Dickens could have been writing about the state of associations in 2021 when he wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While the struggles and opportunities are decidedly different than they were in 1775 when Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities begins, for many organizations this truly is “the winter of despair,” especially when you factor in a pandemic that just won’t seem to end during an already challenging era for professional associations.
And challenging it is. Membership dues, the largest revenue source for most associations according to ASAE, has been on the decline for years as baby boomers start to age out of the workplace and let their memberships lapse. Plus, educational content that used to be the exclusive province of associations now is widely available on the internet. And enticing the upcoming generations to join and, even more, become engaged members requires associations to stop relying on what has worked in the past and fully embrace what drives the social media savvy, mission-driven, networking-hungry next generation of potential members.
COVID also proved to be the gift that keeps on taking for associations. In addition to exacerbating an already declining membership base, the pandemic left a slew of annual meeting cancellations in its wake. With trade show booth fees and convention registrations constituting increasingly large percentages of total association revenues in recent years, the estimated $10 billion decline in trade show revenue has been disastrous to many organizations’ bottom lines.
In addition to losing those in-person annual conference and exhibit revenues, many pivoted to virtual events, in some cases hosting them for free – and that’s a hard bell to un-ring. To make a tough situation worse, many associations also had to reduce staff over the past year and a half, meaning they have to do even more with fewer resources, both financial and human.
Did we mention that this is also the best of times? Despite today’s difficulties, each of these trends can be reversed for association leaders who can attract and retain an active, engaged, passionate membership.
Here are three easy-to-implement ways to do just that.
Nowadays, your present and future members live on their social media platforms, which can provide insight into what your members are thinking, feeling, and struggling with. According to the Pew Research Center, at least 70% of adults use social media, with the number jumping to 84% for younger generations. Savvy associations use these platforms to connect with members, share information, and show they both know and care about the same things their members do.
Do a little digging to find out which platforms your members tend to use most. While you can’t go wrong with YouTube and Facebook, which still dominate the social landscape and are the most popular with boomers, knowing your target demographics can help. If your members and target prospects are younger, think about Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. LinkedIn remains popular for those who have higher levels of education, while women tend to flock to Pinterest more than men.
Jeanetter Kebede, Director of Communications at the Washington Society of Certified Public Accountants (WSCPA), says that her organization has been communicating with members on social media for the past 12 years.
“To engage members on social media, it’s key to know where they are and what platforms they’re using. For our members, LinkedIn is the most important social channel, followed by Facebook. We also use Twitter and Instagram as well as YouTube to a lesser extent,” says Kebede.
One easy way to find out where your members hang out in the social sphere is to include a section in your membership and conference registration forms for social media handles, along with email and other contact information.
Follow the relevant hashtags to find out who the “social media influencers” are for your association’s key topics, then recruit them to amplify your messages on social platforms, using incentives such as reduced membership fees, free association swag or conference registration or other perks — hey, if it works for Adidas, it can work for your association!
Post regularly, interestingly, and genuinely on your members’ preferred platforms, using relevant hashtags and always including links back to more information on your website. Be generous in spreading your members’ insights and perspectives by monitoring and sharing from your association’s official social accounts.
Kebede explains that WSCPA’s approach to social media is to highlight “what’s happening in our community and to put a spotlight on what our members are doing and, when appropriate, celebrating their accomplishments.”
Kebede continues, “Unlike traditional communication channels like email or print, we have found that social media is uniquely suited to engage with our members and foster a sense of community.”
One easy way to address challenges that keep your members up at night is to host a weekly chat (maybe a Zoom room or using another platform) that your members can count on as a place to come together to share their pain points and find solutions.
You already know what the hottest topics of the day are from your interactions on social media, so all you need to get it started is one to three thought leaders to lead off the discussion. They could be speakers from your most recent in-person or online event, staffers, those social media influencers, or members who are coming up with new ways to tackle common challenges. Just be sure to invite fresh faces and voices each week, and make sure your lead speakers reflect your membership in terms of demographics and market segments.
And don’t just limit your potential audience to your members and already identified prospects. Let non-members know all are welcome, and don’t forget to invite college students, your next generation of members. After five or 10 minutes of discussion, throw the floor open for discussion.
Sarah Michel, CSP, Vice President of Professional Connexity with Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, urges association executives to make sure their virtual events are timely for members.
“If you wait a month to put a webinar together and their renewal is coming up now, they may not renew because they don’t see it as worth spending their limited funds on. You have to show them you can jump in and rescue them, or at least show them that they’re not alone,” she says. “Just creating a forum for those conversations creates engagement and relevance for members.”
Also, make sure these “mini-events” are recorded so you can create an archived library on your website. Once members know and trust that these sessions are valuable, they’ll share it with their peers on social media and drive more engagement to your website.
Another proven way to drive engagement is to create an interactive resource library that members can access anytime, anywhere to get the relevant information and connections they need to thrive in today’s difficult environment.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) needed to find new ways to support its public transit members during the pandemic, when their members served as essential workers who continued to keep public transportation running even as COVID-19 raged across the U.S. Like other associations, it lost its main communication vehicle — its live events — as public gatherings were shut down. Sound familiar?
Working on behalf of APTA, lead generation and content syndication company Lead Marvels created a digital resource library for APTA that members and vendors could use to provide an always-accessible virtual trade show of sorts, complete with relevant, timely white papers, product guides, case studies, and industry analyses — and a way to make meaningful connections between members and their vendor partners.
One of the key benefits of the Lead Marvels solution, according to Jack Gonzalez, senior director of marketing and sales at APTA, is that it offers “a way to connect our members.” Unlike a live event that may last a few days at most, APTA’s digital resource library offers an “always on” platform to facilitate valuable educational experiences for its members, and it’s always available whenever they need it.
Kebede, referring to WSCPA’s digital resource library, says, “We have limited internal resources and staff bandwidth, so the Knowledge Hub that Lead Marvels built for us has proven to be a valuable way for us to offer more helpful, extremely relevant content to our members that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to provide.”Kebede continues, “Our members appreciate how frequently new content is posted. The Knowledge Hub provides resources to members to help them address the challenges they’re experiencing. And it’s available for them on-demand, whenever they want it.”
An added benefit: At a time when so many associations are still reeling from revenue losses, digital resource libraries also provide incremental, non-dues revenue opportunities for associations partnering with Lead Marvels.
It has never been more critical to find and engage those active, passionate members who will renew their membership and spread the word about the value your association offers. To engage members in today’s uniquely challenging times, you need to be able to show that you know the content better than anyone else, and that you can put it in the context members need to make sense of it and use it to meet their challenges.
It may be difficult to even think about taking on a new initiative, but these easy-to-implement ideas don’t require a heavy lift on your part. Remember that your members are struggling just as you are to get through to the other side of these tough times. Now is the ideal time to reassert your leadership as your members’ best and most trusted resource, cheerleader, and champion.