The Power of Integrated Communications

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

Futurist Seth Godin quipped on his popular blog last week, “It’s easier to go faster now than it is to go faster later.” And that’s where we seem to be on the association communication front. The curve isn’t always easy to see, but many associations are sprinting to stay ahead of it. They’re aggressively experimenting with as many types of vehicles, on as many different platforms, for as many different sub-groups of their membership, than ever before.

  • Information overload remains the No. 1 communication concern for most associations.
  • Research shows associations with integrated communications outperform their peers.
  • A communication strategy that’s well thought-out will reinforce your brand, your member value proposition and your bottom line.

Why the urgency?

First, members continue to skew younger and they’re more mobile. A new Cisco study found that smartphone usage nearly tripled in 2011, and by mid-year 2012, there will be more mobile devices in the world than humans to use them. Still think it’s not essential to optimize your member media for mobile?

Second, information overload, which is often associated with communication clutter, continues to plague associations. Nearly 54 percent of association leaders cited it as their No. 1 concern in our industry-wide communication benchmarking study, and it comes up No. 1 again and again in the customized gap analysis projects that we do for individual associations.

“We have so many different audiences with so many unique needs, how do we reach everyone without overflooding them?” asked Daniel Obst, deputy vice president at the Institute of International Education. IIE is one of the largest global NGOs (non-government organizations), with 1,100 institutional members and world-renowned for its Fulbright Scholarship. “We’re certainly communicating with members more than we used to, but we’re doing it more selectively. We’re only sending them the information they really want in the format they want—not force-feeding them.”

As Dana Plotke relates in her video and slide presentation about strategic communications, tech innovation and the speed at which business is conducted can make it tough to stick to a traditional annual strategic plan. But, an integrated strategy simplifies the approach and “enhances your ability to sell the value of the association, your brand and non-dues revenue,” she said.

IIE’s Obst agreed. “You have to personalize your brand. You can’t be a big anonymous organization who only pushes things out to members that they can’t respond to,” said Obst, who oversees the organization’s network of 1,000 member institutions, plus IIE print publications, online directories, conference and seminars. “You have to make members feel individually welcome, like they’re part of your family. Social media’s been very good for that, and we now have 3,000 influential Twitter followers and 15,000 Facebook likes.”

Ken Ebeling, senior vice president of member/segment services at the 18,000-member Direct Marketing Association (DMA) in New York agreed with Obst’s notion of building family via social media. “LinkedIn has been very popular, with nearly 7,000 members following us. It’s one big community and really the main tool members use to stay connected with each other.” By contrast, IIE uses LinkedIn as a marketing channel more than as a communication channel. “We use it a lot for reaching out to LinkedIn Groups to which our members belong, such as Foreign Policy, European University and NASPA,” Obst said.

Communication integration

Back to Plotke’s point about integration, we mean not only breaking down communication silos, but making sure each of your communication vehicles has a clearly defined audience, frequency and purpose. Make sure you’re covering all the information that matters to members—news, legislation, advocacy, best practices and career advancement, for instance—but not duplicating efforts or force-feeding members irrelevant information that clogs up their inboxes.

Gary Hamilton, president of the Western Retail Lumber Association in Winnipeg, said WRLA decides which channel to use based on the timeliness of the message. If it’s breaking news, it will be tweeted, posted on the WRLA website and sent to members via fax blast, he said. It will then get a little more analysis in The Toolbox weekly newsletter and then be covered as an in-depth feature story (and companion video) in Yardstick, the bimonthly member magazine and e-zine.

According to Ebeling, DMA uses Twitter on an ad hoc basis, such as at its conferences or whenever important news hits unexpectedly, since they have a daily newsletter, 3D, plus a weekly newsletter whenever Congress is in session. Each of the DMA’s five major conferences has its own website and the organization now offers about 50 webinars a year on hot topics such as government affairs, best practices and regulations. Ebeling said webinars have been very popular as members can stay up to speed without leaving the office. Webinar topics are factored into DMA’s overall content plan. To keep it all straight, DMA has an overall editor for all things DMA and has been using “curation tools,” such as PublishThis to keep all the content humming across platforms.

Reader Note: For more on Twitter best practices and etiquette, read and watch our recent roundtable discussion led by Naylor Online Marketing Specialist Kelly Donovan.

When you talk about communication integration in the association world, it’s hard to leave out the 400,000-member IEEE (aka the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). As the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence, IEEE publishes about 30 percent of the world’s technology information and most likely sets the standard for “whichever device you’re using to read this article,” joked Jim Vick, senior director of IEEE Media and publisher of IEEE’s Spectrum magazine.

Despite serving a highly technical constituency, more than 80 percent of members still open the print edition of the magazine, Vick added. Spectrum is also published for desktop users, iPad, Android and Fire users. In addition to producing more than 1,000 conferences a year, IEEE hosts hundreds of webinars, dozens of publications, white papers and resources and makes every piece of content available and searchable to members in the massive Xplore digital library. The organization is making a substantial investment in HTML5 technology, so it can seamlessly “push content to all the media products we have going,” said Vick.

Everyone’s in sales

Another notion that’s hard for many associations to get their arms around is that everyone at your organization is in sales. As Bob Burris discusses in Communication That Sells, smart organizations are taking a cross-departmental 360-degree approach to member communication so that everyone, regardless of job function, is up to speed on the association’s assets and can reinforce the member value proposition and brand whenever they interact with members, volunteers, vendors or the industry at large.

Listening is fundamental

We spend so much energy on communicating, we sometimes forget about the importance of listening, said Burris. “It’s important to listen to your customers, your members and your prospects. Ask questions and be attentive to their needs, interests and what they’d like to hear from you.” The same goes for social media, noted Charles Popper, Naylor’s vice president of association relations. Twitter can be just as powerful for listening as it is for broadcasting. When used properly, “You will start seeing who the players and influencers are in your association,” he said.

Still not sure if it’s worth it to integrate your communications?

As our annual association communication benchmarking study concluded, associations with integrated communication platforms were four times more likely than their non-integrated peers to say members were reading/opening at least 75 percent of what they sent them, (24 percent to 6 percent); almost twice as likely to say their communications had “improved significantly” over the past three years (57 percent to 29 percent); more than twice as likely to have “best in class” or “above average” communications (76 percent to 35 percent) and four times as likely to have recency/frequency rules in place to monitor the volume of member touch points (28 percent to 7 percent).


As blogger Godin advised, “If you’re in a race, race now, because early leads and early gains compound,” and coordination issues get tougher as organizations get larger. So, let’s make sure we communicate smarter as we continue to find ways to communicate cheaper and faster.

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