The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) is a good place to turn for insights into the association world. The organization calls more than 21,000 association leaders and industry partners members, and it represents 10,000+ organizations. ASAE provides its members with experiences, community and tools that allow them to lead their organization more successfully.
Last week I sat down with Robb Lee, chief marketing and communications officer, ASAE, and Sabrina Kidwai, senior PR manager, ASAE, for insights into the challenges and rewards of association marketing.
Why are associations important?
From plumbers and restaurant owners to lawyers and teachers to civil engineers and automotive parts distributers – there is an association for almost every profession. Associations set professional standards, surface important issues on topics that may otherwise be off the radar, and promote and position the products and services its members produce.
Beyond this important work, associations are also economic drivers. Their meetings can take over cities for days. They employ thousands of professionals (not just here in DC, but throughout the U.S.). And the professionals who work in this tight community tend to be as passionate about what they do as they are the members they serve.
What makes association marcom unique?
Though the skillsets are similar for private, public and association communicators, the association world is differentiated by the passion of association members. Association communicators work among invested, knowledgeable audiences who have a sense of shared responsibility over what the marcom team produces on a daily basis.
On one hand this is an opportunity, as members provide direct insights from the field. On the other, working in such a close community can be like operating under a magnifying glass, not just from an organizational level, but from the tens to thousands of members the association represents.
What are the most significant changes in association marcom in recent years?
Shift in social strategy from engagement to inbound marketing
With tightly connected communities of members, it’s no surprise that associations leverage the power of social media to foster community engagement. And in recent years, associations have begun using social media as a push tool, too – especially as content marketing has become more of a point of emphasis. Some associations, like the AARP and ADA for example, have done a good job leveraging social media to boost awareness around new product and service offerings, as well as to get a lift in search engine rankings.
Greater emphasis on communication
Across the board, associations are focusing on improving their communication. This may stem from increased competition from private companies, consultants and even members who, through the ease of social media, are beginning to facilitate some of the conversations once led by associations. To address this new focus on communication, medium and large associations have begun hiring CMOs, often from the private sector.
Greater emphasis on analytics
This new breed of CMOs has made analytics a priority. Though this is generally thought of as a positive, some worry creativity will be stifled as innovative campaigns are passed on for those concepts proven to drive web traffic. Some also worry that the influx of data will overwhelm associations, causing paralysis by analysis.
However, data will continue playing an important role, influencing associations’ decisions, particularly around what not to do and where to focus limited marcom resources. Metrics provide clearer understanding around what technology to use, what channels are most effective and how to get closer to stakeholders.
A shift in crisis communication
In today’s socially connected world, crisis communication has become much more fluid, shifting the paradigm from “command and control” to “available and reactive.” As Robb explained, “When the crisis hits, there’s no longer time for perfect language.”
There is also additional pressure on leadership to participate in conversations. For example, a CEO who is typically active on social media is expected to be active during a crisis, too.
Where is association marketing going in the next five years?
Competition is forcing associations to innovate. Refining social media strategies and taking a more strategic approach to content marketing, which Robb smartly defines as “creating contextual experiences that drive trackable behaviors,” are certainly part of this. But association communicators will be focusing more on differentiation, too.
One peripheral trend Robb expects to continue to gain steam is brand story telling. As associations rethink and redefine their brand stories, they will reevaluate where to focus their resources and how they can best support their members.
What does an agency need to do to better service the association world?
First and foremost, be part of the association community. We all do similar things, but to be perceived as a viable part of the community means you have to be engaged in it.