By Melynn Sight
An audit is a comprehensive view of an association’s member-facing materials. It includes all of the communications that an association puts in front of members. The audit looks for an editorial strategy, consistency in the copy, clarity about the benefits to the member, a message tailored to a particular platform, the way the messages appeal to the member (your voice) and content that links what the association does best with what is relevant to the member. The audit looks for links to communications goals, uses data to verify member engagement, and identifies methods to continue as well as concrete (clear) ideas for positive change.
So, why it is important for an association to get a communications audit? And what should an association expect from the process?
A little perspective: Alvin Toffler’s bestselling 1970 book, Future Shock, said, “Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity … consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.”
Forty-five years after Future Shock, on an average day, we are overloaded with information. In fact, the average person receives 147 email messages per day. According to an analysis by Baydin, 71% of them get deleted.
Common symptoms include comments like, “Our members simply don’t read” or “We want better open rates,” or “Members don’t understand the value we offer them.” Intuition tells them something isn’t working. Others say, “Our open rates are great, but we don’t seem to be getting better at engaging our members.”
Associations compete for members’ attention every day. Competing sources of information, education and perspective about any given industry in the inbox, on social, through networking groups and sites, often leave associations with a dilemma of how to win the battle for readership.
The main purpose of a communications audit is to get a third-party, outside-in analysis of how and what associations deliver information to the member. It’s natural that communicators are so close to their communications work that they often resort to ineffective ways to solve the communications problem: If the event, class or call to action is not adequate, then communicate more, more often, and continue to promote, promote, promote and hope the results change. Hoping for different results is not a sustainable strategy.
There are tools to solve this communications problem. It begins with a diagnosis of the problem. The solutions rely on today’s best practices, proven strategies and the right measurements. Through a communications audit, you’ll know exactly what to change and how to experiment with change to your communications approach.
If your goal is that more members open, read and do something different – including think differently about your organization – then begin with an honest view of what members see today.
What steps are involved in a communications audit?
Step 1: Observation from an unbiased set of eyes to uncover the problems standing in the way of making strong connections.
- Collect samples: Review every type of member facing materials – e-newsletters, hard copy (such as brochures or event collaterals), social channels and your website’s main landing pages. Timeframe should look back at a 3-4-month time period.
- Gather data from all communications channels: Data helps you understand what members are interested in and what gets them to engage. We benchmark the association’s results against industry standards to set a baseline; this way the association knows the delta to reach the standard. From there, associations set their own goals for improvement as they begin to make change based on the audit recommendations. Measurements are an ideal way to reinforce positive progress. Remember, what gets measured gets done. The following data is part of the review:
- Click-through rates for email
- Social engagement by month (followers, likes and shares, comments)
- Website data (top page views over time is adequate)
Step 2: Review and diagnosis of practices that weave through your communications, including editorial, consistent key messages and your association’s voice. For example, does the content follow an editorial process that reinforces the relevant topics members need most, or do you present information that you want your members to read? Does the copy build credibility for your expertise through benefits or do the communications talk about your stuff? Your events? Your agenda? We consider what’s going well and we also look for gaps. We rank the several criteria on a scale that helps uncover the biggest opportunity to improve your results.
Step 3: Document recommendations into a formal, useable report (beginning with an executive summary for board members who may not read the entire report, and then details the findings, examples and specific suggestions.
How does a communications audit help to grow membership? How does it improve a membership program as a whole?
We have a favorite quote at nSight Marketing from the philosopher Anais Nin: “Most times, we don’t see the world as it is; we see the world as we are.” Associations often see the world from their own internal perspective. Staff and leaders know more, understand more and care more than the average member at large. The intent of an audit is to see your communications from your members’ perspective.
In order to grow membership
or make a more loyal member base, they need to know what to expect from your
association. How will their work improve (or their risk be lowered) by your
services, tools and other offerings? What words actually explain your emotional
and tangible benefits? The way you communicate to them tells them what to look
for. If your information is curated from “all over the place” or if your
information is mostly internal, about the association (your events, your news
and your solicitations), it will come out in
An audit itself doesn’t help grow membership. An audit helps feed a strategic communications plan. The purpose of a communications audit is to feed new, effective rules, new goals and a new strategy into a plan to better connect with your members. A strategic communications plan shows alignment between the communications function, your association’s strategic objectives and your member. It is deliberate. It is a thought-out process, including goals, approach, delivery methods, key messages and measurements to help improve connections with your target audience.
From the audit results, you’ll know specifically where to make a shift, and begin to talk about member services, industry trends and information from a different perspective. The audit will help set rules for your communications process that will build connections with your target audiences, including if your target is prospective members.
What areas do you see most associations needing to improve upon?
There are three key trouble areas:
- Associations focusing too much on themselves: their offerings, their services, their events.
- Lack of a simple and clear value proposition – an umbrella message that conveys what’s really in it for the member.
- Too much focus on features and not enough focus on benefits (why the service or tool or event matters to the member).
A healthy communications process puts an intentional and relentless focus on the member.
The best way to break through the communications noise, overload and attention barrier is to present a clear and consistent message throughout your varied communications about how your association solves members’ problems. Solving their problems begins with knowing what they worry about and knowing yourself (the association) very well. Finding the link between what important member segments need most and what the association does best to answer that need is a recipe for readership, relevance and better results!
What are common steps to take after a communications audit?
Consider leaving the office for a cup of coffee and a different environment when you review the results. The Communications Director and CEO should do this separately, then come together later to discuss the results.
- Set aside time to review the audit report.
- Document your own observations. Since someone else made the recommendations, think about what you see in the results. What was eye-opening to you in the report? What issues were you unaware of? What resonated with you about what changes are necessary?
- Decide on a few actions you’ll take immediately as a result of the audit. You might choose to make a few simple changes first to gain confidence. Other changes will take time.
- Feed your new activities and approaches into a documented, strategic communications plan.
- Establish a measurement system so that you can track your results.
These steps will give you confidence in your go-forward strategy and ensure a return on your audit investment.
Melynn Sight is founder and president of nSight Marketing. She works with associations and their members in all aspects of communications, helping associations communicate more value to their members. Learn more at www.nsightmarketing.com.