am searching for an address or other contact information or I am looking for the answer to a question. I don’t browse websites on my phone the same way I browse websites on a desktop,” Levitz added.

Donovan and Levitz share more insights about reaching millennials via mobile.

As Association Services Group’s Samantha Tankersley explains in today’s issue, mobile conference apps can substantially increase attendee satisfaction at your live events. They can also provide new sources of sponsorship revenue and member leads by identifying trends in attendee behavior and content interests. Check out Samantha’s article to learn how one association had a big win with its mobile conference app.

Multimedia and video learning

It’s no secret that streaming video is a tool that associations are rapidly adopting to communicate more impactfully with members. Video is also a valuable form of content, learning, non-dues revenue and even membership leads. Live streaming (and on-demand content) for longer form videos is expected to explode over the next few years, according to Dan Stevens, president of WorkerBee.TV, Inc., which works with more than a dozen associations to build robust live-stream video platforms. Some of the more common uses of association video include: accreditation, broadcasting special announcements, advocacy, making conference sessions available for those who could not attend live, and raising the overall engagement and revenue from your conference content.

According to Stevens, four important trends are contributing to video adoption:

  1. Expanded reach. Conferences attract just a tiny fraction of your member and non-member population that could benefit from the content and learning sessions captured.
  2. Convenience. Members can watch video on larger smartphones and tablets in HD with the ability to pause and re-start at your own pace.
  3. Adapting to changing member work habits. Between time zones, work-sharing and busy lives, members want to consume content on their own schedules—not the association’s.
  4. Youth. Younger members and future members do everything on their smartphones. If your content does not look appealing on this device, they do not engage. Video is the easiest and most powerful content on smartphones.

Multimedia is “amazingly important” to NWFPA since its members include “all types of learners,” explained Zepponi. “Instead of segmenting our members by age or other demographic statistics, we segment them by their learning preference and their adaptability to new technology.” Some members, not necessarily older ones, are more comfortable in a traditional classroom setting, with old school committees and one-on-one consulting, related Zepponi. Other members, not necessarily younger ones, are much more comfortable with the virtual classroom and online learning. “We have some older folks who are very adept at new technology and some younger members who can’t get their smartphones to work,” he said.

The value of high-touch/low-tech

“Every member has a story about how they got into the business,” related Kristen Hartman, director of member experience for the Professional Photographers of America (PPA). Hartman’s eight-person member service team makes a special point of being “approachable” so they can learn about each member’s personal aspirations, what they’re learning and their challenges. To that end, PPA sends out 40 to 50 handwritten cards each week saluting members for having a successful month, for landing their first big wedding shoot or for commemorating a child’s graduation. Once a year, the entire PPA staffnot just member service—makes personal phone calls to each member. “We learn so much more about the membership that you can’t learn through a survey,” said Hartman.

NWFPAs Zepponi said he wants to be “best friends with 100,000 people,” and TFFA’s Newton makes it a point to visit as many members as possible at their work sites so he can see firsthand their challenges, their cultures and the behavior of their customers. “People may not be able to tell you how much they paid for their milk and bread, but they can sure tell you what they paid for a gallon of gas—to the penny,” quipped Newton.

Last month, we learned from the International Association of Innovation Professionals (IAOIP) that technology is not the same as true innovation—it’s just a tool to help you solve big problems and create breakthrough products and services for your members and customers. Also keep in mind that you can innovate by using old technology, too. TFFA’s Newton is among several associations leaders who’ve told us that they’re getting good results with faxing and “good old fashioned snail mail,” as a way to cut through members’ cluttered inboxes and social media accounts.

Importance of data (that really matters)

When Karen Bremer first took the reins of the Georgia Restaurant Association, she found that her staff was creating surveys that would almost automatically result in a positive outcome. She said they had to go back to Square One to eliminate survey bias to make sure the data collected was objective and giving her team feedback that they needed to hear, not necessarily wanted to hear. “People really listen to numbers—they want to know the numbers behind any important decision that you make,” Bremer said. “You hear so much about Big Data, but Big Data is a fairly easy acquisition. It’s really about tailoring the data to give you the answers to quantify your industry and the impact you have on a given region or industry.” What is the contribution it makes in terms of jobs, sales volume and tax base, asked Bremer? “Good hard data is not just for member surveys; it’s essential for your advocacy work. Your sponsors and strategic partners want to know the reach you have, as well,” she added.

Improving the finances of your members—and your organization

Like many professional societies, The Society for Pediatric Anesthesia (SPA) offers financial planning education for members. It also retains outside experts to get more return from the investments and other assets it has on its books. Financial advisor Chas Boinske, CFA, president of Independence Advisors in Wayne, Pa., told us he’s been overseeing the SPA’s investment portfolios for more than a decade and also holds financial planning sessions for SPA members. By the way, the sessions are not just for mature members approaching retirement age. As part of the organization’s “Young Turks” program, Boinske said no amount of schooling can prepare young medical professionals for the almost overnight transition from deep debt (student loans) to wealth preservation (extremely high incomes).


Just as the Internet has gone from a tech novelty to a daily staple of most people’s lives, we hope that Association Adviser has become a regular part of your professional life. What started as a simple monthly e-newsletter in 2010 has evolved into an integrated media platform with a branded website, TV channel, social media network and custom research division. Thank you for reading, watching, commenting, posting and weighing in. We sincerely value your feedback and couldn’t have done it without you.

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