It’s not easy being a trade or professional association these days. Economic, demographic, technological and socio-political factors are making it tougher than ever to recruit and retain members, to engage them meaningfully across a diverse range of communication platforms, and to find unique membership benefits that aren’t widely available on the web or the
Our latest research shows that associations of all sizes and industry compositions are communicating more frequently with members and in more ways than ever before—but our comprehensive research confirms they could be doing so much more effectively and efficiently.
For instance, in 2011, our annual Association Communication Benchmarking Report found that 62 percent of association leaders believed their members ignored at least half of the communications pieces they sent to them regularly. In 2012, that number went up to 75 percent of associations. Members of those associations would probably say the “waste” factor is even higher.
Nearly 400 North American association leaders from 90 industries took part in our 2012 research effort.
If nothing else, association communication professionals are adapting to their members’ evolving media consumption patterns. More than five out of six (86%) associations who responded to our survey indicated that they were using social media to reach members. That’s a substantial jump from 68 percent who said so in 2011. Respondents are also using these tools to communicate more frequently. For instance, a typical association is connecting with members, on average, 7.5 times per month via social media and 9.5 times per month via its print and online vehicles. By contrast, associations were connecting just 5.6 times per month via social media in 2011 and 8.3 times per month via print and online.
Based on this increasing volume of member communication, it may be no surprise that respondents overwhelmingly cited “information overload/cutting through the clutter” as their top communications challenge. Not only did information overload remain the No.1 concern, but the number of respondents who cited it jumped substantially—to 81 percent in 2012 from 54 percent in 2012. As was the case in 2011, “communicating member benefits effectively” was the second most frequently cited association communication challenge. However the percentage of respondents who cited this challenge more than doubled to 72 percent in 2012 from 32 percent in 2011. This finding was supported by a big rise in the number of respondents who believed “information about our products, services and resources” was important to members (ranked fourth in importance in 2012, from sixth in 2011).
Another fast-growing communication challenge we detected was “keeping members informed about events and continuing education opportunities. ” The number of association professionals who cited this challenge rose substantially to 52 percent in 2012 from 14 percent in 2011. On the flip side, “maintaining our position as their industry’s No.1 source of information” was only the fifth most frequently cited communication challenge in 2012, dropping two spots from our 2011 survey when it was third.
Perhaps a sign of the times, two-thirds of respondents said “informal member feedback” (social media, email, website etc.) is a tool they use to assess their key member communication challenges. Informal member feedback was cited more frequently than traditional means such as member surveys, staff assessments and feedback from board members and executive committees.
Unfortunately, staffing of association communication teams does not seem to be keeping pace with the increased volume of association communication efforts. As was the case in 2011, less than half of associations (48%) have more than one full-time staff member assigned to their publishing/content creation teams. In fact, the average number of full-time communication staff at North American associations declined slightly to 2.5 in 2012 from 2.7 in 2011. This trend was consistent among small, medium and large associations.
So how do associations learn to communicate more effectively with their time-pressed, media-saturated, ROI-focused members, and do so as frequently and conveniently as their increasingly mobile members demand? How do they deliver unique and compelling content and professional development resources that members can’t find elsewhere? How do they customize their offerings to appeal to more sub-groups? How do they measure their progress with meaningful metrics and how can they integrate their diverse communication programs to improve the member experience and non-dues revenue opportunities?