Let’s Get Intimate: How Associations Can Build Relationships With a Remote Audience

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” – Pete Drucker

Does traffic still matter?

Just two years ago, we lived in a society where “content was king.” The more you paid to promote it, the harder search engines and social platforms worked for you. Followers, stats, and shares were a brand’s digital currency.

But, as you know, COVID changed things. The pandemic peeled back the curtain to show us that fortune favors the nimble. Companies willing to step up and be the face of an experience rather than a statistic thrived––think Zoom and virtual communication or Morning Brew and its daily newsletter.

While millions of Americans physically distanced from each other, offices closed, and in-person events vanished, consumers began forging unbreakable bonds with their favorite brands in new ways. Entertainment companies like Disney and Netflix turned living rooms into movie premiers. Peloton and SoulCycle brought a studio experience to the palm of your hand.

In other words, the formula for reaching people has changed. Things are getting personal.

What does this mean for associations?

Members look to associations as a support system. Whether they’re trying to advance professionally, or counting on you to provide relevant, accurate information, training, and tools to make their life easier.

Brand intimacy, or the strength of emotional connections between brands and people, is the next step in your association strategy. As MBLM’s new study on how the pandemic is affecting the world’s leading brands explained: “Consumers demonstrated a 23 percent increase in the number of brands they have an emotional connection with.” The study also shows respondents indicated higher scores across all brand intimacy stages, which measure degree and depth of intensity of intimate brand relationships.

While building brand intimacy sounds intimidating (and slightly bizarre), there is a silver lining: this desire has created a new opportunity for associations.

The relationships you establish with members today are stronger and more meaningful than ever before. And many associations are already paving the way, figuring out how to connect with members on a deeper level. It wasn’t just household names making moves during the pandemic––association brands like NBAA, The American Marketing Association, and AUTM successfully hosted large-scale virtual conferences. NACE International and SSPC: The Society for Protective Coatings, joined forces to become AMPP during the pandemic to better serve the corrosion prevention and coatings industry, and offer more value to over 54,000 active members. We even worked alongside the NACS Foundation to evolve its messaging and campaign strategy for 24/7 Day, an event recognizing hometown heroes, including first responders and medical personnel.

The good news is, there’s a lot of room left to make a meaningful impact. From rethinking your marketing strategy to creating viral moments, our agency has several recommendations to help you get started.

Enter the smartphone ecosystem

Are you reading this article on a smartphone? Chances are likely with over 3.3 billion smartphone users in the world today. While brands want to reach audiences with trendy new tools and methods, many overlook the asset we rely on every waking minute to communicate.

Here’s all you need to know: Brands invested in the smartphone ecosystem generally outperform brands that aren’t.

You might associate the “smartphone market” with hardware. But apps and services are what drive connection in our digital world. Most associations have a dedicated website to engage with their members. Having a presence on your members’ mobile phones may be the missing link to your strategy.

Think about all the possibilities available for a virtual event promoted on mobile: push notifications, live chatting, 24/7 engagement, and one step registration will keep you top of mind, all the time.

Here are a few other ideas:

  • Make a mobile app for onboarding new members
  • Offer members on-demand webinars
  • Turn your print magazine into an interactive digital app
  • House member directories in one central location

Rebrand webinars as live events

Webinars have been a foundational marketing strategy of associations for years. They are a great tool for delivering timely, helpful content to members. In 2021, you’ll want to keep evolving your webinar strategy to target relationship building.  It’s not as quantifiable as something like “clicks,” but the value is indisputable.

“When you think of a webinar, you typically think of something you just kind of join and listen to. It’s educational, sure, but it’s also passive,” said MemberClicks’ Callie Walker. “To make your webinars seem a little more exciting, try rebranding them as live events. That gives the impression that they’re going to be more interactive…and more casual.”

Build an intentional culture for the stream. Make breakout sessions and chat rooms an integral part of the experience. Generate real-time engagement and break the third wall by speaking directly to people. Use tools and platforms allowing viewers to participate. Space out the content with an interesting, memorable experience: from a cooking class to sound baths, do something that positively changes the way viewers perceive your association.

Most importantly, make the virtual experience as human as possible.

Video is going to continue playing a huge role in association marketing plans. To make your livestream strategy more effective, cut the important segments into highly shareable pieces of microcontent. This will make your video more searchable, shareable, and consumable.

Use social media to build brand equity, identity, and image

Many brands on social media were clearly not “future ready” when the pandemic hit. Some decided to guard their brand image and say nothing while others got with the times and joined current conversations. Both options are risky.

In 2021, brand accountability will remain a major topic of discussion. As an association, members really depend on you for trusted information and shared values––how you position your thoughts, or stay silent, on certain issues will be under a microscope. The question is how to strategically use social media to aid in brand positioning when your audience is spread out and dealing with notification fatigue.

Here are several strategies we recommend:

Simplify content choices to remind people why your association exists, as well as supporting members as they navigate their own unfamiliar territory. The idea of being “everywhere for everyone, all the time” no longer works. Focus on the channels where your members are active to develop better relationships and messaging.

Nurture consumer relationships with your available marketing tools. Not just throwing single touch points out there but connecting every social platform with your blog, email campaigns, magazine, website, and newsletter for a consistent, recognizable presence.

Use videos and images to create shareable content. Viral moments are being built by authentic, human experiences––think of how people are expressing themselves like TikTok user Nathan Apadaca’s video drinking Ocean Spray cranberry juice on a skateboard. Content quality in these instances is rated by authenticity of the moment rather than production-grade.

The opportunity for associations on social media is game-changing. Tell stories. Represent a major shift in thinking. Create content for the future. And do it all by being simple with your choices, having a strong but flexible roadmap, and using videos to display authentic moments of the human experience.

Final Thoughts

Building and maintaining strong emotional connections with audiences is a core tenet of your association’s responsibilities. Shock from the pandemic has certainly taken its toll and it will be interesting to see how consumers respond in the coming months.

Since your association is synonymous with niche groups of people, finding new ways to relate and inspire to deepen connections will be a major challenge. Hopefully, armed with the suggestions above, you can start with a foundation to work from in the early stages of 2021.

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Jonah Malin's headshot

Jonah Malin

Jonah Malin is a creative marketing professional, crafting story-driven content to execute a diverse range of digital, print, and social deliverables.

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