Three Things Associations Need To Know About Digital Engagement

Associations have long been reliable resources for industry know-how, career advancement and measured advice to new entrants to a field. But today’s associations are in trouble. Memberships are either flat or in decline, retention is falling and revenue is drying up. The cause of this great withdrawal is multifaceted. Globalization has increased competition for memberships and digital innovations have made it easier for professionals to seek advice and train for accreditation — lowering the value of associations to would-be members.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve examined the high-level changes affecting associations today and how digital technologies and techniques can help right the proverbial ship. These suggestions include catering content to the future members of associations, millennials, as well as deploying digital tools that engage members and provide a more intimate relationship with members.

We also surveyed our association clients about how they use webinars to realize their digital goals. You can read what they have to say in our report, “ON24 Webinar Benchmarks Report: Associations Trends,” or check out our infographic at the end of this blog post for high-level takeaways.

So, how, exactly, are associations changing? Here’s a brief recap of what we found:

Membership Retention Goes to Digital Winners

Associations need growth and retention to thrive. In this current digital climate, though, they lack both. According to Marketing General’s “Marketing Members Benchmarking Report 2018,” the majority of associations reported either declines or no changes to membership levels. Associations also report that they are in a decline when it comes to membership retention as well.

The lack of engagement is the most cited reason for this drop in retention rates, according to the associations responding to the survey. It should be no surprise, according to research from Memberwise, that engagement is ranked as the top digital goal for associations. If associations are to succeed, however, they will need more than just an engagement mantra. They will need digital tools that allow them to measure engagement and quickly adjust content to cater to member preferences.

Millennials Want to Connect on Their Terms

Associations also need to bring on new members. In today’s environment, that means attracting the millennial generation. This is a difficult proposition, however, as nearly half (43%) of young members believe there isn’t a return on investment when it comes to participating in an association, according to a study by Personify.

This isn’t to say associations are in a hopeless situation, however. A focus on refining and developing skills, according to research by Community Brands, is shown to resonate with millennials. Tools which help facilitate career advancement are another option, as well. Finally, offering millennials various options for accessing this content, such as subscriptions for certain educational tracks, has shown promise.

Associations Need to Rethink Their Digital Approach

Regardless of who they attract and how associations need to rethink their digital approach. Targeting and retaining the members already participating in an association is a must. Providing services to attract new members, such as professional development and training, is also necessary.

All these elements require a digital touch. By using dynamic tools that measure engagement and provide audience insights, associations can quickly adjust their models and identify strategies that work.

How Digital Can Help Associations Rethink Memberships

Figures from Marketing General show that in 2009, association executives were most likely to say that members’ top reason to join was access to specialized information. In 2018, networking opportunities were by far the most popular choice, with 58% of associations citing them as the top reason, compared to only 25% for specialized and/or current information.

In a world where networking avenues abound, connecting with like-minded peers has never been easier. While providing networking opportunities continues to be a time-tested strategy for member acquisition and retention, associations should also focus on what can truly set them apart: high-quality learning and continuing education experiences.

A Tip to Consider

Use a webinar engagement score to measure the effectiveness of your outreach activities.

If your association is among those struggling to measure member engagement, use data from your webinars to find out what works and what doesn’t. These can be complementary to any other figures you are using, such as Net Promoter Score. Read our briefing on ON24’s Engagement Score to find out how multiple types of webinar actions can create a single, easy-to-understand metric.

The argument is compelling. The vast majority (82%) of members have completed some sort of professional development within recent years, but only 53% have chosen their association as a provider. These same members rated the quality of training and education provided by their employers as being significantly lower than that received from their association. Additionally, there’s evidence that offering certification has a positive effect on renewal rates: 43% of associations that saw a renewal increase also offer certification.

Providing educational material that supports professional development and career advancement is a key differentiator for associations faced with growing competition. As the data above shows, there are ample opportunities to tap into current market demand and meet members’ evolving needs.

How Digital Tools Help Associations Connect with Millennials

For associations, retention hurdles are particularly hard to overcome — especially when younger, millennial members are considered. Almost half (43%) of young members claim that there isn’t a strong return on their investment in association membership. More worryingly, one in three are not at all aware of the benefits their membership provides. But digital tools can help associations to overcome these issues and connect with millennials on their terms.

There’s evidence that reaching out to young members and keeping them engaged pays dividends in the long run: associations with increases in their membership levels (both one-year and five-year) are significantly more likely to have a higher percentage of millennial members.

Two Tips to Consider

Run campaigns and events specifically for younger members.

If engagement and retention of members earlier in their careers is a particular challenge for your association, run campaigns aimed specifically at them to address their needs.

Put high-quality training experiences at the heart of your value proposition.

All too often, mandated elearning or certification sessions can appear to be a painful chore for attendees. But it doesn’t have to be that way – by using webinars that blend multimedia content, resources and assessments, your training experiences can add significant value to your members. Always-on sessions help members choose when they want to learn, and they can also save you time by being highly scalable to produce. Read more about how webinars can improve continuing training and certification.

To boost engagement across all demographic groups, it is critical to understand variances by generation, particularly around how they perceive the benefits in their membership package. For example, research has shown that millennials place more weight on learning new skills and gaining access to career advancement, whereas Gen Xers and baby boomers see access to continuing education as the most significant benefit provided by associations.

Another key way of growing the millennial member base is to use more flexible models, such as subscription packages, alongside your traditional annual membership. Using these subscription-based models, members can get access to particular elements of your offering, such as content or events. The consumers’ growing interest in these models means that associations can experiment with alternatives in the non-dues revenue category and at the same time address the needs of young audiences.

The Digital Challenges Facing Associations

Professional associations provide many benefits to members. Memberships can certify professional standing and maintain accredited status, provide up-to-date educational material and a forum to network with peers. But there are digital challenges facing the association sector, especially when it comes to engaging

Operating models in the associations sector have changed over the last few years, with globalization, digital disruption and demographic shifts providing an outsized impact. According to Sarah Sladek, author of ‘The End of Membership as We Know It,’ “associations are being forced to rethink what is valuable in today’s market.” Encouragingly, associations are up to the challenge of adapting to this newfound change.

The Battle for Retention

Flat or declining membership has become a large-scale concern for many associations.

Data from Marketing General’s Marketing Membership Benchmarking Report 2018 show that while slightly more associations reported increases in membership levels in 2018 (up by two percentage points since 2017 to 48%), the majority reported declines (25%) or no changes (26%). Taking a longer view over the past five years, nearly a third (29%) of associations reported membership declines over the last five years and 14% said there’s been no change.

Learn how the AARP uses webinars to educate seniors across the country

In addition, the proportion of associations seeing an uptick in renewal rates have decreased by 25% since 2012 (27% in 2018 vs. 36% in 2012). Lack of engagement was the most commonly cited reason for non-renewal in 2018, with almost two in five (37%) associations mentioning this as a top reason

With this picture in mind, taking steps to increase retention rates and engagement has never been more important. Engaged members are more likely to renew and even support advocacy programs so zeroing in on engagement is key.

Where Associations Can Win

Separate research from Memberwise has engagement ranked as the top goal for associations and membership organizations for the third year running, closely followed by member acquisition and retention. Interestingly, retention returned to the third spot after a dip in priority in 2018. This highlights the associations’ continued focus on strengthening relationships with members.

Discover how the American Nurses Association retains and engages members with the ON24 Platform

The Membership Benchmarking Report also shows that associations are taking action, particularly larger bodies. Associations with an operating budget of $1 million or more are significantly more likely to have a tactical plan to increase member engagement than those with a smaller budget (64% vs. 51%). However, a large budget is not a prerequisite for success – across all associations surveyed, the majority (62%) already have a strategic initiative in place.

But although there is willingness to tackle the engagement challenge, there’s evidence that associations are not fully equipped to do so. Measuring the effectiveness of their engagement strategies is an area where associations are lagging behind, with nearly a third (29%) claiming that an inability to measure member engagement is one of their most significant operational challenges. Lifetime value analysis of a member’s economic contribution to the association, one of the key metrics associations should track, has declined in usage, from 16% in 2012 to only 10% in 2018.