EACH YEAR PRESENTS opportunities and challenges – and 2023 is no different. While inflation, global conflict and political fallout continue to present challenges to the economy, overall morale and perceived quality of life, there are myriad opportunities we can glean from the better aspects of society and progress. The 12th Association Benchmarking Report of North American associations in mid-2023 found that associations seemed to have successfully rebounded from the effects of COVID-19, honed in on the most effective engagement tools, improved staffing, prioritized non-dues revenue generation, and preferred in-person events over the virtual alternative.
But still, there are association and member needs that require more attention. A discrepancy in staff and outsourcing needs, communications customization, non-dues revenue sources, and better resource integration are some challenges that were apparent in this year’s survey results.
Repeating last year’s trend, associations reached out to members via print/digital/social media/video less frequently on average. Weighing in slightly less than last year, communication frequency dropped, but perhaps this can be explained by associations participating in more in-person events postpandemic.
While more than half of respondents indicated specific departments were adequately staffed, other staff-related questions uncovered a need for more employees in some situations. The hesitation in outsourcing some of these specific tasks could be due to the No. 1 challenge of generating substantial nondues revenue – simply not increasing revenue enough to justify hiring more staff or outsourcing various functions.
Whatever the challenge or opportunity, it is all about learning how to adapt and seek out the best ways to provide value to your members.
In-Person Connection is Top Priority
Since the pandemic is behind us, associations are eager to be face-to-face, now more than ever, with colleagues to network and learn about their industry. The survey reflected this sentiment with 92% of respondents ranking traditional conferences, trade shows and face-to-face events as the top valued member engagement tool, up 10 percentage points from last year. Inversely, virtual and hybrid conferences are not as popular this year, with virtual-only events falling 8 percentage points.
The Social Mediascape
It’s a wild world when it comes to social media engagement. Associations do value the medium, as it ranked No. 5 as a most-valued digital engagement tool for the past two years. However, this year it fell 5 percentage points in engagement value ranking. And not only did its value fall, but specific apps slid down the ranked list of engagement tools. In fact, LinkedIn was the only social media platform listed in the overall Top 10 most valued engagement tools, as other apps fell out of popularity. One of the highest valued social media platforms in past surveys, Facebook, fell out of the overall Top 10 ranking and lost 9 percentage points.
Engage, Engage, Engage
Overall communication frequency dropped this year, which begs the question, why? Given today’s technology allows communication with members 24/7, one has to ponder why engagement would wane from one year to the next. It could be due to several elements: lack of resources and staff, communication strategy, resource integration, and the perception that members are already too busy (51%).
More than four in 10 (44%) participants feel a single strategy is the better tactic when it comes to engaging members. In comparison to last year, platform specific and department dependent methods switched places, with platform specific claiming 24.5% (32.6% last year) and department dependent taking second place with 31.3% this year (25.8% last year).
Staffing Ups and Downs
Thanks to a buoyant job market this year, associations feel they are staffed appropriately in most areas (over 60% in education, meetings/events and government affairs). The marketing department appeared to be suffering more than other areas, with only 50% indicating it is appropriately staffed. Perhaps this is why respondents this year seemed to remedy some of the challenges they had in the past such as “combating information overload/cutting through the clutter,” which was consistently ranked the biggest challenge for consecutive years, but this year less than half reported it as a top hurdle.
Non-Dues Revenue is Getting More Attention
The generation of non-dues revenue is the top challenge this year, according to 58% of survey participants. However, this year it seems associations became more proactive in going after untapped dollars. With more than half of participants saying they have limited resources when it comes to increasing non-dues revenue, we also found that nearly double the respondents (23%) are outsourcing advertising sales than they did in 2022 (14%). While that is great news, it appears associations could be neglecting other sources of revenue – with only 18% outsourcing job posting sales, 12% outsourcing exhibitor sales, and 11% seeking help with sponsorship sales (which accounts for 29% of non-dues revenue, according to respondents).
Naylor Association Solutions emphasizes employing a process of Assessment, Integration and Measurement (AIM) throughout an engagement tool’s lifespan. Just as your doctor or accountant sometimes has to tell you news you don’t want to hear, it’s important to make the effort to measure what you really need to measure, not only what’s easiest or most comfortable to measure. When you look at these results and compare them against today’s communication best practices, associations seem reasonably aware of their shortcomings and are making progress to close those gaps, but there is still room for improvement. We know hardworking association professionals are aware of many of the communication shortcomings identified in this report, but we’d like to see a greater sense of urgency to fix them.
To dive deeper into the full 2023 Association Benchmarking Report, download the report1 and read Association Adviser2 throughout the year for analysis of the trends and tactics to be learned from the results.