New Strategies for Growing Your Association

If your group isn’t growing, it’s dying. That concept has been expressed dozens of different ways through the ages by authors, songwriters and motivational gurus. But for nonprofit associations and many other small organizations, achieving growth these days has never been more baffling.

We are living and doing business in an environment that is exponentially more complex than it has ever been and is almost certain to become even more challenging. With the speed of advancements, many of the tactics that led us to growth just a few years ago have become archaic and often downright useless. Remember telemarketing to nonmembers? Or offering three-months-free dues incentives? Once time-tested, these methods have since become obsolete.

However, the world of marketing still relies heavily on strategizing, demographics analyses and other research methods, all of which have modern tactics that associations can use to promote membership, improve communication and better target sponsors. Read on to see how your group can tailor these tools for its own benefit.

Develop new strategies. If you hope to produce growth, you must develop new strategies first. Start by analyzing the nature of your existing and prospective membership databases. The analysis should include, among many other things, probing demographics, preferences and the PEST issues (political, economic, social and technology). It’s a lot of work, but growth depends upon it.

Your focus on demographics should dig deeper than the obvious breakdowns based on age, gender and job title—you want to know as much about existing and prospective members as you possibly can. Pretend you just purchased a toaster oven and are looking at the warranty registration card. In almost every case it will be attached to a short consumer survey that might ask about your hobbies, interests, automobiles, family composition and such. That’s still fundamentally sound market research, and your association needs to do the same throughout the year with small, similar bursts. The key word there is “small”—most members would never complete a survey of more than 10 or 15 easy-to-answer questions, so drop the old idea of an annual membership survey.

Focus on engagement marketing. The door that opens virtually all opportunity for growth is engagement. It’s a term you will come to despise because, just like ROI, big data and content marketing, engagement is about to become ubiquitous. Embrace its importance and become an early adopter of the concept.

Engagement marketing is the logical extension of content marketing. While content marketing conveys the value that an event’s content can deliver power marketing messages, engagement marketing focuses on learning how an individual interacts with an organization in order to develop marketing messages that resonate. Typical questions that engagement marketing seeks to address include, “What constitutes an individual’s commitment to, and involvement with, your organization?” and “What level of influence does your organization wield upon that person, and that person on the organization?”

It might sound complicated, but it isn’t. Suppose you discover, through your engagement-marketing research, that 15 percent of your association members could be described as insanely loyal. Knowing this information, you turn to these particular members to help you conduct a modern version of the member-get-a-member campaign. And what about the remaining 85 percent? Many of those members might be transactional members—they remain members in order to secure product discounts or services that may be unique to your association. They represent the core market to which you’d want to keep current on special discounts and about certain products.

Those of us who are advocates of content marketing have discovered its power. It remains powerful and shouldn’t be cast aside in favor of engagement marketing. The two really should exist side by side because each type of focused activity teaches us more of what we need to know about our members.

Engagement marketing can also be applied to association sponsorships. Many executives would agree that there has been a massive change in how corporations and other potential sponsors weigh opportunities and make sponsorship decisions. Just a few years ago, most sponsors were satisfied to see their name and logo on banners hung in the exhibit hall, on your website or projected on a wall with gobo lights. Not anymore. Sponsors today don’t covet exposure; what they want is engagement. They want to engage with association members whose profiles fit their specific marketing objectives. And if your group can’t deliver multiple engagements with the right demographics, it won’t sell the sponsorship. What’s a typical demographic profile that might resonate? It really depends upon the objectives of each sponsor. This means you must invest time and money in knowing more about your members and prospective members. Then you need to interview key sponsors so you can learn what they want to achieve. Finally, match sponsors specifically with the right target audience—that is, members with whom they would want to engage.

Address communication issues. According to the trends database of the American Society of Association Executives, “Professions will become hyper-specialized, creating knowledge gaps and communication issues between specialties and subspecialties.” One needs only look at the IT, medical and healthcare industries for clear evidence of this trend already unfolding.

For associations, this means that unless you can develop the sophisticated resources that hyper-specialized members will find valuable, they are likely to leave your organization and coalesce with other hyper-specialized professionals in smaller—probably international—and much more specialized associations.

This is no small task and for several reasons. Not all associations possess the resources, research capabilities or governance will that will enable them to meet the rapidly developing new needs of a relatively small segment of their existing membership. Historically, nonprofit organizations have also been risk-averse. And boards of directors don’t warm to the idea of investing precious financial resources into emerging and small-market segments in the hopes they will pan out. It’s one of the reasons so many American associations remain essentially domestic and not international organizations. This can and must change if your group hopes to achieve real growth because, for most associations, the low-hanging domestic membership fruit has long been harvested.

Embrace diversity. Another hurdle to membership growth, which must be addressed and managed now rather than later, concerns the rapid diversification of American society. The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., has done extensive research about the dramatically changing nature of the American population, and Paul Taylor, director of its Social & Demographic Trends project, forecasts that within three decades, the nation’s majority will become its non-white population (which currently represents only 37 percent of the U.S. population).

Growing non-white populations raise enormously complex membership-recruitment issues for heretofore white, male-dominated associations. The rainbow mix of hyphenated Americans with different values, cultural, religious and dietary preferences will be daunting. It’s one of the reasons why 88 percent of members surveyed for the ASAE’s 2013 Association Marketing Trendswatch cited identifying and capturing new customers (members) as a top priority.

Once you have discovered the current and projected patterns of your members’ demographics, you can get to work developing new strategies that will work for some (but not all) of your membership components. Each must be addressed uniquely because the needs of each demographic are different. This is something we already know from our experience in trying to manage generational differences that have so materially reshaped our workplaces.

Invest in demographic research. To achieve long-lasting and sustainable growth, whether in membership, events or education, nonprofit associations must invest in high-grade demographic research about their stakeholders, including current members, potential members, suppliers and sponsors. This kind of research and analysis must become a well-funded, year-round activity. Being armed with a constant flow of vital data will allow your group to deploy strategies and tactics to create growth through sophisticated marketing means.

Groups need to embrace the idea that growth, whether in member numbers, meeting attendance or support of education programming, will rely increasingly upon the quality of the research data that your association develops about members and prospects. That, along with modern strategic planning, an adoption of engagement marketing, heightened communication awareness and an open mind on issues of diversity, will position your association to meet the future with open arms—and a healthy, hopeful membership.