How To Strategically Plan for More Effective Association Marketing

While associations have proven to be a mainstay in the business and brand community, they face many obstacles that other companies and brands do not. While some may view budget limitations and membership fluctuation as a hindrance, evok sees the opportunity for creative and strategic solutions. With results-focused planning for past, present and future membership, along with smart and efficient messaging and budget planning, associations of every type and size can create stronger and more beneficial marketing efforts.

While sociopolitical change, economic climates and cultural shifts have caused concern for associations, particularly voluntary organizations, smart planning and the ability to be nimble and react to these outside forces will allow associations to not only survive, but thrive. Moving into 2014, associations should be equipped with a proactive and more effective marketing strategy, made up of the following four important elements, in order to stay ahead of the changing market trends and make the most of their best assets.

1. Internal Member Marketing: Make Better Use of the Low-Hanging Fruit
Low-hanging fruit is a metaphor commonly used, primarily in the sales and marketing industry, when describing a target (audience, product, service) that is easily reachable. Identifying the low-hanging fruit is a key component of a strong association marketing effort. Reaching an audience who is already familiar with the brand message and has shown a willingness to participate in the association allows for more opportunity for conversation and less need for brand development and education. It’s simple – don’t overlook what’s right under your nose.

In this case, the low hanging fruit within an association is the current membership base. Offering individuals or companies the chance to become part of the organization via a membership program, and then offering these members unique value propositions, creates a loyal and mutually beneficial foundation for success.

During a discussion on the top ten most important factors contributing to brand equity, a panel representing the Association of National Advertising found that brand advocacy came in at number three with 81 percent of survey respondents believing it to be the most important factor of brand equity. What a current membership group has to say speaks volumes.

A major goal of any marketing strategy is to create loyal brand ambassadors. When the membership base is strong and they feel they’re receiving value from their involvement within a group, brand advocates are naturally born from the relationship. Who better to educate their peers, recruit new members and inform the public with passion and conviction than those who chose to dedicate their time and resources to the group? When investing in current members, think of it as educating and equipping an army to go forth with a brand message. Missing the opportunity to speak to a current and active membership base, the most willing audience possible, and ask them to take a desired action is skipping over the most valuable and budget-friendly asset possible.

2. Welcome Back Lapsed Members
Membership reinstatement is a crucial component of the membership lifecycle. Studies show that members whose relationships with an association lapse in coverage are much more likely to re-join the same organization than pursue new associations. With that in mind, it’s surprising (and alarming) to find that only 32 percent of membership-based associations continue to contact members once their relationships have lapsed.

Some may wonder, what’s the proper way to approach someone who has chosen to no longer be part of the association? First, do the proper research to investigate the reasons why they have chosen to end the relationship. Exit interviews can act as a valuable resource in identifying any problems or roadblocks that may exist within the membership program or service offering. Further, it allows the association to determine which members have simply lapsed in coverage, versus those who have actively made a decision to end their association membership. This solid insight into members’ expectations of the organization offers the ability to win back those who have left, while also strengthening current member relationships before losing their participation for any trending reasons found in the exit interview process. Making timely incentives, deals and benefits readily available can also help welcome back previous members.

Perhaps the most important message to remember when reaching out to lapsed members is to not give up on re-establishing the relationship and value propositions that led them to connect in the first place. Membership marketing is all about exclusivity and it is important to ensure all lapsed members know their relationship is valued. Successful membership marketing validates, incentivizes, and rewards loyalty. Many associations have failed to re-engage. Consistent messaging with an ongoing effort to engage is the best way to restore relationships.

The following are great tools for welcoming back lapsed members:

  • Email, E-Newsletter, E-Blast
  • Phone Surveys
  • Incentive-driven benefits
  • Free Conferences and Networking Events
  • Social Media Marketing

3. Utilize Current Trends in Brand Storytelling
According to 2014 content marketing trends, emotional storytelling can be an association’s key to success. Based on humanistic traits, selling a message, idea or even product with emotion not only motivates people to make decisions, but it also inspires them to take action. Cognitive queues, environmental situations, and emotional triggers are all key elements in the decision-making process, and can all be used for more effective association marketing strategies.

A great example is of an association that draws on emotional triggers in the ASPCA. The association effectively plays on emotional triggers to accomplish their goal of driving individuals to take action by adopting a pet, volunteering at a local shelter or offering monetary support. If a viewer feels some kind of grief or inspiration after watching the organization’s touching commercial, the ASPCA effectively utilized human emotion to accomplish internal association goals for success.

Shifting to how media is consumed, with the majority of 18-34 year olds now spending 50% more time watching online video than television, new brand storytelling trends are turning to the digital content landscape. Storytelling is of the utmost importance for all forms of media, as it paints a picture for the audience and answers the question, “why should I give my attention and time to understanding this association?” When your message fails to resonate with the viewer or make any emotional connection, it’s guaranteed that nobody will share on Facebook, watch on YouTube or provide any of the virility required for success in the digital age. Consider the videos and ads that are shared constantly within your own Facebook newsfeed and discussed by friends. Most of these evoke an emotion – happiness, concern, amusement or even making the viewer laugh or cry.


The following key trends in emotional storytelling will allow associations to better craft effective marketing messages for the digital space:

Getting the right message in front of the right audience. 56 percent of 18-24 year olds say their main source of news is the web, according to the Reuters Institute Digital Report. The Internet is where consumers will continue to turn for information and answers. When users feel they can do their own research and access articles from more than one source, they’re more likely to trust the information.

Now more than ever, users demand transparency and accountability from companies they choose to support. They’re going to research what a group or association is all about, so offer a message they can emotionally connect with. Make the story share-worthy by giving the audience a reason to connect on a real, human level. Offering this element gives a brand clear personality and shows a face behind the logo.

Mobile Video
37 percent of consumer media takes place on mobile devices, and this figure is only expected to continually increase in 2014 and beyond.

Short form video is a major media trend, especially among young adults. Seeing as how YouTube is the most popular site among users ages 2-24, it’s no surprise that the attention span for video is short. When utilizing mobile video, make the emotional connection quickly and with impact, and then follow up with reinforcement in order to make the most of the viewer’s time.

Produce mobile video content quickly to maintain relevancy. As technology continues to give users increased speed and accessibility to the most up to date information, the demand for immediate content surrounding the day’s hottest topics will only continue to increase.

Social Media
It’s extremely important for associations to take advantage of social media marketing opportunities. For many non-profit associations, social media marketing has been the catalyst to their success in these tough economic times.

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research states that the 200 largest non-profits are outperforming both Fortune 500 and the Inc. 500 companies in terms of social network usage. Associations may also consider creating private online communities, as they can offer a safe and exclusive space for members to voice concerns and offer new ways of improving participation.

Carefully consider how news events, tragedies and sensitive subjects are addressed on social media. While it may seem that being one of the first to address a situation can provide an emotional touch point with the market, ensure the messaging doesn’t come off as self-serving.

Continue to incorporate emotional touch points within social media messaging. Social media provides an opportunity unlike any other to build rapport with a community, ask questions and learn from the audience. Through social media, take the time to get to know your audience and allow the opportunity to showcase the association mission and vision. If a connection is made on a personal level, social media followers are more likely to become an ambassador.

4. Strategically Manage An Association’s Budget  

In today’s economic climate, associations, most specifically non-profit organizations or those with tighter budgets, are finding it difficult to gain the necessary funding to survive. Many find themselves locked in competition for government grants, donations, and other means of funding.

To better utilize available marketing dollars within a strict annual budget, associations that face this challenge should consider the following five tips:

Build a Website With Easy Maintenance
With the existence of robust content management systems like WordPress, an association can acquire a website that can be maintained with regularity and ease. WordPress offers many pre-baked templates for website design that offer varying levels of behavior and functionality to suit any need for a non-profit or association aiming to cut web presence costs. As far as maintenance, a user with basic computing skills and knowledge of word processing can manage the website’s content via WordPress’s streamlined behind-the-scenes manager.

It’s still ideal that a website be designed to best express a business or association’s crucial information, but that design can be built with WordPress or a similar CMS as the foundational platform. In terms of cost-cutting, organizations could save potentially hundreds if not thousands of dollars by maintaining a website internally, versus outsourcing change orders each time new content is available. This also lends itself to the long-lasting capability of that website versus one that needs to be restructured and redesigned every year or two when web standards change or content shifts.

Schedule Social Media Updates
In terms of social marketing, the biggest problem for associations is finding the time to manage their various social media network content, and we all know time is our most valuable and sometimes most costly resource. The most efficient way around this is to write multiple posts ahead of time and use tools like Hootsuite to schedule these posts for staggered publishing over time. Facebook also offers a method for page administrators to schedule posts.

Send Bulk Emails
The use of mail clients like Microsoft Outlook for mass emails is no longer efficient after about 50 names on an email list. It’s recommended that non-profits or other groups with time and/or budget constraints employ web-based email marketing tools such as MailChimp, Constant Contact, or VerticalResponse to aid in crafting effective e-mail newsletters and mass emails. These tools offer vast libraries of design templates as well as merge tag capability for personalized and professional looking content delivery. These tools can also be used to schedule mass emails.

These services are generally very reasonably priced, in some cases offering free use up to a certain number of recipients on a mailing list, and depending on the service, may also integrate with website CMS platforms such as WordPress for even more efficient use of web resources and time management.

Quickly Find Relevant Content
One of the struggles many associations encounter in maintaining online communications is what to write/post/email about. The time it takes to research and craft this information with regularity can become rather costly and lead to inconsistent and infrequent content publishing. Tools such as Topsy are wonderful for alleviating this. Topsy is a full-scale index of the published social web, analyzing hundreds of billions of tweets, blogs, and webpages from across the expanse of the Internet. It can aid users and content creators in quickly discerning the top posts, allowing content to be consistently relevant and interesting.

Migrate to Cloud Communications
The maintaining of physical fax machines/fax servers and landline phones are significant and unnecessary costs since cloud services have come into existence. Move faxing protocols to a cloud-based fax service and receive fax-by-email anywhere that there’s an Internet connection or even to a mobile device. Gone are the costs surrounding fax lines, ink, maintenance, and repairs.

Moving a landline phone service to a cloud service can cut costs and add features to an existing phone configuration that may not have been included within an outdated analog landline plan. A good cloud-based phone service will cost significantly less than a traditional business phone plan and can include professionally recorded greetings, toll-free numbers, and advanced call routing as well as phone menus with multiple extensions. Many also offer features like voicemail-to-email, a tremendous asset for internal operations.

These elements can be easily implemented and managed to streamline and improve association marketing strategies. By making the most of a membership base, understanding and adopting future-forward communication trends and allocating a marketing budget with strategy and smarter spending, associations possess the opportunity to position themselves as market leaders and continue on a path to success.