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Why associations are failing at marketing


Tamlynne Wiltons-Gurney of South African agency idna says that associations are failing to market themselves properly, and offers some tips for what they should be doing differently.


Associations are usually run by volunteers in a particular industry. While these individuals are experts in their field, they don’t have experience in marketing and subsequently don’t recognise its value. Many of them also don’t have the necessary budget to properly develop their branding from the onset, let alone hire a marketing agency or even full-time marketing staff to do it for them.

In my experience associations don’t think that branding and marketing principles apply to them. They have this idea that membership is separate to marketing and that they don’t need to build a strong brand to complete. 

I have heard things like ‘we don’t need to do marketing, our members have been members for years and will always be members’, or ‘our brand is our logo’ or ‘we don’t need to pay too much attention to our branding and we certainly don’t need to market membership because its compulsory for professionals in our sector to be members of our association’.

There seems to be this misconception that they have a captive audience – and the masses will come. As Henry Ford once said: “they can have any car they want, as long as its black”, but the difference between Ford’s time and ours is that consumers are spoilt for choice. The world has become bigger and more accessible to people. You can’t just put any block of cheese down and expect the mouse to come running. Even the mouse is getting fussier.

Associations are competing with each other but are also competing with social media and the internet. Millenials and New Gen are super difficult to recruit because they can get the information they need off the net and connect through social media, so why would they need to have access to networks? Associations need to do so much more.

The survival of associations depend on them ‘getting with the times’. This is the information age and when you can’t prove your value, you become irrelevant and that is exactly what associations can’t afford to be. Associations are at their core driven by content, but if they don’t know how to properly drive that content through strategic brand communication, the membership loyalty they think they have means nothing.

I think now, they are being forced to really outline their USP and provide actual benefits rather than just focusing on the features of the association. Marketing goes beyond just a logo and we know this because when you are trying to reach and connect with people you need a plan that delivers to your objectives and target audience. I think it is essential for associations to have a brand identity that tells their story in an authentic, knowledgeable and meaningful way.  

Potential members first need to be attracted to your campaign enough to read it – how do you get their attention? Once you have their attention, how do you keep it? Have you scripted your message in a way that links into members’ emotions and taps into their instinctual brain? Finally, how do you articulate those USPs in a way that is relevant for that particular person who is reading your emailer/brochure. So often, we take a one size fits all, spray and pray approach which doesn’t work.

Many associations don’t embrace digital – they don’t have strategies and think digital just means having a website and a Facebook page.  Then they don’t even have proper content plans in place to effectively share information on their existing platforms. They don’t leverage SEO, SMM, SEM etc. Instead, they depend on death by newsletter and emails to be the be-all and end-all of their marketing efforts. And again they are not conceptualised to make the most of its content or communicating the right message. Instead, those newsletters and e-mails become junk mail fodder.

The benefits of a sound marketing strategy has a snowball effect. The more you invest time and resources into it, the more it gains momentum and the more benefits you reap. Associations depend on a level of trust from members that are different from other markets. They achieve that trust by proving their value as the backbone and oracle of a particular industry. The way they look, what they say and what they do are important to members. The only way for associations to do all of that in the best possible way is through marketing. 

Another benefit of marketing that associations don’t often think about is expanding across industries / sectors. If you are always talking to the same audience in the same way, then how will you really grow? How will you help your members grow? There is magic in collaboration, but without marketing – this isn’t possible.