Marketing & Communications

Social Media: Friend or Foe of Associations?

By • April 5, 2010

“Social networking” is frequently portrayed in the press as a revolutionary game-changing technology that’s taking the world by storm. But it’s essentially what trade and professional associations have been doing for generations—creating communities of people with similar occupational interests so they can share ideas, strategies, best practices and career opportunities and sometimes even commiserate.

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Foursquare and list servs among others, social networking is increasingly occurring online, but the goals are the same: Make it easy for people of like-minded interests to communicate with each other, further their careers and advance their industry’s best interests. Social media is gaining traction especially with associations seeking to attract younger members and other “next generation” business leaders.

  • Social media provides incredibly powerful, low-cost tools for reaching members and constituents worldwide in a real-time, dynamic manner.
  • Social media has been widely adopted by associations, but it is often not leveraged to its full potential and is sometimes misunderstood.
  • Engaging in social media because you feel you have to show members you’re on the tech bandwagon is not a strategy. Focus on your strategy first, then decide which tools make sense.
  • Social media without a strategy can be counterproductive for your organization and can be a great drain of time, energy and brand equity. Consult experts you can trust before diving in.

If you think social media is just for teens, techies and those with too much time on their hands, think again. A recent Naylor survey of 212 association directors nationwide found that nearly half (44.7%) had Facebook pages on behalf of their organizations; more than two in five (40.5%) had LinkedIn communities; nearly one-third (31.3%) were actively using Twitter and nearly 15 percent had a presence on MySpace or other social media sites.

What’s more, Facebook and Twitter consistently rank among the most heavily visited sites on the Internet—with Facebook surpassing Google last month as the No.1 site for weekly traffic. Further, several top M.B.A programs, including Harvard and London Business Schools, announced last week that they are incorporating social networking courses into their curriculums.

In many ways social media is still the Wild West of member communications. It’s a fast-growing, ever-evolving, innovative and entrepreneurial space which, despite its increasing ubiquity, is not well understood from a strategic marketing and communication perspective and is frequently misused.

Adopted, but often misunderstood

Nearly four in five (79.6%) respondents to the Naylor executive director survey said they were very concerned about better understanding “social media usage”—a concern that ranked behind only “ensuring member satisfaction” on a list of more than a dozen top management worries.

A recent SmartBrief poll of social media newsletter readers discovered that 42.1 percent of companies are jumping onto the social-media bandwagon because they feel “everyone else seems to be doing it” and 32.1 percent of companies have no social media strategy, thus putting the “how” before the “why.” These numbers are likely even more extreme in the association world.

Plunging into social media just because it’s easy, inexpensive and everyone else is doing it is not a communications strategy. And it’s really not free or low-risk when you consider how much valuable staff time and energy can be wasted on a misguided social media initiative.

The challenge of relevancy

Sure, social media arms you with a powerful global communication tool, but there’s also the challenge of having something interesting to say— and saying it on a regular basis. A recent study by Barracuda Labs found that just 21 percent of Twitter account holders had at least 10 followers, followed at least 10 people or had posted at least 10 “tweets”—the parameters Barracuda Labs chose to separate active from inactive users.

So much for “build it and they will come!”

Many of our clients are fascinated by the power of social media but greatly concerned about the risk of losing control over their content and losing member “mind share” to those with less rigorous standards. For organizations serving industries that are dangerous and/or highly regulated, this cannot be underestimated.

“If you don’t get there, members will get there without you,” said Jeanne Labella, American Public Power Association’s VP of publishing. “Twitter and Facebook are keys to our new online direction and they are very exciting, but they’re making our attorneys nervous. These tools give you so much power to reach new people, but you give up a lot of control over how that content appears, who reads it and who uses it (or misuses it),” she said.

Patty Long, communications director for The National Asphalt Pavement Association agreed, “It’s a difficult trade-off between impact and control.”

“We’re not using social media tools like Facebook or Twitter, except for our conferences,” said Rebecca Roberts, marketing communications manager for the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI). “We love the social aspect of those tools, but you don’t have enough control. Our members work in hazardous industries. Safety and best practices are top of mind with everything we do.”

Associations exist because without guidance, these loosely formed social groups (i.e. communities) would not have established leaders with the responsibility (and the time) for stimulating ideas and conversations, organizing meetings and driving the industry’s legislative agenda. Communities also need reliable filters to ensure that members share posts that are interesting and relevant to the majority of the community and presented in a way that is respectful and professional.

“On the Web, you have all kinds of people posting and sharing photos about issues and best practices,” noted ADCI’s Roberts. “They claim to be experts, but they’re really not. Not everyone understands the difference, particularly new entrants to the profession who are doing research on the Web.”

Although today’s so-called social media technologies allow anyone with Internet access and rudimentary typing skills to have a “voice,” or even a global platform with which to share opinions at little or no cost, these ideas rarely gain enough cohesion to impact effective policy change without leadership and responsibility. This consolidated legislative voice is typically one of the most valuable services associations provide to their members and their industry.

The revenue equation

In today’s economy, the pressure to generate non-dues revenue is a significant concern for many associations. Social media is not a shortcut to newly found revenue unless it’s carefully integrated into your media platform. While the Web enables social grouping of specific industry groups together, it’s pretty hard to amass the scale, and audience credibility, that would entice an advertiser or sponsor. There is no concerted “drive” to encourage participation, and there is no verification that the user actually is a member of that group, as this usually is self-reported.

With Naylor and its association partners’ media properties, advertisers are assured that the person seeing their ad is indeed qualified and interested in their product offering. This allows associations to charge premium rates and “hold” their advertising rate cards, even in a tough economy. When it comes to reaching decision makers in specialized industry verticals, most advertisers will go for a smaller, highly qualified audience over a larger, unqualified audience any day of the week.

Online social networking provides associations with a more cost-effective and efficient way for disseminating these ideas and providing opportunity for feedback. At Naylor, we see social networking as another way to enhance the communication process between the members and the association. Naylor continues to work closely with associations to teach them how to use these tools effectively to promote their brands, their products and their policies. By doing so, the association can attract a wider audience for its products, services and advocacy efforts, thus increasing member recruitment efforts and generating more non-dues revenue.

Focus on the strategy, not the tools

Having a Facebook fan page alone is not a social media strategy. In a nutshell, Facebook is useful for posting news and photos and gathering ideas, opinions and information from your members and quickly gauging what’s important to them. It’s a real-time, constantly evolving platform that enables you to take the pulse of your members faster than sending out old school member surveys.

Twitter is not so much a conversation as it is a real-time updating mechanism. It doesn’t have the bandwidth or credibility to provide analysis and best practices, but it’s great for real time snippets and updates from a gathering or a newsworthy event site.

The social media technology you use doesn’t really matter. It’s the strategy that matters. Nail down your strategy first, then you can decide which tools to use to execute it.

Marcus Underwood is vice president and general manager of NaylorNet, the online media solutions division of Naylor, LLC.