At a recent meeting of the Georgia Society of Association Executives (GSAE) I attended a break-out session on membership communications. As part of the presentation, the speaker shared the results of a survey that his firm (whose clients include hundreds of associations, chambers, and other membership-based organizations) had taken, asking those clients what they considered to be their biggest communications challenges. The results were interesting.
The top three challenges identified were:
1) Getting our message noticed through all the clutter
2) Communicating the benefits of membership to members and prospects
3) Maintaining our position as the number 1 resource in the industry or profession for our members
The first answer wasn’t surprising at all. That’s everyone’s top membership communications challenge. With email, snailmail, Twitter, Linked-in, Facebook, chat rooms, list serves, mobile devices, and who knows what other ways people use to communicate now, just getting noticed is a big achievement. The best we can do here is to get to know our members as well as possible and try to determine what method works best for getting through.
The other two items on the list troubled me a little.
Number two – communicating the benefits of membership to members and prospects – left me with a big “HUH?”
Isn’t that the most important thing we’re supposed to be communicating to our members and prospects – what we’re doing with their dues? If we’re having trouble identifying and communicating the benefits of membership then we need a “communications audit,” and we need it fast!
Number three might actually hold one of the answers to number two, if we look at them realistically. If organizations are struggling to “maintain” their position as the #1 resource for members (and thereby show the benefits of membership to them), we should start by determining why our #1 status is being threatened.
I think it boils down to the fact that we don’t have a lot of the “competitive advantages” we (associations and other membership organizations) used to have. “Back in the day” (as we refer to anything prior to the internet) most membership organizations marketed a list of benefits that promised their members a true advantage in the marketplace and the work place. These advantages included:
-The time advantage – association membership meant you would get information faster than others (who weren’t members)
-The information advantage – members had access to more information than nonmembers
-The resource advantage –leveling the “playing field” by putting resources into the hands of small members, new practitioners, etc.
-The loyalty advantage – organizations responded to specific needs of an industry or profession (“only we represent you”)
-The networking advantage – exclusive (members-only) access to industry leaders and peers
-The cost advantage – group purchasing programs for members
-The connection advantage – bringing members together from across the U.S. and around the world
-The “voice” advantage – only through organizations like ours could our members’ voices be heard
So what happened to all of these advantages? How did we lose our grip on being the #1 Resource for our members? Well………..
-The time advantage – along came the internet
-The information advantage – along came Google
-The resource advantage – along came eBay
-The networking advantage – along came Facebook and Linked In
-The cost advantage – along came Groupon
-The connection advantage – along came Skype
-The “voice” advantage – along came the Bloggers
Is there any advantage left, anything we can show as truly a unique advantage – benefit – of being a member of our organization?
Yes, there is at least one.
It’s the leadership advantage.
Google doesn’t want you to lead. Facebook doesn’t care about your company’s viewpoint. Linked In won’t make you an industry spokesperson. YouTube gives you no committee input. eBay doesn’t provide a seat at the table. They want your money, just like every other provider.
But membership organizations – your trade, professional, and community organizations – give you a place to become a true leader in your chosen field, or your community, or the world. If you want to regain that unique benefit you can offer your members and prospects, that competitive advantage, invest in leadership development, and make sure your members know about it.
When your organization invests in leadership development, a lot of things – all of them good – happen for you. Things like:
-credibility for your “brand” (your leaders are HUGE part of your image)
-enhanced relationships with employers (many organizations have a specific communications program to tell employers what leadership involvement means for their companies and institutions)
-impact on advocacy efforts, as leaders become better able and more willing to tell your story to those in positions of authority
-influence on the future of your industry, profession, and community as your organization’s leaders become leaders in those circles
-enhanced public relations for your group as your leaders gain recognition for their skills as well as their positions
-fundraising opportunities, as the reputation of your organization as a well-run, well-lead organization attracts sponsors, donors, and contributors
-alliance and partnership building, as other organizations want to affiliate with yours
The list continues, but you get the point. Even if technology and communications capabilities and a shrinking world are taking away all of the other traditional “advantages” we had, this one advantage – the leadership advantage – remains almost exclusively ours. We need to really re-focus on this advantage at a time when the others are being compromised.
And, now that I think of it, here is something else very positive about the “leadership advantage” – size doesn’t matter. Even the smallest organizations can develop a meaningful leadership development program.
There are plenty of resources and information out there to help you get started, or to help take your program to the next level. The leadership advantage is there for you to use. Do it now.
(Mark Levin, CAE, CSP is one of the only practicing association executive to hold both the CAE (certified Association Executive) and CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) designations. He has provided leadership development programs, membership recruitment and retention consulting and assistance, and strategic planning facilitation for thousands of membership organizations around the world. His public seminars and webinars on membership and leadership will be starting again this fall. He can be contacted at deanv7.sg-host.com)