Marketing & Communications

Turn Your Social Media Goals Upside Down

By Stephen D. Rappaport • July 6, 2014

Stephen D. Rappaport
Stephen D. Rappaport

There’s an eye-opening chart you’ll see soon from Association Adviser’s 2014 Association Communications Benchmarking Report. It shows all too clearly that social media is still considered a broadcast medium by many associations. That’s a huge missed opportunity.

  • Too many associations still treat social media as a one-way broadcast medium and are missing great engagement and intelligence-gathering opportunities from members.
  • Social media strategy is much greater than merely nudging or bribing your members to share, tweet or follow your content and calling that engagement.
  • Think of your members as belonging to a tribe, with your leadership as the elders. Discover the core reasons for your tribe’s existence and why members want to belong.


No doubt this gap results because outbound-oriented functions—marketing, communications, or content groups—take 70 percent of the responsibility for social media. The annual benchmarking data, compiled in association with Naylor LLC, shows that the four most common uses of association social media are: event promotion/awareness (56.6 percent of associations agree), news dissemination (46.4 percent agree); building public awareness (43.5 percent agree), member engagement/volunteering (43.4 percent agree).”

Of course, no association executive would disagree with this set of social media goals: raising revenue, getting the word out, and encouraging members to attend meetings and contribute their time. But is that the best use of social media, especially when social is seen by most organizations as part of an integrated communications plan? Yes, social media helps drive readers to event registration and newsletter sign-up pages, but what is it doing to help create an essential, vital organization that members actively promote, energize and advance?

Here, Association Adviser’s data presents a very concerning picture: “Some of the least common uses of association social media are: keeping non-attendees abreast of what’s happening at their own live events (4.3 percent agree); member recruitment (10.8 percent); enabling members to connect with each other (18.2 percent) and demonstrating that they can do social media (20.2 percent).

The lifeblood of successful associations is not circulating. Organizations are not promoting member or prospect knowledge, interaction among members and prospects, and growth through social channels.

To do so requires adopting an advocacy mindset. Not advocacy as in lobbying Washington, but advocacy in terms of passionate member involvement that spreads the word and builds excitement for your association.

Why is that important? Consider these views from three social media experts who contributed essays to The Digital Metrics Field Guide*:

  • “Buying a product, voting for a candidate, supporting a cause is no longer the endpoint of communication objectives. A communicator’s hope is that a reader will not only buy a product, but will also eventually advocate for the value and benefits of that product and provide an endorsement. … The ability to create advocacy is what distinguishes digital media from virtually every other form of communication.” (David Michaelson, Managing Director, Teneo Strategy, Research Fellow Institute for Public Relations).
  • “Today’s consumers read or view content but also contribute to it by sharing, liking or further spreading content; some of them even create new content. … It is more important to understand what people do for your brand after exposure to marketing initiatives or product and service experiences, which basically boils down to advocacy, word-of-mouth and word-of-mouse. Unfortunately, very few companies have yet understood that information and value streams should go through consumers rather than to them. The true value of a brand fan lies in what he/she does for the brand and the impact his/her actions have on others.” (Niels Schillewaert, Managing Partner, InSites Consulting)
  • Research done with Northwestern University showed that “The best metric of a brand’s health in online conversation … is advocacy—the number of individuals actively and enthusiastically promoting the brand. People’s willingness to advocate for the brand online is a leading indicator (by one month) of the brand’s new-customer acquisition. What people say online allows us to predict shifts in consumer behavior offline.” (David Rabjohns, CEO, MotiveQuest).

Although these practitioners primarily concern themselves with consumer marketing, the principles—members advocating for the value of the organization, endorsements that work their way through members’ networks, and desirable outcomes following—equally apply to nonprofit associations.

How advocacy fits into the social media equation

Advocacy doesn’t just happen by goosing the usual social media metrics, despite what you may have been told. Advocacy needs to be fostered by association leaders who are committed to nurturing a social movement among members and prospects to promote the organization’s causes, its values, and encourage them to spread its words and accomplishments, and help it be known as an organization that people want to join because it is doing great, wonderful, impressive and beneficial things. That’s a big difference from making people feel obligated to join because it does the usual things. That is especially important in today’s era in which every organizational membership is heavily scrutinized not only for its cost, but for its ability to help a member company or brand achieve its goals.

Advocacy comes from within your members. The goals mentioned a few mentioned ago need to be turned upside down. Here’s how:

  • Enlarge your mental model of social media. Keep using social media to complement your communications tactics and drive visits or downloads as you have, but broaden your understanding of the social processes that are inherent in social media, such as advocacy. Understand what members and non-members are doing with your content and, most importantly, why. Knowing why will give you important insight into their interests and passions, enhance your ability to connect with them and create the context for advocacy to emerge. Paul Banas of Kraft makes the important point that social media strategy is much greater than merely exposing people to your content or nudging or bribing your members to share, tweet or follow your content.
  • View association members as belonging to a tribe, with association leadership as its elders. Discover the core reasons for your tribe’s existence and why members want to belong, not why they need to belong. Beyond their logical and rational justifications, members often seek out new knowledge and people. They want to connect around shared interests, to grow into leadership roles within their industry and company, and to be emotionally engaged with the organization and one another. As elders, align members with the core values, support their passions and take direction from them.

Real world example

Take Harley-Davidson, for example. Although it’s a consumer brand, Harley-Davidson turned itself around with an explicit community and advocacy strategy. Harley excels at managing its member communities, co-creating new products with them, such as Project Rushmore, and segmenting their membership according to their interests: all members, Harlistas (Hispanic members), Iron Elite (African-Americans), Women, and veterans and military. Each advocates for Harley, but in different ways the brand recognizes and supports.


As David Rabjohns suggests, “create buzzworthy products and services that help serve the passion.” He cites the example of Apple’s annual MacWorld, which is “little short of a religion for its advocates.” Many companies host events for their members that fire up the base and renew their enthusiasm. Think about the ways your association can do that in a way that is authentic and meaningful for your members and prospects.

*Rappaport, Stephen D., The Digital Metrics Field Guide: The Definitive Reference for Brands Using the Web, Social Media, Mobile Media, or Email (ARF 2014).

Stephen D. Rappaport, senior consultant of Stephen D. Rappaport Consulting, LLC, is author of The Digital Metrics Field Guide: The Definitive Reference for Brands using the Web, Social Media, Mobile Media, or Email (ARF 2014), and also of Listen First! (Wiley 2011) and The Online Advertising Playbook (Wiley 2007). Prior to forming his consultancy, Stephen headed the Advertising Research Foundation’s Knowledge Center.