The communications struggle continues

2016-association-communications-benchmarking-report_page_04If you’ve been following this blog for the past five years (heck….even the past year), you know I’m a communications nut.

Seriously. It’s the center of everything I do – from my personal life to my professional life.

Without communication, both internally and externally, there’s no content, no strategy. Nothing.

But not everyone knows how to communicate, at least not effectively. That goes for businesses, too.

Last January, I wrote about Naylor’s 2015 Communication Benchmarking Study. Naylor has been conducting the survey for five years, and last year, the survey found most associations were continuing to struggle with communications. In fact, only 6 percent reported having a communications strategy.

Fast forward: Naylor recently released the results of its 2016 Communications Benchmarking Study. And….you guessed it. Associations are still struggling.

The top two communications challenges reported this year: communications clutter/overload and the inability to communicate membership benefits effectively. Both challenges have increased since 2011, with 69 percent and 67 percent of associations stating those are the largest obstacles.

At the same time, nearly 80 percent of associations said their members ignore their communications – up from 59 percent in 2015.

Also of note:

  • More than half of respondents recognize a serious or significant problem with the lack of revenue generated from their communication vehicles.
  • Most respondents believe they are good at creating relevant content, and more than half are conducting communication-specific surveys at least once every 12–24 months to stay on top of members’ needs. But, as stated above, those efforts are often being ignored.
  • Although 57 percent believe they could improve member engagement by improving their ability to customize for different subgroups, not many are actually doing it.

While under staffing remains a top concern among associations, especially in the communications department, some positive trends emerged in the 2016 survey.

communicateThis year, more associations reported success in helping their members find desired information quickly and keeping them informed about education opportunities and events.

While e-newsletters and print magazines remain top communication vehicles, associations seem to be expanding their communication vehicles. For example, according to the results, Facebook, webinars and online career centers have gained traction.

Finally, again this year, associations reported difficulty with communicating to young professionals. While integrated communication is paramount to success, segmentation and customization of communications is key to enticing young members. As such, Naylor advises associations to develop specific events, communications and mentoring opportunities unique to this group.

“In general, associations are doing a better job at organizing information and making it accessible to their members, as well as keeping their members informed about new events and education,” Naylor says. “It’s more critical than ever to make every message count. And while associations appreciate the importance of segmenting member data to provide tailored communications to combat the ‘overload’ challenge, a relatively small percentage feel they are leveraging technology available to do this effectively.”


Change is good…right?

innovationLeaves change. People change. And yes, businesses change.

But what about associations?

Most of us realize innovation is key to driving a business forward. New ideas, new inventions, new strategies, new operating plans. The options are limitless – even for associations.

Associations aren’t often regarded as agents of change, but recently, Marketing General Inc., in conjunction with the National Business Aviation Association, polled association professionals to learn how they set innovation goals, how they support innovation, what rewards and recognition they offer and how they set metrics for innovation.

Nearly 350 associations participated in the Association Innovation Benchmarking Report, which found most associations are at least moderately innovative. That’s a recent development, however, as most didn’t start focusing on innovation until the past five years.

According to the survey, association innovation tends to focus around a few main areas: website and social media; conventions, conferences and seminars; education programs; and membership, technology and marketing (56 percent each).

the-secret-of-innovative-companiesIn addition, associations reported that innovation flows from the top down, with CEOs and other leaders serving as the primary drivers of new thoughts and ideas. In addition, collaboration and communication and encouragement are the most common ways associations support innovation.

And it seems there’s not much middle ground. Associations either fully support innovation or not at all. At the same time, there are challenges – lack of resources being No. 1. Also, most associations don’t set goals to achieve innovation and often, there aren’t reward programs for striving toward and achieving innovation – perhaps because it’s an expectation, and, in some cases, a culture.

Other key findings:

  • Changes in the industry or profession and technological developments are the biggest motivators for adopting innovation.
  • Among organizations that have rallied around innovation, communication has been key to getting everyone on board. Permission to take risk also plays a major role in getting personnel on board with innovation.
  • Those organizations with a specific system tend to handle new ideas in a variety of ways: 50 percent rely on staff initiative; 48 percent have a special committee or group; and 41 percent develop new ideas with the CEO.
  • Increased member engagement is the most common way to measure innovation efforts.
  • In those organizations where innovation is not supported, respondents cite departments and people being very siloed as a principal cause for the lack of support.

Bonus content – Event Garde E-news – October edition


Angie Ahrens, director of meetings and events, Connect Meetings

Q & A with Angie Ahrens, director of meetings and events for Connect Meetings. Follow her on Twitter.

Learn: Q: What’s your favorite part about learning something new?
A: The excitement of figuring out how I can work with this new information, as well as how I can share it with someone else!

Network: Q: What’s your No. 1 networking trick?
A: Passion hunting. I try to discover what people are passionate about as it not only helps remember their name, but also links our personal connection. (Isn’t that what events are all about? People?) Note: Disney is a good way to start a conversation with me!

Transfer: Q: How do you think mentorship aids in knowledge transfer?
A: Mentorship is just that – the transfer of knowledge that is related to experiences. It is one’s responsibility to share the knowledge he or she has with others, to continue to strengthen our industry by strengthening our peers. I’m lucky to have mentors in my life, and only hope that I have taken all the knowledge they have given me to do good with.

Q: Please share with us a tool/resource/book/blog/article/website/etc., and why you just can’t live without it.
A: I have “magazine Monday,” which is a good way to stay current professionally. But I do love getting ideas from BizBash and a variety of Instagram accounts on events.

Q: If I were writing a book about your life, what would the title be, and why?
A: “Entertaining Life Daily.” It was actually the name of a blog I used to write, and it took me quite a while to come up with it. I realized that my personality is pretty optimistic and I was always looking at each day as a new adventure. I try to entertain myself and those around me daily, knowing that we have the opportunity to make each moment count. Plus, entertainment can be found in a variety of places – never stop looking!


What is Your Volunteer Culture?


Jamie Notter, founding partner, WorkXO

This month’s guest blog post is by Jamie Notter, founding partner, WorkXO

I think a lot of associations have a love/hate relationship with their volunteers. At one level, these folks do a LOT of work — for free — so their contributions are highly valued. We couldn’t accomplish what we do, given our resources, without these members moving the ball forward for us. And on top of that, we are membership organizations, so it’s the members who should really be driving things. These members ARE the association, right?

But there is also the shadow side of volunteers. You know, the ones who push too hard for their own personal agenda or are willing to reverse an entire strategic direction that was set by the leadership simply because they have a different view. These are the volunteers who drive us crazy, but we tend to throw up our hands about it, going back to that conclusion above: It’s THEIR association, so what can we do?

Well, it turns out there’s a lot you can do. Just because volunteers don’t get paid (therefore you can’t really fire them), does NOT mean  they are not subject to one of the most powerful forces you have at your disposal as an organizational leader: organizational culture.

Yes, there is a culture for volunteers. There are expectations about how things get done, and every volunteer has an experience of what it’s like to get things done at your association. They know how agile you are, how much collaboration is valued, how much you rely on technology and what level of transparency is expected from them. Even though they can’t get fired (unless they do something really horrible), the existing culture actually drives their behavior, so if you want different behavior, you need to shift the culture first. So here’s the big problem: We don’t set the culture for volunteers; we let them do that. After all, it’s “their” association.

I don’t think we realize how much value we are destroying by taking that approach. By maintaining a workforce that is that large, operating without a clear culture and having nothing in place to actually hold them accountable to a culture that drives the success of the organization, we are all but guaranteeing mediocrity. And I’m not saying all volunteer cultures are bad. That’s not the point. The point is you don’t know exactly what your volunteer culture is, and even if you do, you have set yourself up to be powerless to change it or shape it in a way that helps you accomplish your mission.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Earlier this year, at WorkXO, we released our Workplace Genome Platform to help organizations align their cultures with what they know is driving success. The platform revolves around an employee survey that helps you understand your culture with the precision and the nuance needed to make real and meaningful change inside your organization.

Now we are applying that same research and methodology to volunteers. We have converted the survey and the rest of the platform into a version that focuses specifically on volunteers. It gathers data from the volunteers themselves and will show you in great detail what your volunteer culture is truly like — across levels, geographic locations and volunteer tenure. Then we’ll help you determine whether that volunteer culture is aligned with what drives your success. Like the regular platform, it includes the survey and a year’s worth of resources and support to ensure the data you collect are converted into actions that generate meaningful change inside the organization.

This has the potential to unlock incredible value. Imagine volunteers who really knew what they were getting into when they signed up, where their routine behaviors were carefully aligned with what drives the results of the whole organization and where their experience as volunteers actually matched what they were promised as they were recruited. Suddenly, the traditional staff vs. volunteer battles would go away, because you’d all clearly be part of the same culture.

For example, here are four of the cultural building blocks on which we collect data in the survey:

  • If a process, procedure or approach is not working, we can correct it with ease.
  • People can make decisions and solve problems around here, even if they are not “in charge.”
  • We embrace change in this organization.
  • We eliminate activity that doesn’t move us toward our goal.

Again, these are just four of 64 different measures. When you start to see how different volunteer groups experience the culture and can pinpoint the contradictions and other patterns, it will open your eyes to the areas that need to shift in order for you to be more successful as an organization.

If you’d like more information on the program, please fill out our contact form and mention the Volunteer Edition, and we’ll get materials out to you.


Clearing up association chapter confusion

hires-trade-assocAs I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m a member of Public Relations Society of America, and I’m actively involved in the Central Michigan Chapter of PRSA.

While I enjoy attending PRSA functions across the country – during which I can network and learn from colleagues – I more frequently attend chapter meetings and events.

Obviously, convenience plays a big factor, since venues for chapter events are within the Lansing area. But also, I feel most comfortable swapping industry stories, exchanging business cards and hearing about trends during CMPRSA events.

And so, for me, my chapter is of the utmost value.

But that’s not the case for associations across the board, according to a new benchmark report by Mariner Management and Marketing.

The report found associations rely on their chapters for member engagement, leadership development, membership recruitment, marketing communications and local resources.

Probably not surprising (at least not considering my experience), networking and education are the top services provided by chapters. At the same time, the central organization frequently offers promotion assistance for events and meetings and helps with database management.

When it comes to dues, for the most part, central organizations, rather than chapters, set dues rates and collect dues. And in most cases, members are required to belong to the central association if they choose to also belong to a chapter.

As for training for chapter leaders, the most common form is an online discussion forum, with associations providing four educational offerings on average.

77Mariner also looked at the perceived value of chapters. Associations ranked professional development and advocacy as most important. However, when ranking the effectiveness of chapters in delivering services, such as membership engagement and leadership development, there’s a gap.

So it makes sense that alignment causes the most angst among associations. In fact, 37 percent of survey respondents said their chapters are somewhat or rarely aligned. However, only 5 percent of associations measure the ROI of their chapters.

“While there is nothing explicit in the survey data, we know from open-ended comments as well as conversations with respondents that there is an undercurrent of discomfort with the status quo on chapters, and some associations are trying new things here and there,” Mariner said.

In fact, the study found only 13 percent of respondents scored their chapters in the top quintile, indicating that many associations view their chapters as rather ho-hum.

This could be because, as Mariner says, there are two major obstacles associations face:

  • The boards of most associations with geographic chapters draw many of their directors from those same chapters and these individuals are invariably reluctant to make substantive changes.
  • Much of the resistance to change also stems from lack of data due to fragmented, disconnected or non-existent systems, which make an objective assessment of chapter performance difficult at best.

So what do you think? How do you rank your chapters? Tell us here.


Pay attention to what matters most

same-pageThis probably won’t come as a surprise to many of you, but it seems associations and their members aren’t always on the same page.

According to a recent report by Abila, what members want from associations vs. what associations think members want don’t always align.

For example, millennials just starting their careers often turn to associations for job opportunities and career advice. But baby boomers, who are winding down their careers, may instead rely on associations to provide industry news and trends.

The problem: A one-size-fits-all approach to association management and communication doesn’t work, but associations aren’t always good at segmenting their memberships.

Furthermore, many professional organizations take pride in providing numerous meetings and conferences when instead they should focus on job opportunities, credentialing and certifications, Abila found.

“Understanding generations and how they like to engage now is essential for any organization,” Abila said. “And acknowledging that an emerging generation will change the rules of engagement down the road – and planning for that – will help ensure success.”

Some key takeaways from the Membership Engagement Study:

  • Sixty-eight percent of members feel organizations are responsive to their needs, while 91 percent of organizations think they’re responsive to members.
  • Only 63 percent of members feel they’re getting good value for the membership fee, while 81 percent of organizations think they’re providing good value.
  • Seventy percent of members feel the organizations to which they belong are the voices of the industry, while 84 percent of associations think they’re the leading voices.

I alluded to it earlier, but segmented communication is crucial to member retention. In the survey, members said they most want to hear about industry news and trends, followed by professional meetings. Third: networking opportunities.

Perhaps surprising, however, was social media’s influence. While millennials indicated they’re much more willing to use social media platforms to connect with associations, email is still the No. 1 communication tool. Email messages were the most popular, followed by e-newsletters.

In terms of frequency, members said monthly communication is optimal. For social media, weekly communication is satisfactory.

career-journeySo what does this all mean?

“First and foremost, organizations need to have a sharp, well-defined understanding of where members are in their career journey and cater their content and communication strategy to address the needs and desires of their members based on age and/or career stage,” Abila said. “A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach no longer works in the targeted, highly personalized and technologically advanced world in which we live.”

Abila offers some tips:

  • An association should explore data within its AMS to identify new segments of its membership. Doing so will help associations tailor communications and think strategically.
  • Paying special attention to members who are just beginning their careers will reap great rewards – especially in terms of members retention. More than any other demographic, millennials (and in some cases Gen Xers) need career guidance and networking opportunities.
  • When it comes to programs, education and professional development, associations should offer a variety of choices, from hybrid to online to traditional conferences, and they should explore a spectrum of content delivery options. Simply put: Determine members’ career needs and meet those.
  • All the above is moot unless associations know their members. To learn more about their members, associations should engage in dialogue and survey them about their membership preferences.

Associations play an important role in higher education

Higher-EducationWhen I graduated college 16 years ago, times were different. I had a job before graduation and I never questioned the value of my degree. While I had an internship, the focus then on skills (vs. education) wasn’t nearly as strong. Today, students need internships before entering the workforce.

And then comes the price tag. My son is a freshman this year and soon, we’ll be looking at colleges. As some of you may know, I work at a university (in addition to my Event Garde role), so I live and breathe higher education. Yes, it’s expensive. And yes, it’s worth it.

But when I see students struggling to make ends meet and their parents sacrificing to pay tuition, it’s a scary thought: What will happen?

We’re facing a student debt crisis. Recent college graduates are saddled with thousands of dollars in debt and many can’t find a job, let alone start a career. So what should we do?

The answer may lay in associations, according to Elizabeth Weaver Engel, chief strategist for Spark Consulting, and Shelly Alcorn, principal for Alcorn Associates Management Consulting, who just released, “The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm.”

Educators should develop a better understanding of what students need to be learning, and then connect those learning outcomes to employment, they said. According to their research, students and employers agree on the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace: critical thinking, problem solving, oral and written communications, teamwork, ethical conduct, decision-making and the ability to apply knowledge.

However, there’s a huge divide in the readiness of such skills. Many employers report not finding such skills in recent college graduates because earning a degree doesn’t necessarily teach them.

But with credentialing programs, MOOCs, conferences and other online offerings, associations can fill the skills gap.

“With an education system that is being disrupted, college students graduating with degrees that fail to provide them practical job skills and more adult and nontraditional learners than ever, associations stand at a crossroads,” Engel and Alcorn wrote. “There are enormous needs we can meet: creating high-quality, competency based education; fostering social learning; and providing clear pathways to employment for students, the long-term unemployed, returning veterans or those individuals who are about to see their jobs significantly affected by the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. It’s a big opportunity and a big challenge.”

CBEOne example: competency-based education. Students drive their own pace of completion through a program’s curricular courses or modules by demonstrating competencies through learning exercises, activities and engaging experiences. CBE creates opportunities for digital badges, certification and micro-credentials to visually demonstrate ongoing growth and professional development for adult learners who seek career opportunities and advancement without waiting for completion of a terminal degree as the only signal of qualifications for employment.

“CBE offers the flexibility that could bridge the job-skills gap between employers and those who seek employment in professions that are rapidly evolving,” said Tracy Petrillo, chief learning officer for EDUCAUSE. “Because the learning can occur in varied settings and forms, individuals are not restricted by course schedules and access to programs. New business models are emerging, focused on making CBE programs affordable and on filling needs that are not currently well served through traditional post-secondary models.”

In addition, associations represent every industry and therefore can offer college graduates a pipeline to employers. Associations provide niche education – via credentialing and certification – something most grads won’t have entering the market.

But associations should move quickly, while the landscape is changing, Engel said.

“We have a rapidly closing window of opportunity here,” she said. “For-profits and venture capitalists see a $1.23 trillion market (the current level of student debt in the U.S.) and they aren’t going to sleep on that opportunity forever. (Indeed, the whitepaper covers some of the early moves companies are making into “our” space.) We have other advantages they’ll have a hard time duplicating, but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to waste our first-mover edge.”

The whitepaper offers seven keys to the shift in thinking, which I encourage you to read in detail (page 28) and offers suggestions for conducting workplace analysis (pages 28-29).

At the same time, Engel and Alcorn offer some tips for associations to take the next step in the educational spectrum:

  • Clearly define educational competencies needed, including soft skills
  • Clearly define career pathways
  • Consider alternative delivery methods and new technologies
  • Offer micro-credentialing and badging
  • Offer blended learning environments
  • Professionalize content development and delivery
  • Provide quality certification programs
  • Create effective alliances

“The education-to-employment system is broken and we need to understand why and what we can do to help,” Alcorn said. “There is a symbiotic relationship between education (acquisition of knowledge and skills), employment (economically rewarded activity) and living a ‘good life’ (an ethical, spiritually rewarding existence as individuals and as a collective). After all of the research we have done, we believe the current system may have been sufficient for the 19th and 20th centuries, but not the 21st. We can do better.”

Finally, some advice for millennials reading this:

Shelly img 26 large“You have personal power and more options than you have ever had. You are just at the beginning of an exciting and accelerating lifelong learning process. Focus on developing competencies required by a new employment sphere. Mix and match educational opportunities. Maybe a formal degree will give you the competencies you desire, maybe not. Maybe a certification can get you working while you pursue other educational avenues. Try MOOCs or coding camps. Try it all. The most important thing is to find and maintain a balance between education broad-based enough to help you build the trans disciplinary muscle you need to understand the interplay between systems, and education designed to help you develop a deep expertise in an area you find compelling or personally rewarding.”

– Shelly Alcorn

Elizabeth Engel

“Don’t discount the value of higher education, but also realize that it’s not job training (and it’s not designed to be), and it’s not necessarily the only way in to your desired career field. Consider all your options, including the education and professional development associations can provide. And if the association in your desired career field isn’t meeting your career and professional development needs, don’t walk away – kick a fuss! Get involved! Agitate for change!

– Elizabeth Weaver Engel

meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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