Current Affairs

Digital Ambition vs Digital Maturity: An Alternative View on Associations

Laurent Goffin, Managing Partner of Belly & Brain, a digital management consulting firm, explains how associations should use their digital transformation – and embrace digital maturity – to make it their competitive edge.

Digital has never been so critical for associations. It has been the best channel available to connect with members and audiences throughout the pandemic. It offers amazing potential for new revenue generation, and cost reduction. Innovative membership value propositions and next generation business models can be developed through great digital experiences.

On the other hand, associations are now facing a much more competitive environment where they do not enjoy exclusivity to deliver service and value to their members. COVID-19 has accelerated this competition by reinforcing digital competition. Increasing association’s digital maturity is not an option anymore to compete in this environment.

Welcome to an age where member is a customer, communities are consumer groups and the value proposition is about delivering more added value than the competition whilst mastering channels to sell product and services at the right price.

The entire association sector is talking about their digital ambition, trying to unlock opportunities and facing up to new challenges. To bring another perspective to the conversation, we have evaluated the sector – not by comparing associations to one another – but through digital standards or marketing concepts widely used in the commercial and corporate world. 

We have used our 20 years of experience in digital strategy and strategic marketing with some of the biggest B2B and B2C companies to evaluate the digital presence of more than 100 associations. Our experience has shown there is no magic tool. You need a good digital strategy defining objectives and precise targets to reach. This allows you to select digital solutions, tactics and activities to reach those goals with the least resources involved.

Digital leadership is not about embracing latest technologies the fastest! It’s more about acquiring confidence in selecting the most relevant digital tactics that will deliver results without changing direction all the time and getting distracted by what others are doing. 

So, what are our key findings? We believe there are some fundamental challenges but also some clear paths forward, and some quick wins not to ignore.  

Managing your audiences

Associations address a lot of different audiences. 10 different segments have been identified with the obvious being members and their staff, communities within the sector, influencers and key opinion leaders, policy makers, journalists, general public opinion and more. 

25 % of associations are targeting all those audiences while 50% are at least serving 7 of them. 

Such a broad scope of audiences is complex and typical for very large companies. It requires a mastery of B2B key account management, B2B mass communication and B2C mass communication.

This presents quite a challenge for rather small organizations like associations to face the audience segmentation challenges of large corporations. Those different segments require different digital touchpoints and channels to address them appropriately. In addition, the business case for each segment may vary significantly.

One size fit all 

Whilst they address so many audiences, we observed that only 5% of associations are developing customized messages for their different audiences. Very few efforts are made to offer relevancy to each digital audience. Websites and digital channels are not structured by segment to develop a specific tone of voice, content, functionality or look and feel.

Whilst we know association have a member centric DNA, their websites show the opposite:  62% of associations lead with the ‘About us’ section as the first topic on their website, implying “we prefer to talk about us” rather than talking about your needs and interests. Visitor interest should always come first in digital presence.

Mastering Branding

In a digital experience, your audience is alone on their side of their screen. Your digital audience is active, deciding of any click, to stay or leave you in a second. You don’t have an entire day event to seduce them, and you will have rare opportunities to catch their attention in a storm of competitors fighting for their attention.

Each opportunity needs to have a strong impact to catch attention and build the best image possible of your association. The quality of your graphical identity and your communication are key to make this impact.

The reality is that association graphical branding is often rather poor and most of the time very average. Only 22% of associations have a qualitative graphical identity where their values and sector are displayed with attractive visuals and original images. Qualitative graphical identities are not a subjective or artistic topic. It’s technical as it answers to memorability, colors theories, branding architecture, typographic rules. 

When considering communication quality and the ability of associations to clearly pitch their mission in an engaging way, only 11% manage to create a real impact with a value proposition. 50% of associations come across as very institutional, managing to be informative but not engaging. 

Branding is a serious issue for much of the sector. Most associations have an acronym-based name with low memorability and engagement power. Often an association’s graphical identity is defined primarily by a logo of questionable quality. 

Great impact comes from memorability and engagement. Associations need to unlock this fantastic potential to create great digital experiences. Remember to consider this in the context of a digital landscape with relentless competition for attention!

Leveraging staff and their dedication to the community

70% of associations showcase their staff on their digital presence. However, execution is rather poor with portrait galleries with poor quality pictures, bios, and limited ability to connect with them. With limited effort, most associations could leverage their staff in a much more impactful way.

While providing easy contact to staff is not a straightforward question. The quality of presentation of your team can benefit from a qualitative and homogenous photo shooting of each person reflecting the value of association brand values and thus creating a real signature. Imagine the number of times your staff pictures are displayed in LinkedIn for example?

Mastering ROI & Analytics

We have been positively surprised to see how much associations have embraced social media. 19% of associations are active on at least 5 social media and 55% are using 3 to 4 social media channels. LinkedIn and Twitter are both used by more than 85% of them.

Associations are making lot of effort to produce content and to be present on those multiple social media. 60% are publishing original content every week and social media posts are made every day for 53% of associations. Lot of rich content like white papers, video content or podcast are also produced.

Faced with such a high level of effort, we have been surprised that only half of the associations propose an email newsletter – still one of the most effective channels to keep contact and engage audiences in the long term.

Email marketing is still the cornerstone of B2B communication to make lead nurturing or activate a customer base. Powered with the appropriate tools and email journeys, it allows a real one-to-one segmentation and response-based marketing. 

It’s very often surprising to calculate the cost per reader ratio of content!

It’s great to see associations so active on social media but it’s resource and effort intensive. A key challenge is validating and optimizing the return of all the efforts invested: mastering analytic tools, dashboard & ROI analysis of this activity is essential to steer properly this important investment – make sure to think of this investment in terms of staff time (cost) even if the platforms themselves are free to use. 

Belly & Brain is a digital management consulting firm helping companies to operate or build their digital activities or develop their strategy in order to reach a digital leadership. They have more than 25 years of experience in digital and are totally agnostic of any tactics, tools, trends, or new solutions appearing every year.  Belly & Brain include the largest enterprises in B2B or B2C sectors and some new starters or startup companies of any size.

Sitting on an SEO gold mine 

Associations are sitting on a potential gold mine! Google loves to rank high websites with high authority and trust. Google uses a clear measure: the number of websites in your sector linking to your website.

Associations naturally receive lot of links and therefore have great authority! 

Associations could easily develop SEO content strategies to rank higher in Google and receive a regular sustainable flow of qualitative visitors on selected topics. It’s one of the most valued way to get traffic on website because you don’t need to permanently produce content and that it makes it very cheap.

This flow of traffic can be converted into brand awareness, market education, lead generation, event sales, e-commerce or even into media models. Once you have a free flow of traffic, you don’t need to pay to reach your audience anymore. It’s one of the rare sources of traffic proposing a zero marginal cost model which is one key value of digital.

However, leveraging this SEO power requires a SEO strategy specific for associations. To make it financially sustainable, associations should ideally invest in developing in-house resources with this competence.

What’s next?

Most associations have already built up their digital presence and are very active in social media. However, these initiatives have often grown “organically” alongside their historical brands and communication approaches. This approach will hit a glass ceiling and the only way to break it is to master the fundamentals.

There is no magic tool or AI solution that will solve everything – and associations should beware of being seduced by the shiniest new solution; there will be an even shinier one tomorrow! 

So, how can associations deliver real impact and unlock the full potential of digital (within the reality of association budgets and resources)?

Lot of tactical things can be done to optimize your current digital presence and activities – leveraging SEO, capturing newsletter registrations through multiple techniques, improving the presentation of the association and its staff, and learning best practice to maximize ROI of content production.

We always equate digital with speed – however, for associations to choose the right road ahead, avoid costly errors or getting locked into unsuitable tools, we recommend you first take pause and reflect. Start from a 360° evaluation of your digital presence to define digital strategy with a few quick win roadmaps and midterm projects with clearly defined milestones and ROI measures.

Just imagine how a digital native association created in 2021 would define its digital strategy.

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