Social Networking’s Impact on Association Member Service: Part 2

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

As we mentioned in our first installment, the topic of social networking seems to be on everyone’s lips—from trade associations to professional societies to philanthropic organizations of all sizes. Proponents say social media is one of the best tools they’ve ever had for monitoring members’ hot buttons and how they feel about the value of their membership. Naysayers say it’s a tremendous drain of resources that’s hard to control and significantly raises the potential for compliance risk and reputational harm.

To help sort it all out, we reached out to a nationwide cadre of new-media experts to get their views on why it’s so important for associations to get up to speed on social networking and how it can improve customer service and member retention.


  • Associations can employ social media to bolster customer service in four primary ways: solving problems, developing programs, providing concierge services and gathering market research. 
  • While large organizations may have staff dedicated to social media, experts say smaller organizations are some of the most aggressive users of social media. They have fewer compliance restrictions and are more likely to need low-cost/high-reach communications tools. 
  • Social media raises the bar on customer service. Dissatisfied members, no matter how small, have unprecedented power to share their experiences with your organization globally and do so at lightning speed. 
  • A successful social media strategy is one that involves two elements: listening and participating. Step one is to develop a continuous, action-focused listening strategy that tracks your customers’ conversations. Step two is to engage your customers with simple and genuine “people talk.”

“It’s one thing to use these technologies and tools, but it’s another to really have a strategy for using them,” noted Steve Rappaport, the Advertising Research Foundation’s knowledge solutions director at a recent video roundtable that I led. “Even for small organizations, the questions are: ‘How do I really use it to get our message out, and how do I really use it to portray what our organization stands for? What are our values? What’s our organization’s true personality?’ Often times that’s where I don’t see enough thinking.”

Unlike most media and communication platforms, social media is a tool that smaller organizations are adopting more rapidly than larger ones, explains fellow video roundtable panelist Rick Telberg, president of Bay Street Group Research. “It is low cost and easy to use, plus smaller organizations don’t have to navigate the levels of compliance and control that larger organizations do.”

Both panelists caution that social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs are not one and the same and the terms should not be used interchangeably. “LinkedIn is generally used for straight business purposes, Facebook is for maintaining social connections, Twitter is best for posting real-time updates to larger audiences, and blogs are for thought leadership,” Telberg explains. “Not only do these tools have unique applications for getting the word out about your organization, but a member’s online personality may vary greatly depending on which social networking tool he or she is using.”

Customer Service Goals for Social Media

Maddie Grant, CAE, and Lindy Dreyer, principals of the consulting firm SocialFish, have done extensive research into how associations can build community and improve customer service via social networking. Forward-thinking associations should have four important customer-service goals in mind with respect to their social networking initiatives:

  1. Solving Problems
  2. Developing Programs 
  3. Providing Concierge Services 
  4. Gathering Market Research

1. Solving Problems

Monitoring complaints really means giving associations the power to solve members’ problems. Conversation on the social web is much, much faster than traditional mechanisms members use to complain about something. Traditionally, a member bothered about something might tell his/her friends and then later decide to call the association office. We’d hear him out, promise to call back, maybe go tell a manager about it and wait for it to go up the food chain. It might be days before any action is taken to remedy the situation, according to Grant and Dreyer. Not so, today.

Even in a conference, a member might have to leave the session room to find someone on the association staff who could then tell a hotel employee that the heat needed to be turned up, and it might be 20 minutes before the right person was found to come check it out and fix it. But social media monitoring has the potential to speed up this process considerably, thereby keeping members happy and reducing staff time dealing with calls and/or e-mail communications.

2. Program Development

Gathering feedback data has everything to do with program or product development. Every association would say they want to meet their members’ needs, but monitoring for feedback-related conversations on the social web can give organizations an extremely valuable insight into members’ real-time reactions to the services they provide. Especially when considering educational, informational and professional development programs, we can now listen to our members as they are going through the process of participating in these programs. We can make sure we respond to feedback about how to make these programs more effective and more valuable, which, if done transparently, almost guarantees good word of mouth for attracting the next group of participants. Grant and Dreyer find association members want to know that their feedback is heard, taken into consideration and acted upon.

3. Concierge Services: Association as Connecting Hub

The concept of an association acting as “concierge” is a metaphor we like a lot because, in this digital age where information flows like water, the role of the association is moving away from “gatekeeper” toward something friendlier and more connecting. Using social media to find those members who are looking for something or someone specific and serving as the link that connects people to what or who they need provides immense value. It provides value in terms of real-time help, but it also provides long-term value as members begin to know that the association is actively providing that service if they happen to need it again in the future.

4. Market Research

According to Grant and Dreyer, the fourth customer service goal is all about market research. If we’re actively listening to and participating in conversations swirling around the social web about our association or our industry, we can look for discussions about certain things that members are saying they need but that we don’t yet provide. We can see if there’s buzz about those things from competing organizations. In an economic downturn, for example, we can hear our members saying they desperately need more resources about how to stay afloat in hard times. We can start providing more targeted services or programs. We can even identify that some older programs are no longer relevant to particular segments of our membership. Real value can be provided by associations who can hear what their members identify as new things that they need to do their jobs.

Maddie Grant, CAE, and Lindy Dreyer are principals of SocialFish, a consulting firm that helps associations build communities on the social web. Portions of their comments have been excerpted with permission from CalSAE’s THE EXECUTIVE – March/April 2010.

In our first installment on this topic, marketing communication consultant Toby Bloomberg explained how associations can develop a continuous, action-focused listening strategy. Here, she’ explains the next step: engaging your members with simple and genuine “people talk.”

Consumer-generated media is web-based and can easily and quickly be passed along to friends and relatives. However, it is not unusual for a comment from a blog post or discussion points in a social media networking community to find their way from the blogosphere to mainstream media. People are talking about your products, services, and employees anyway—whether you’re part of the dialogue or not. So the question becomes: Where would you prefer that those conversations be held—on a competitor’s blog or on YouTube? Creating a corporate blog or a YouTube channel provides an opportunity to participate and listen in on the discussion on your own turf. By allowing constructive criticism on your company blog and responding to it head-on, you may discourage a negative post elsewhere.

In summary, a successful social media strategy is one that involves two elements: listening and participating. Step one is to develop a continuous, action-focused listening strategy that tracks your customers’ conversations. Step two is to engage your customers with simple and genuine “people talk.” The bottom line is that people want to be part of organizations they know and like, and consumer-generated media strongly influence the way your brand is perceived and how membership decisions are made. Whether through Facebook, YouTube, blogs or another new-media entity, your company forfeits a critical competitive advantage if it is not an active participant in the conversation.

Toby Bloomberg is the president of Atlanta-based Bloomberg Marketing. Her background includes more than 15 years of traditional and new-media marketing experience, and in the spring of 2004, Toby launched the Diva Marketing Blog. She is a national speaker and facilitator of social media and traditional marketing topics for organizations.

A portion of her remarks is excerpted with permission from PERFORM: The Marketing 2.0 Authority.

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