What’s Next in Association Marketing: 7 Essential Strategies to Carry Into 2021

Marketing has never been more open-ended. Advances in technology and the acceleration of digital have fragmented the discipline. Expectations are raised, the need for effective messaging has intensified, and the ability to “pivot” is now the difference between an organization stuck in the 2010’s and one who can pioneer the future.

For many associations, this leaves a complex question: “what’s next?”.

It’s common for association leaders to feel anxious and uncertain about marketing’s role in the next phase of their organization. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, tight budgets, hybrid work models, and shifting consumption habits (for example, reading content on a mobile phone versus a print magazine) made it difficult for mission-driven organizations to clearly communicate their value. The virus simply made everything more urgent, exposing outdated tactics and strategies that associations had been relying on for years.

What we have found, rooted in conversations with clients, team brainstorming sessions, and industry research, is that audiences are looking to maximize exchange value to meet their specific needs. This means the importance of marketing, often the most consistent touchpoint between brand and current or potential member, has never been more important.

The key is to create clear, value-based goals for marketing and strategy, then determining the capabilities needed to achieve it. Without that understanding, new technologies, processes, or structures are unlikely to deliver much performance improvement.

Today we’re breaking down the seven essential strategies to carry into 2021 to help associations and other mission-driven organizations start the new year with confidence.

1. Selecting Venues to Meet Evolving Digital Requests

As your association prepares for future meetings, conferences, and events, what amenities will you be looking for in potential venues? Which will matter most to your members? Perhaps the most important part of any association’s 2021 strategy should be figuring out how to promote, prepare for, and execute an event.

In-person events are probably unlikely until the latter half of 2021 (even with a widely distributed vaccine). But that doesn’t mean organizations shouldn’t brainstorm about what to do when meetings return. Some of your members are dispersed across the country. People have gotten accustomed to attending events from their living room in sweatpants. What can you do to meet the new requests of your key stakeholders? 

It starts by acknowledging one simple truth: the health and safety of your attendees is crucial.

According to Associations Now, the best option may be to use venues optimized for both in-person and virtual settings. Many convention centers are rolling out new technologies and cleaning protocols. They are offering opportunities to both broadcast a conference to viewers at home and accommodate for in-person attendees. For example, The Baltimore Convention Center partnered with audiovisual company Projection to develop the BCC Virtual Event Studio. The space, which is fully customizable, can be used for pre-recorded presentations, as well as to assist with live webinars and live stream production. Hilton, IHG, and Marriott have also developed resources and tools to make it easier for groups to plan and execute hybrid events.

2. Delivering Personalized Content With Audience Personas

Aimee Pagano, senior digital marketing advisor at HighRoad Solutions said, “It all starts with the persona.” We couldn’t agree more. Shifting consumer needs heavily favor personalized content – your audience’s inbox is overflowing with spam from brands. It’s time for associations to target the right prospects with the right message. Creating audience personas is the best place to start.

Whether you’re looking to increase membership, drive revenue, or connect with external stakeholders, personas build the foundation of your marketing strategy. Think of them as a movie script. Of course, things can change, but the script informs action and provides a baseline to work from. Using surveys, interviews, and market research, organizations can gain a better understanding of the behaviors, motivators, opportunities, and challenges facing their audience to better tailor content, messaging, and marketing strategy.

Marketers should emphasize two things in 2021: eliminate hassle and enhance satisfaction. 

Focus on the customer journey and offer value for them along the way. An example is Delta Air Lines, which has become an expert at anticipating travelers’ needs and addressing them with customized messages. The airline improves its core product—the flight—by smoothing the service experience around it, providing advice and information on traffic to and from the airport, in-flight dining choices, boarding status, baggage location, and more. Such service proficiency across the customer journey improves both customer satisfaction and loyalty.

3. Investing In Diverse Social Media Platforms

Social media is an incredible low-cost tool for marketing, advocacy, and recruitment—if you know how to use it. The problem is, many brands choose to post frequently without understanding the different algorithms influencing their success on specific platforms.

What works on Facebook won’t necessarily work on LinkedIn—and this is what keeps social media accounts at a frustratingly low engagement rate. Luckily, our Marketing Strategist recently summed up how you should approach content on each of the “big four” platforms.

But what about emerging trends? The advice is simple: go where your audience is. If you’re interested in targeting a younger demographic, Tik Tok might be a worthwhile investment. If your members are 50-year-old working parents, Facebook and LinkedIn make more sense.

Then, there are other ways to spread your message. Medium has become a staple third party platform in the blogging world. Tik-Tok (and Vine before it) offer a new way to tell short stories. Substack provides a free newsletter option to get personal with your audience. What else is out there? If 2020 has taught associations anything, it’s that pivoting and being willing to “move imperfectly” is everything.

4. Testing Experiential Marketing

Eventbrite recently released the 2020 Event Trends Report which includes insights from nearly 7,000 creators that will impact the future of the events industry. One of the more interesting tactics on the list is experiential marketing or using branded experiences and activations to give people a taste of your event. The goal of experiential marketing is to drive memorable, lasting impacts with an audience.

Take the International Copper Association, which took their brand to the streets with a pop-up in 2017 during Climate Week NYC. To help visualize their mission, the campaign used an augmented reality pop-up activation at the event to breakdown the importance of copper to green construction. An accompanying app was developed that could read QR codes on their physical display. When an iPad running the app pointed to the codes, attendees could explore three-dimensional imagery and captions detailing what was “behind the wall” and how copper was at the core of it all.

Associations know the simple tactics like using more video and engaging members on social media. But consider what an experiential campaign can do for your next event.

5. Leveraging Analytics To Recruit, Retain, And Engage

Members usually have one thing in common with professional associations: their hobbies or occupation. But that doesn’t mean your members all share the same challenges, needs, and interests. Gone are the days of sending “everything to everyone.” Some people like opening up an email every morning outlining industry news while others get annoyed and mark it as spam. That’s part of the reason our agency has shifted to more of a personalized newsletter approach where you can determine how often you receive our emails.

Advanced analytics have been a staple marketing buzzword for years––and while it often felt like a futuristic concept, 2021 is the year where things like search engine matching, segmented lists, and Google Analytics will move from a “nice to have” to necessary strategy.

6. Streamlining Manual Processes Online

For many associations, the biggest decision they have to make this year is between paper or digital. We have covered it extensively with digital magazines and outlined the benefits and challenges associated with both sides. However, strictly from an organizational standpoint, the conversation is different. Between member applications, renewals, award entries, and approval processes, nearly everything can be done in a digital format.

Not only does an online platform eliminate human error, but it also makes the member experience more self-sufficient. Everything from membership applications and renewals to annual awards applications can be done through standalone digital forms, with all of the review and approval processes done through an online system — potentially integrated into the same CMS as the organization’s website.

7. Offering Tools For Members To Self-Organize

As outlined in the 2019 “Future of Associations” report by Digital Prism Advisors, “Organizers of groups have low technical barriers to entry, and often can assemble at scale with little overhead.”

So, what does this mean? Associations can lay the foundation for online communities and then let the collaboration between current and potential members unfold organically. A few ideas to consider are Facebook or LinkedIn groups, open source platforms like discourse, and a communications tool like Slack.

At little to no cost to your members, this added benefit can help associations grow as a community of like-minded professionals. This will also diversify your audience base and broaden the reach of interested members. While many people feel isolated and out of touch with their professional world, leveraging an open community platform offers an incredible way to build trust and connection over the long-term.

Preparing for 2021 and Beyond

What do you think professional associations should prioritize heading into the new year? Give us  your thoughts on Twitter @bdagencysocial!

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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