Taking the Time to Communicate Right

By Elsbeth Russell • July 1, 2013

Elsbeth Russell, Naylor.

You have helpful programs designed for your members. You serve as an advocate for your industry on Capitol Hill. Your association may even set the standard for quality in your industry by certifying businesses and individuals in their trade.

None of those lofty accomplishments mean a thing if you’re not telling your members—and potential members—why it should matter to them.

“Don’t tell them how a watch works; tell them they’ll be able to tell the time.”

As I sat in a session titled, “How To Make Your Members Scream Your Name, And Beg You For More,” at the recent Georgia Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting, I was struck by presenter Tom Morrison’s words and insight about the need for better engagement with your membership.

Morrison, CEO of the Metal Treating Institute, explained that while many associations spend time explaining what their programs do and what they’re working on in the industries they serve, they fail to explain to the players in their industry why those efforts should matter to them.

  • Many associations spend time reminding members about their programs and industry outreach efforts, but they forget to explain to the players in their industry why it should matter to them.
  • Segmenting your membership into subgroups and customizing your communication for each group will substantially improve member engagement.
  • When it comes to social media, don’t try to be all things to all people. Find out which platforms your members are spending the most time and “plant your flag” there.

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If they don’t realize that writing an article in your upcoming magazine will earn them 10 continuing education units, or that your lobbying to stop a bill helped save them thousands of dollars in fees, your members are not going to see the value of being involved with your association.

Not only will members not want to be involved if they don’t understand what’s in it for them, your members may even be put off if you’re not properly targeting your message to them based on their goals.

Your supplier members are most likely part of your association in order to make connections with the companies and businesses that make up your regular membership. They’re going to have different goals than your regular members who are interested in continuing education, advocacy and peer networking.”

Make the time to speak directly to your members.

During a session at the ASAE Marketing, Membership & Communication Conference (MM&C), Betty Whitaker, the director of member services and marketing at the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, shared that AMCP’s strategy for segmenting communication is based on grouping members by company type.

AMCP is made up of pharmacists, physicians, nurses and physicians assistants, and each has different needs that the association is trying to meet, Whitaker explained during the session titled, “Advance Your Marketing with Emerging Opportunities and Trends.”

Whitaker admitted that spending the time to tailor each message to speak to the different types of members in the association can be time consuming, but by prioritizing the channels through which she communicates, as well as by changing only certain parts of the message—for example, one paragraph and the subject line of an email rather than rewriting an entire message—she’s able to use segmentation to better communicate with members.

It’s time to evaluate your channels of communication.

Taking prioritization even further, while you’re tailoring your message to your members, make sure you’re not wasting your time by trying to reach them through channels they aren’t using.

For example, at the same session at the ASAE MM&C Conference, Del Baker Robertson, the director of membership and marketing at the Electronic Transactions Association explained that many of ETA’s communications are sent via LinkedIn, rather than other popular social media sites, because LinkedIn is a platform that its members use regularly.

Similarly, social media expert Corey Perlman explained in a recent issue of GSAE’s magazine, connections, that you don’t have to be on all social media sites.

“Decide where your audience is spending time, and plant your flag on those sites,” explained Perlman, who owns the social media marketing company eBoot Camp, Inc., which builds and manages online marketing campaigns for businesses. “If you’re typically targeting businesses, LinkedIn is probably the place you’ll want to spend the most time. With over a billion users on Facebook, chances are good that some of your members are active on that site.”

Perlman suggests asking 10 members of your association to rank the sites on which they spend the most time and follow up by asking how many times in the past month they’ve used each of those sites. You can then stay focused on the sites they ranked highest.


Taking the time to communicate the way your members—and potential members—want to listen can help your message have a greater impact on your audience.


Elsbeth W. Russell, senior editor at Naylor, LLC, works with association executive clients to produce content-targeted print and online publications. Contact her at [email protected].