You’ve changed things.
You’re guiding your association into the next generation, dealing with the threats of evolving technology, increasing competition for your audience’s attention and pricing pressures. That’s why you built that nice website, broadcast your content through multiple digital formats, and offer webinars and online networking opportunities for members. So why are you still struggling?
For many associations, the real question is: Are you looking ahead or just playing catch-up?
For many, it’s the latter. Your association likely provides the same foundational supports it always has—content, community and career development—but the way you provide them has to adapt. That’s why so many associations are caught in a self-defeating cycle of catch-up, trying to identify and capitalize on the latest trends in delivering education or content.
While your value proposition remains the same, the paradigm has shifted. And we’re not just talking about the channels where you’re delivering them. The associations that are successful now are doing much more than simply creating digital content, planning webinars and holding an annual conference.
To thrive, an association has to have two parts of an equation: a clear and sustainable value prop for members, and a stickiness factor. Marrying these two ideas is where the money is—the value creation that will endear members and prospective members to you, engendering stickiness and growth. That’s the formula for lasting success: the secret sauce.
Leverage your cred
Associations have a tremendous advantage: built-in credibility and clout. This is why content remains such a powerful force—one that spells associations’ future. As a trusted content provider, you have several advantages over the sea of talking heads and self-proclaimed experts who too often trade in platitudes or provocative tweets instead of anything of real substance. The first step is to take a hard look at the content that’s out there and determine what you can do better. Chances are, there’s a lot.
That’s the tack Steve Fox took when he became vice president of membership at the American Nurses Association (ANA) in 2011. The organization, which currently represents 4 million registered nurses, was built around membership, with more than two-thirds of its revenue coming from that side of the business. But membership was lagging, as more nurses turned to outside opportunities to network and communicate, and competing specialty associations lured away members with the promise of providing more relevant services to nursing subgroups in a time when more nurses were specializing.
ANA was Fox’s first association job, having spent most of his career in the private sector. With a background in marketing and brand, Fox knew that to grow, the organization needed to project much more relevance. ANA had to start segmenting beyond one-size-fits-all. The challenge was how to maintain ANA’s big tent—its appeal to several hundred thousand nurses across regions, ages and specialties.
To increase relevance, Fox had ANA adopt a segmentation model, parceling membership into distinct groups with specific, actionable needs. But slicing up such a huge, heterogeneous population into groups wasn’t simple. Fox knew that his organization could handle only a few segments before it would become too overwhelming to deal with the data, create the right programming and execute.
The staff talked about segmenting by role, education or job title—but it wasn’t ideal. Focusing on one job title over another, for example, could unintentionally alienate huge swaths of the nursing population by giving the false impression that one position is less important than another.
They also ruled out segmentation by specialty, since other specialty associations are active in the space. To figure out a different direction, ANA held focus groups and one-on-one sessions with nurses, probing into needs that cut across a critical mass of people. After a few sessions, a clear direction emerged: Fox’s team realized that nurses had different needs at each career stage. As the conversations progressed, the researchers noticed this broke out into three distinct groups: early career (first four years); up-and-comers (years five through 14) and nursing leaders, who have spent 15 or more years in the field establishing their positions and creating a legacy along the way.
This new differentiation model allowed ANA to craft content that could speak at once to huge numbers of members and prospective members while still feeling hyper-relevant to the individual. For example, the organization knew that for early career nurses, workplace bullying can be a huge issue. It created a free webinar called “Surviving Bullying.” Ten thousand people signed up in a week and a half, allowing ANA to create a reliable database.
For a big association like ANA, the segmentation strategy is not comprehensive. “We haven’t divided the world into three,” Fox notes, but the trio of groups represent the three biggest swaths of opportunity for the organization. Largely as a result of this strategy, membership was up 49% in the five years ending in 2017, Fox says.
When the ANA launched segmented content, it resonated because the organization had tapped into a strategic direction that maximized relevance to its audience. Its free webinars engaged and excited members because the content was incredibly powerful, very timely and came from a source that nurses intrinsically trusted—their association.
What ANA realized is that it couldn’t and didn’t want to compete with the nursing profession’s self-proclaimed thought leaders publishing on LinkedIn and tweeting with abandon. Fox realized what many associations still struggle to understand: Use your powerful brand equity to become an authority for your members—scrutinize what’s out there and make clear, sound judgments to ensure that your audiences know what matters most. Creating important, resonant content didn’t just galvanize existing members, it also “attracted nonmembers to our orbit,” says Fox.
The side benefit to operating this way is that when you take on this strategic exercise, you will quickly discover the white space: the useful content that could be produced, that isn’t out there and freely available for your members and larger community. That’s your cue to step in and create that content that fills the void, as ANA did.