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Disrupt or Be Disrupted: Create a Culture of Innovation at Your Association

Associations // Thinking through how your association can bounce back from the effects of the pandemic? Make sure innovation is part of your mindset.

Beth Arritt
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To say that last year was challenging for associations would be an understatement. The last 18 months have completely disrupted associations and how they do business. With 80% of annual in-person meetings cancelled, many associations lost the touchpoint that had historically been the most crucial in engaging members and ensuring renewals.

Numbers from Marketing General Inc.’s 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report show that the lack of in-person events, coupled with a volatile economy driven by uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, had a major impact – nearly half (47%) of all associations reported a decline in their total membership, which is almost double the previous year’s total (24%).

These declines had a ripple effect throughout associations, with two in ten reporting layoffs and salary or wage reductions. As one association staffer says, “The effects were financially devastating. Nearly all revenue-generating activities were canceled. Major cost reductions were enacted as well as a reduction in force (RIF).”

It might be easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom. In fact, your association may have been one that was impacted or even forced to scale down. But instead of sinking into the turmoil of the last year and a half, let’s instead look to the future. These changes, no matter how inconvenient (or downright devastating!), can bring opportunities in the months to come. But you can’t simply sit back and hope for change to happen. Your association must react, pivot, and innovate in order to thrive in the months and years ahead.

5 Ways to Create a Culture of Innovation at Your Association

Steve Jobs famously said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Are you ready to lead with innovation? You should be, or you risk getting left behind. According to MGI, there is a strong correlation between associations with an innovative culture and membership growth.

In fact, MGI reported this year that “compared to associations reporting membership declines, associations reporting increases in membership over the past five years are more likely to have a specific process in place to support innovation (22% vs. 17%), or are working on developing a process for innovation and new ideas (28% vs. 25%).

Here are five ways to be a part of the change by creating a culture of innovation at your organization:

1. Evolve with members’ new wants and needs

The last year and a half didn’t only disrupt the way businesses operate. During this time, people took time to reflect and re-evaluate their values, purpose, and what matters most to them. This has drastically changed what they expect from brands they buy, as well as the associations that they belong to. In fact, 40% of people now identify as “purpose driven” consumers who seek products and services aligned with their values, according to research by the IBM Institute for Business Value. As people change, you can’t rely on what worked in previous years.

Your association needs to spot the new demands of its members and close those opportunity gaps. You need to understand how your members are changing and what they expect from your association. This means re-evaluating (and possibly re-inventing) not just your positioning, your unique value proposition, and your member benefits, but also your association’s overall purpose and reason for being.

In 2020, 52% of associations believed that their value proposition statement was compelling or very compelling. This figure is up by four percentage points from the year before, but still feels low. By establishing an offering that is exciting and convincing for members of today (and tomorrow!), your association can set itself up for long term success. (Added bonus: fleshing out a compelling value proposition and brand will also help when it comes time for renewals – get ready for a strong bounce back from 2020 and 2021!).

2. Empower your teams to engage members across channels

One of the best ways to understand what your members want, need, and value is to, well, talk to them.

Your association’s staff – we mean every employee, across all job levels and functions – should be encouraged to talk to members, and a lack of in-person events shouldn’t stop you from engaging. There are plenty of innovative ways to engage members remotely and digitally!

A research strategy like focus groups are one method of engagement, but you likely already have channels in place that you can use. For example, you could have your staff call members one by one. But that isn’t the most efficient approach. You could also take a one-to-many approach by having your team engage members in virtual meetings, email, or on social media. 85% of associations increased virtual meetings in 2020 to provide members with new professional development opportunities, and these meetings could be used as a stepping-stone to engage your members.

Our favorite method for understanding what members need and want, however, is a many-to-many approach. This allows your team and its members to engage in simultaneous conversation and knowledge sharing in an online member community. Implementing and customizing an online community has many benefits beyond simply engaging your members – it allows you to use data and usage stats to understand what’s working, what’s missing, and how to further add value, all of which, in turn, increase engagement, drive loyalty, and reduce churn.

For example, The National Society of Histotechnology’s team uses qualitative and quantitative data from their online community search terms to create more valuable member benefits:

“We also use this simple data collection to help gauge member interest in specific topics related to the field of histotechnology, and include it in our educational programming. For example, we started seeing the word “prame” in our [community] search term report(s), which had never previously appeared. We investigated a little further and realized that this was a newer and important concept in the field, so we were able to meet this member need and seriously consider and selecting this topic for the final program at our convention.”

Whichever way you choose to engage your members, make sure that you’re encouraging your team to think of new, innovative ways in which to reach members. Take a page from the most innovative associations’ playbooks – they support innovation by focusing on communication and collaboration (62%), providing encouragement to innovative employees (52%), and driving innovation from the top down (45%).

3. Embrace technology that works for you

Often, when we think of innovation, we think of technology—and for good reason. Implementing the right technology opens plenty of new possibilities for your association to add value and understand your members. For example, member engagement technologies like online community and marketing automation software enable you to:

  • Segment members and provide them with the right content on the right channels at the right time
  • Improve targeting to ensure you aren’t overloading members with content
  • Automate and streamline internal processes so that your staff has more time for tasks that require the human touch – and to enable continuity if your staff is out
  • Build out a better, smarter member community
  • Identify and engage your most loyal members or members who are high risk as they approach renewals

We’re not talking anything too drastic here, and not all technology is right for all associations, but identifying, testing, and implementing the right technology can drastically boost your productivity and engagement.

I know this task might sound daunting, and you probably have a lot of questions. How should you evaluate technology? How do you know which technology is best for your association? What is the right fit to get our association where it needs to be?

You don’t need to answer all of these questions yourself. Consider forming a cross-functional “tech committee” who can research the latest innovations and help develop a new infrastructure that works for your organization.

At the end of the day, you need to make a decision to move forward. The cost of no decision can be far worse.

4. Create new value-add products and services

Now that you have a better understanding of your members, as well as a closer relationship with them thanks to your engagement touchpoints, it’s time to evaluate how you can best add value that encourages new members to join and existing members to engage even further.

In 2020, associations reported that the top drivers for members to join were:

  1. Networking with others in the field (63%)
  2. Continuing education/professional certification (37%)
  3. Accessing specialized and/or current information (32%)

By blending these global statistics with your members’ specific needs, your association can identify the most important products, services, or features that are relevant to your business.

Creating new value-add should be a continuous cycle – think if it like a software sprint, which is a form of Agile product development in which the team agrees on a specific set of priorities to be created in a defined period. After that, the next set of priorities are defined, and the next round of work begins. This allows your association to remain nimble based on changes in member behavior, new industry trends, or external factors (like a pandemic…).

Learn more: Defining the Value in Your Association’s Value Proposition

5. Promote your association to attract new members

With membership shrinking for many associations in 2020, it isn’t enough to simply retain your members. You need to grow membership. The good news is that membership growth seems imminent. During the Great Recession in 2008-2009, membership counts also took a hit, but made a remarkable recovery in the following years.

Innovation can help you lead your association to a successful recovery.

All of the previous four points will help improve your association’s image, which will naturally encourage new memberships, but developing new campaigns to further promote your association will spur an even faster recovery. Our favorite way to grow membership? By leveraging your current members’ networks.

By using your new technology (#3 above!), your association can easily identify the most engaged members. Develop referral programs and word-of-mouth incentives for those users to grow your membership. Once the content and offer are developed, use marketing automation campaigns to engage the right people once they reach a certain engagement score or threshold so that the program will run on its own.

Be the Change, Be the Disruptor

Our world is changing fast. Volatile markets are adjusting to a new normal, and associations can’t simply watch the change happen. You must innovate and adapt to change in order to engage members, reduce churn, and drive new memberships. This requires understanding members and their new wants and needs, adjusting offerings accordingly, and taking advantage of technology that makes both internal processes and external communication simple. It is a constantly evolving process. But associations that create that culture of innovation now will benefit now and in the future. Will you be the disruptor? Or will you be disrupted?

Beth Arritt

Association Strategist

Beth’s marketing experience encompasses more than twenty-five years of marketing strategy and member/customer engagement in various industries, including puzzles and games, training, education and aviation.

In addition to marketing, Beth has worked in event management and web development, wearing a variety of hats in different positions. She has also been an adjunct professor of marketing at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.

Beth received a Bachelor of Science degree in Merchandising from James Madison University, a Certificate in Event Management from The George Washington University, and a Masters of Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Phoenix. She has earned numerous awards for her marketing, including two Top Digital Marketer of the Year awards.

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