by By Tom Isler | November 04, 2008
steggles2When Andy Steggles joined the Risk and Insurance Management Society as chief information officer in 1999, the New York City-based association had been struggling to attract new members. Membership was oscillating between 7,700 and 8,000 -- and had been stuck in that range, some years dipping to the lower end and some years climbing back up -- from 1997 through 2001.

"Risk management is about mitigating risk, and the biggest risk for an organization is declining membership," Steggles says. It was time for the association to start living up to its name.

Steggles knew RIMS had to focus its energy on the web and quickly devised a plan to transform the RIMS website. Priced at $1 million, the project was the largest single investment ever made by the association. When social media began to dominate web development in subsequent years, Steggles was able to incorporate those trends into his master plan to create an interactive member resource, with blogs, e-groups (e-mail-based discussion groups), wikis (web pages that allow anyone to add or edit content), dynamic directories, resource libraries for documents, videos and audio clips, and more. He even planned to create a network, following the model of Facebook or LinkedIn, for RIMS members.

The site launched in 2001 and results have been "phenomenal," Steggles reports. Within three years, the site recouped the $1 million investment and covered all operating expenses by generating significant nondues revenue. More importantly, the association's membership soared. Since 2001, RIMS has seen an annual uptick in membership of between 6 and 10 percent (more than 9 percent annually since 2003), thanks in part to the redesigned website, according to member surveys.

Growing membership and/or trade show attendance are endless pursuits for most associations. While the two goals aren't identical, they're often connected, and several associations, like RIMS, have discovered innovative ways to achieve growth in both members and attendees. Solutions range from high-tech to no tech, from pricey to free, and tend to address two central issues: creating a more valuable product and selling a better message.

Social studies
To overhaul the RIMS website, Steggles turned to Suzanne Carawan at Higher Logic, a Washington, D.C.-based company that provides software solutions to nonprofits. (Both recounted their success stories at the New York Society of Association Executives' Technology Institute, held last April.) Carawan, creative director and social networking strategist for her company, says the number-one reason her clients want 24/7 social media products is to drive member value, which, in turn, strengthens the membership sales pitch. "From a recruitment standpoint, it's a huge piece," she says.

And the technology has implications for how meetings and trade shows are organized and marketed. Not only do the virtual forums allow for the wisdom of the membership to be leveraged, industry information to be aggregated and new relationships to be forged, but they offer strategic value, too, Steggles explains. Information about members and their interests can be gleaned from profiles, blog posts, wiki edits or discussion threads, all of which can be used to hone event marketing pitches to individual members or to determine what content should be covered at meetings. Associations can monitor web activity to identify which past educational sessions still generate buzz and what the most popular keywords are to develop future agendas -- all without having to survey members explicitly. The more relevant the meeting content is to members, the more attractive it will be, Carawan says.

What's more, having a critical mass of user-generated content also helps the RIMS site's search engine rankings. High rankings make the site more visible to people searching for risk management-related terms, and that potentially gets the association's name in front of more nonmembers.

Currently, RIMS is developing a complex algorithm that assigns value to any action a member makes online -- a blog post is worth a certain number of points, for example, more if it's rated highly by readers -- which will help the association determine who's contributing the most. "At the end of the day, we'll be able to put a value on all of our members," Steggles says. Recognizing hardworking members will aid member retention efforts, an important part of increasing overall membership numbers.

Of course, social media solutions are not for everyone. "You need to know what your brand is, and if it fits and enhances your brand," warns Carawan. In other words, "Success should not be a surprise," she says. Those who invest in social media should be sure their members want it and will use it. But that doesn't mean associations need to be filled with young professionals to make it work; the average age of a RIMS member, Steggles says, is 49.

The startup period can be hard for some association executives. Fully functional social media web tools require the association to relinquish some control over what's being discussed under its banner. "Associations always have been seen as educators," Carawan explains. "Now the mission has changed. It's gone from 'we provide' to 'we enable,' 'we empower.'‚ÄČ"

The tools also must be accompanied by a robust marketing campaign, to encourage use and to let nonmembers know what they're missing. "The way I look at it, this is the biggest opportunity associations have ever had," Steggles says, referring to creating member value on the web. "But to realize the opportunity, they have to take the bull by the horns and be proactive about it."