Social media is increasingly the place advertisers find their largest demographics. This is equally true for associations who seek to market themselves.
However, unlike many business owners, association executives are dealing with much smaller budgets with which to advertise. For them, it is important to act deliberately, and to get the process right the first time.
The first step to successfully marketing via social media is to recognize that associations have content that is worth sharing with their followers and their friends and family. Many organizations already send out periodic newsletters on paper or via email to keep members up-to-date on what the association is up to. By moving much of that information onto social media accounts, associations can create a news source that comes across as more immediate and personal to followers.
Luckily, many digital publishing platforms and blog hosting websites are already well integrated with social media and search engines, meaning that it will be easy for others to find an organization's content. It is, of course, important for associations to manually post content regularly based on what their members are most interested it, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't allow their audiences to do some of the work. By embedding sharing links and making them easy to see, associations can ensure that more readers will share the content that they find particularly appealing.
Social media marketing strategies take time to yield maximum benefits, but when done properly they can signal to the audience that an association is interested in reaching out to them.
There's some good news out for association executives—total association membership is growing.
According to a report in the 2014 edition of the "Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report," more than 50 percent of associations said that they have experienced an increase in membership.
"It's good news," MGI Vice President Eric Schonher said during a recent webinar on the subject. "The industry continues to grow."
In fact, as a recent article on Associations Now points out, this growth appears to be by and large due to member acquisition programs and other recruiting efforts on the part of associations. This is not a new phenomenon—the news source added that this most recent report marks the fourth year in a row in which at least half of respondent reported increased membership.
However, it is still true that associations have a lot of room for improvement. The study added that only 31 percent of respondents said that they experienced an increase in renewals. Another 36 percent said that this rate had remained the same.
It is not simply enough to add new members if associations cannot hang on to the one they already have. "As most associations count on their membership to provide the majority of their income through nondues purchases, the decrease in renewal rates could have a severe negative impact in the not too distant future," the report noted.
This is part of the reason why—as this blog has mentioned before—it is important for association executives to work with membership professionals, who can focus on the dedicated task of recruitment and member management.
In a U.S. presidential election, we can learn a whole lot about voter preferences, based on who they choose to represent them. The same line of thinking should be applied to member elections within associations. Voting is important for these groups as well, and association executives must encourage it.
It's true, of course, that you won't have CNN anchors to analyze the results of your organization's vote tallies. But, according to an article on Associations Now, there is still plenty of information available to those who go looking for it.
"Advanced election analytics reporting is similar to a census report—you can further understand active member demographics, how they're interacting, when and why they're doing it," Tim Masden, of Survey & Ballot Systems, told the news source. "This information is incredibly useful for planning future elections as well as high-level strategic planning."
This is particularly true in the case of large elections, during which members vote by computer on association websites. Masden added that by monitoring and analyzing election data, association executives can learn about which devices, operating systems and internet browsers voters prefer to use when they cast their digital ballots. They can also go even further by identifying additional features that members may be using when they vote. These include smartphones, QR codes, calendar reminders or single sign-on settings.
Why is all of this important? On the surface, it gives associations a better picture of who their voters are. But more importantly, it gives association executives the tools they need to improve the organization's voting system in such a way that will make it easier to vote.
Convincing new members to join their organization is only one challenge that association executives face. The next step is more difficult—encouraging them to stay and become important contributors.
A recent article on Associations Now argues that the answer to this problem is a simple one. Associations should make a greater effort to involve new members in organization activities to give them the opportunity to gain more experience.
The news source cites the American Neurological Association, which recently removed a number of membership eligibility requirements and opened itself up to anyone with a faculty position in neurology at a medical school in U.S. or Canada.
Previously, only older veterans in the field could join, and they did so in limited numbers. But now, hundreds of new members are joining. ANA Director of Education and Member Services Jessica Smith told the news source that one important goal is to get these new members on committees, where they can start feeling like that have an important role to play within the organization. The idea is that this will make them much more likely to stay on for the long term.
"We have quite a few committees, and the committee work is a lot," Smith added. "The annual meeting programming is extremely scientific, so their participation in our interactive lunch workshop committee or our faculty development committee or our scientific programming committee is critical to the success of the meeting."
In the case of the ANA, existing members have reportedly reacted positively to the changes. It seems likely that this organization has positioned itself well for the future.
How should association executives communicate with members? When it comes to spreading important news and updates about what the organization is doing, it is important to choose the form of communication that will get the most attention.
In the past, this blog has dedicated several articles to the importance of social media in communication. While this is certainly a critical tool for association executives, a recent survey suggests that, in some cases, there might be a better way.
The Global Executives Study, conducted by Quartz, asked a pool of nearly 1,000 business executives and found that about two-thirds frequently use e-newsletters as a major news source throughout their day. In addition, more than half of the respondents said that they relied on email newsletters to bring them news about their own industry. Most of the survey participants added that they spent between 30 minutes to one hour every day reading news, and the vast majority share stories that they find interesting or useful with their colleagues.
Quartz conducted this survey as a way to learn more about how to focus its business news content. But there are many lessons that association executives can take from it as well. Many of these respondents are the same people who become involved in various associations, and it stands to reason that they would want to get information about their favorite organizations in the same way.
In short, associations should remember to put time into their regular newsletters if they want to keep their membership engaged.
You would never invest all of your money in one company's stock, right? So why would you want your association to rely on a single source of funding for the vast majority of its revenue?
Like the stock market, any one source of money can be unreliable. Many associations—particularly small ones—get the vast majority of their income from membership dues and donations. In one sense, this is a logical position. Many Americans are willing to donate a portion of their income to causes that they believe in. However, outside factors, such as the state of the economy, play a major role in how much money associations will ultimately receive. Economic downturns are a bad time to hold fundraisers.
How can association executives ensure that their organizations can remain stable, regardless of the state of the economy? They must seek out other revenue sources that are still closely related to their overarching goals.
For example, associations can host events that either charge registration fees or are sponsored by corporate backers. Depending on what the association does, these events can focus on educational goals or be directed toward networking or marketing. Either way, they serve to not only raise additional funds, but also to provide a benefit for members who are interested in the topics being discussed.
This is a key point. In addition to diversifying association revenue, regular events can be an effective way to reach out to new members who will someday pay dues and donate. Widening this field of individuals is yet another way for association executives to put their organizations on more solid footing.
Association executives focused on developing long-term strategies need to make sure that their boards are structured well and that they have board governance policies in place to ensure that the most qualified individuals are appointed to take charge.
The latter point is particularly important, because it is the personnel on the board that determines the direction of the association. Every time a new person joins, there is a chance that major changes will occur. At the very least, it is possible that the way the board interacts with the rest of the association will not be the same.
"Far too often, the way in which the board leadership transition process is navigated resembles piloting a plane: hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror," reads an article in Associations Now.
In order to ensure that board composition is in line with their vision for the organization, association executives need to improve their nominating practices wherever possible.
First, the obvious. It is important to make sure that the roles and responsibilities of board members are made clear to all those who apply—before the orientation process begins. A clear job description will ensure that only those who are up to the challenge will seek out the open positions.
It is also important to show a willingness to break off from the traditional leadership path. In many organizations, it is common to adhere to a path that rewards seniority. There are certainly benefits to this plan, but it also helps to consider less obvious applicants, such as membership professionals who deal with recruiting and retaining members. A successful board should be guided by those who bring different perspectives to the table.
Associations that are looking for new members have a number of ways of reaching out to them. In the past, this blog has dedicated posts to concepts like social media marketing, which is a great way to reach interested individuals indirectly. However, some association executives may wish to hire membership professionals, who are tasked with directly seeking out new members and retaining existing ones.
The job description of a membership professional can be quite broad, but its core purpose is to facilitate effective member management. In a recent article for Associations Now, contributor Joe Rominiecki noted that job listings for this position tend to highlight the importance of communication skills, retention and developing leads among prospects.
This type of experience is especially important, he added, because associations are increasingly relying on membership professionals for future leadership positions higher up in the organization. Because of their experience working with the members who make up the backbone of the association, there is often a strong case to be made that these individuals are capable of performing more complex roles.
So who should an association hire for the position of membership professional? Compiling some of the most commonly searched-for traits in job advertisements for this position, Rominiecki suggests that it should go to someone who is hardworking, possesses exceptional conversational skills and is not afraid to make numerous cold calls.
As we have written previously, recent college graduates tend to possess a great deal of energy and drive and may be qualified for this job. But in the end, it is up to the association executives making the decision.
When associations use social media to market themselves and attract new members, they accept a certain degree of risk. As we all know, anyone who posts on social media stands a small chance of embarrassing themselves with the kind of content they share. This often happens to individuals because they do not give their posts enough thought before finishing them. While association executives must contend with this issue, they also face the opposite problem—by overthinking posts, they risk sacrificing authenticity.
A recent article on Associations Now explained how this happens. Organizations invest significant resources into their social media teams, who spend the vast majority of their time seeking out trends, and developing strategies for writing posts that can tie those trends to their organizations. At times, this can get out of hand—one example the news source provided was that of Marketing firm Huge and its client, President Cheese, which spent two months preparing a single tweet about a Camembert product.
A long planning process removes much of the immediacy that is commonly associated with social media marketing, and as a result harms its effectiveness. To avoid this, organizations must try to mimic the close circles that every day social media users have. Instead of broadcasting generic messages to large numbers of people, it may be preferable to focus on smaller audiences. Remember, Facebook and Twitter are not the only resources available to associations. Snapchat and WhatsApp, to name a couple, may have potential to facilitate more targeted marketing.
It helps that associations are trying to reach out to people who may already be interested in what they do. By focusing on smaller groups of these people, associations stand a better chance of recruiting the members they want.