How to Find Nondues Revenue Sources in 2021

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The new 2021 Association Annual Survey Results report suggests reduced dues revenue and declining membership in the year ahead. For associations wanting to stay ahead of the curve and generate nondues revenue, focus on showing value and creativity.

With 2020 defined by the pandemic, many associations are hoping that 2021 will have a different and better defining ethos. A new report from GrowthZone AMS, 2021 Association Annual Survey Results, looks at emerging trends, with the goal of helping associations best navigate what’s ahead.

So, what is it that associations need to prepare for?

“The trends we’re seeing so far, is that membership is dropping, and with that, there’s a correlation with dues,” said Amy Gitchell, senior marketing communications specialist at GrowthZone. “So, it’s going to be more important than ever to think through what those nondues revenue sources are and how you can leverage any opportunity for that.”

The good news, Gitchell said, is that, according to survey responses, associations have been finding innovative ways to keep the nondues revenue flowing. “What was surprising to us was the number of people both the on association and chamber of commerce side, who referred to what we’ve been calling ‘contract work,’ as a source of revenue,” Gitchell said. “Some examples of that were renting out parts of their building; grant writing and administration; management fees for major programs that were assigned by the government, lab testing, and marketing services.”

Another example of associations leaning into what’s working was the prevalence of one type of fundraising event. “Our support team and training team were hearing that people were having success with golf tournaments,” Gitchell said. She noted that associations were able to carry them out safely during the pandemic because they were outdoors and done with little contact.

In addition, Gitchell said that while some novel approaches are helpful, the real revenue drivers will be associations showing members and others the value they bring to the table. “It ties back into value proposition,” she said. “Organizations need to be clear on what their value proposition is, and how they are helping and aiding their members now.”

Many organizations did this by boosting their online education offerings and hosting virtual conferences. “They were able to generate revenue off of that, by having it online, and people were really enthusiastic about virtual events,” Gitchell said.

Associations also must be willing to adapt so the revenue flows. “This is unfortunately not as temporary as everyone was hoping,” Gitchell said. “What has worked in the past isn’t going to be as successful, because the game has changed. So you don’t have a choice. Adapt and survive. … Not everything is going to work, but the reality is not everything has worked in the past, either. If you don’t try it, you’ll never know.”

Adapting can be difficult, but she noted that organizations can lean on each other in this process. “Probably one of the most helpful things—and this is when it’s hard when there are no face-to-face meetings—is when association executives talk to one another and are having conversation about what’s working and what isn’t working,” Gitchell said.

What methods is your association looking at to boost nondues revenue in

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How to Boost Membership by Emphasizing Value Over Networking

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One of the biggest challenges associations continue to face is the inability to offer members face-to-face networking opportunities. But by highlighting the value proposition of membership over networking, one association increased its associate membership. Here’s how.

The National Asphalt Pavement Association was ready to kick off a new membership campaign in mid-March 2020 targeted to its producer members, who are a loyal group with a 96 percent retention rate. It’s an expensive membership and usually takes a long time to sell—a minimum of three to four months, according to Steve Shivak, NAPA’s director of membership.

NAPA represents asphalt pavement and asphalt producing companies. A couple of months into the pandemic, all 50 states deemed the industry essential, so NAPA knew its producer members were faring well because they were getting funding from state and local governments.

Considering the lengthy sales time and the expense of producer membership, Shivak’s team decided to revise its membership campaign and focus on their supplier members—which they call associates—instead. NAPA’s associate members have an 85 percent retention rate, so not as strong as the producers, but still growing.

A Valued Partnership

NAPA’s associate members like coming to its in-person meetings for the opportunity to network and mingle with producer members. Recognizing that in-person meetings were quickly diminishing because of the pandemic, however, Shivak and his team switched the theme of their messaging from networking to being a valued partner.

They quoted NAPA’s board chairman, James Winford Jr., Ph.D., who described a valued partnership as one where members have “uninhibited access” to all their customers. It’s a partnership in every sense, where NAPA learns how members conduct business and in turn, members learn how NAPA does business.

In addition to changing the messaging, NAPA decided to ask associate members to give two main reasons why they wanted to join, and if it didn’t align with what NAPA does, the membership team would be very honest and tell them NAPA is not the right fit for them. “With this kind of retention rate, we don’t want one-and-dones,” Shivak said.

A Surprise Messaging Success

Shivak’s team conducted split testing on the new messaging and went old school with direct mail. The first test was a memo on NAPA letterhead with reasons to join, a hardcopy of NAPA’s membership application, with a postcard-size index card stating NAPA’s value proposition, and no return envelope. The second test was a personalized letter to each prospective member on why they should join, with a glossy printed invitation, a return envelope, but no information on the value proposition like the first test.

They were positive the glossy invitation would be a hit. It wasn’t. “It bombed,” Shivak said. The hardcopy memo, on the other hand, “blew it away.” NAPA went from an average of 35 associate members joining a year, over the past four years, to 46 in one year—during a pandemic.

The hardcopy memo resonated because recipients appreciated that NAPA understood the value they brought to the table, he said. It wasn’t a transactional request, asking for money, or sponsorship, or to advertise.

The memo wasn’t about how joining would be an opportunity to network, Shivak said. It was, “You’re a valued partner and you can make a real difference to the industry for best practices, innovation, technology, and where the industry is going,” he said. “It gave us an opportunity to tell the story versus the invitation, which was all flash but no substance.”

The memo also had a call to action asking prospective members to respond by a certain date to get a free seat at NAPA’s online member meeting last June. They were still getting responses into July, well past the deadline.

“That was the other way we knew we had a hit,” he said. “People didn’t care about the free seat; what they cared about was access.”

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Membership Pro Tip: Offer Bite-Size Engagement

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Instead of overwhelming new members with a long list of benefits in a traditional printed brochure, the International Society of Arboriculture uses email to give them a handful of easy first steps to get involved.

How does it work? The International Society of Arboriculture restructured its new-member communications and went from a printed brochure and membership card to an emailed piece. The message offers opportunities for new members to begin to engage with ISA in bite-size ways through its website, online community, social media, publications, certifications, and products.

“A lot of folks didn’t realize we had a Facebook page, and they’ve been members for 20 years,” says Tip Tucker Kendall, ISA’s director of member services.

Instead of making the communication a sales pitch with a list of 40 benefits, the goal is to get members to focus on what they can do in five minutes to get deeper into their profession and become more invested in the community, she says.

Why is it effective? “It is an opportunity to engage in a relationship with the association. And part of that onus is on the member,” she says. By outlining a few ways to show up and get a return on membership, ISA sets up a dynamic where both the association and the member have a role to play. “It’s a contract,” Tucker Kendall says.

What’s the benefit? New members are usually one of the most at-risk groups for not renewing, she says. So, it’s been more effective to push the bite-size engagement pieces upfront rather than taking a sales approach. “Overall, new member engagement is up,” she says.

Do you have a membership pro tip? Please share in the comments or send me an email.

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Membership Renewals, Value, and Messaging in 2021

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Associations responded remarkably well to an onslaught of challenges in 2020. A membership expert offers suggestions for navigating the start of a new year with your members in mind.

I don’t know about you, but in times of uncertainty I like to talk to experts, so I reached out to Scott Oser, president of Scott Oser Associates, to find out his thoughts about membership for the upcoming year. Nothing like the hot seat.

“The number one thing associations need to do is understand the state of their membership and their industry,” Oser said.

As gratifying as it was to wave goodbye to 2020, changing the date on a calendar unfortunately does not automatically erase all the difficulties of the past year. People are still being affected by the pandemic, racial injustice, and political and financial instability, to name a few of the ongoing challenges we face.

Understanding the state of the industry and where members are can mean many different things, Oser said. Some members might be strapped for money, while others might need their association now more than ever for career resources. Or you might need to communicate with members differently because they are bombarded with information.

Tweaking and customizing messages is just as important now as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, when every association was putting COVID-19 resources at the forefront, he said. Staying on top of what your industry wants and needs will help you fine-tune messaging and offerings to better communicate with and serve members.

“We can’t go back to doing business as usual because we are definitely not in business as usual,” he said.

Communicate Value

An ongoing communication stream that shows members your value—either through social media, newsletters, or member-to-member communication—is necessary, Oser said. And these ongoing communications need to do two things: Address member needs and show how your benefits and services are meeting them.

The messaging should be bite-size, he said, not a list of 30 member benefits. Concise, easily digestible messaging is essential because, in many cases, people are busier than ever before because they’re home, juggling kids, pets, spouses, and everything else on top of trying to do their work.

“You need to focus on one or two things that will prove to be valuable in the moment,” he said.

Keep Sending Renewals

It’s a challenging time but renewals still need to go out, using slightly different tactics, Oser said. Some industries were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, so you might need to reduce dues or extend membership terms. But, overall, he recommends tweaking your messaging to show that your offerings can help members with what they’re going through.

“There are industries that are thriving and there are industries that are suffering, but people are still renewing because they find value in their membership,” he said.

Having a hardship plan in place is also a good idea, so every staff member at the association knows what they can offer if a member comes to them and says they can’t afford dues. But you don’t have aggressively promote it, Oser said. You can add it to the fine print of every invoice you send out stating that if a member is having financial trouble because of the pandemic or other issues, they can contact the association for other options.

“You can’t leave money on the table because not everybody is being impacted by COVID and not everybody needs a reduction,” he said. “Associations are a business.”

Going forward, Oser predicts that associations will continue to be strapped for resources, so they’ll need to make sure that everything they do is effective and efficient.

“There’s not going to be a lot of ‘nice to do’ anymore,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of ‘need to do.’”

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Why Your Association’s Community-Building Strategy Might Need a Tweak

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If your association has been leaning on staff-centered online community engagement tactics, it might not have the effect you’re expecting, says culture expert Maddie Grant. Instead, let the members take the lead.

The difference between canned community engagement and the real thing can feel subtle. But you know it when you see it.

And when engagement feels forced in a member community, it can feel disingenuous—something highlighted in a thread that picked up heat in the community-building space on social media.

What’s something that feels like community building but isn’t?

— Rosie Sherry ☁ (@rosiesherry) November 17, 2020

In an email, community expert Rosie Sherry noted the reaction to the tweet was fairly robust. “It made me think, realize, see that really anything can be good for community building, but just because you are doing it doesn’t mean you are building community,” she said.

Maddie Grant, cofounder of the culture-driven consultancy PROPEL, compares tactics like these with the early days of social media, before brand marketers moved in.

“It used to be really organic and just fun and interesting and kind of new, and then the marketers took over, and now you’re just getting spammed all the time with the ads,” Grant said. “I think community management, not in the same way, there’s a little bit of that, too, because all of these tactics are so obvious.”

Service at the Center

So why do these tactics feel so poorly suited to online communities? And what does that say about community-building in general?

The secret might come down to who is driving the engagement. Sherry explained that communities that put the organization’s goals at the center will often fail to engage. Instead, she suggested that member communities should be built with service in mind.

“There would be better success with a community if done this way because the focus is more on building something of value for the people, rather than the person [or organization] at the center of things,” she said.

In an ideal world, Grant said community managers could mostly stay out of the way of the member conversations.

“Really, the best communities are where the organization itself is completely invisible and in the background and is just making sure that everything runs smoothly from a technology perspective, or that there’s a helpdesk person in case anybody has issues, or that is focused on onboarding new people into the community,” she said.

Community Considerations

Grant offered a few suggestions as to what that might look like, including creating a network of “champions” to help seed conversation in the community, but also to think about the structure of the community, building it in a way where everyone who joins has a role—such as a help forum or an area dedicated to Q&A.

“The impetus for people to help each other is really, really high, as opposed to ‘just come in here and discuss these industry-related topics,’ where nobody has time for that,” she said.

Grant offered two additional insights on keeping digital communities going:

One-way engagement is OK, sometimes. If you can’t get people to comment, all is not lost. Since the start of the pandemic, people have found themselves engaging aggressively through mediums like Zoom, and they may need a break from posting on a forum. While passive forms of consumption, like podcasts and videos, may seem underrated compared with commenting, Grant said they still have significant value. Just be sure to offer options. “The value of people watching or just reading or sharing is actually much higher for the association than the value of somebody commenting, or posting, which obviously has always been harder to get,” she explained.

How should you feel about external competition? In recent years, Facebook’s long-neglected Groups feature made a big comeback as a way to interact with others, in ways that don’t seem as stilted as more professional platforms. Grant noted that the professional nature of association communities can actually put Facebook groups at an advantage in some ways, as they tend to be a bit looser. However, associations can learn from them in trying to encourage a balance. “You can still have rules without curbing some of those connections, because that’s how people obviously get to know each other,” she said. She also noted that the informal nature of Facebook groups makes them distinct from the stronger strategic nature of associations. “It’s so much more lightweight,” she said.

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Membership Pro Tip: On-Demand Webinars

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A new membership type responds directly to member needs by providing affordable education options when they need them most.

How does it work? The National Society for Histotechnology launched a new membership type in October 2020, in direct response to a member survey showing a strong desire for more affordable education options. The number-one reason members join NSH is to access education, says Cindy Simpson, CAE, manager of members services.

The new Enhanced Education Membership incorporates access to NSH’s library of on-demand webinars into membership. It’s helped bring back lapsed members and attracted new ones, especially histotechnologists looking for continuing education credits or professional development, Simpson says.

Why is it effective? A lot of NSH members were furloughed by their employers or their work hours were reduced, so they were concerned about accessing affordable education. Members are price sensitive, Simpson says, but “we didn’t want to just give everything away.” So NSH reached out to its members and settled on a price. For $139, members get a general membership, which costs $80, and unlimited access to over 70 webinars. The webinars generally range in price from $10 to $25. So, if members access just a few webinars, they’ve recouped their investment in the Enhanced Education Membership.

What’s the benefit? “We’re always looking for ways to increase our percentage of retention and we feel that this will be a nice springboard and an opportunity for us to work with members further,” Simpson says.

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The State of Email: Three Tactics for Adding Automation

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Any email marketing program thrives with a little automation. Not sure where to start? Here are three ways that automation could work for your association.

Automation and email go together like lettuce and tomato. They may not be the meat of your association’s membership program, but they can garnish it effectively and help to strengthen your recruitment, retention, and general marketing efforts.

If you haven’t taken a deep dive into automation, you may need some help sorting out the available options. Here’s what email automation could look like—in both simple and advanced forms.

Simple: Add a Little RSS to Your Workflow

The cost. Free or cheap. Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, is already integrated into your email service and content management systems.

The benefits. RSS can help you cut a little time off your production process.

The strategy. RSS is commonly associated with distributing content to people who use readers such as Feedly or Feedbin, but it can also be an easy way to automate email creation. Popular services such as MailChimp and Campaign Monitor allow users to integrate an RSS feed into their workflow, so that whenever a new article gets uploaded to a website or blog, it can turn into newsletter fodder.

In many ways, RSS and its sibling technology Atom are something of a barebones API (application programming interface). Associations looking to simplify their email process can pull in different RSS feeds and curate them.

This approach can be scaled up, too. Services such as are based on RSS but build on it by personalizing messages to match readers’ needs. RSS can also fill other automation gaps, including as a way to push links to social media platforms or apps.

Intermediate: Use SaaS Tools to Automate Your Processes

The cost. SaaS typically costs a few hundred dollars per year, depending on the services you use.

The benefits. It can allow you to test ideas for engaging members without hiring a development team.

The strategy. In recent years, it’s become easier to integrate different tools. Two of the best-known options are Zapier, which tends to be for professional use cases, and IFTTT, which aims for more personal ones.

Zapier and tools that touch a similar market, such as Integromat, are useful for testing ideas for integration—say, by helping to build a drip email campaign that contacts a member or other user a few days after signing up, or an integration that automatically sends a new member an invitation to a member community when they sign up for your newsletter. (It can also work the other way, nudging a member who hasn’t opened any of your emails lately.)

These offerings can integrate with a variety of tools, including official partners such as MailChimp and WordPress, APIs offered by vendors large and small, and “webhooks,” which offer callbacks between different web-based applications. These integrations can get in depth with tools such as Airtable and Google Sheets working as de facto databases.

This approach has driven the so-called no-code movement, which takes advantage of the ease of integration to build products that work as a proof of concept without additional development. Similarly, using SaaS tools can help associations experiment and understand what they need before fully jumping into integration.

Advanced: Use APIs and Data Analytics to Target Your Messaging

The cost. This advanced strategy will require an investment of thousands of dollars per year, with ongoing vendor or development fees.

The benefits. Based on integration with your association management system (AMS), this approach allows messaging related to user behavior and can support a best-in-breed application approach.

The strategy. In the past, many associations deployed automation through tools that can target specific messaging to users based on data about members housed in the AMS. But other platforms can be integrated and share data to create even more relevant email messages. For example, if you know that a member is attending a lot of your events, you could create messaging to upsell additional programs to that member. If a member seems to be an active user of your website, you could email the member a feedback form asking their thoughts on the site. Put another way, your email strategy could be informed by data points gathered throughout the organization.

One other benefit of this approach is that it doesn’t have to be implemented through a single vendor unless you want it to be.

The challenge is that it requires a lot of homework to figure out what’s right for your organization. You may want to try a smaller use case before you go all-in.

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How to Keep Your Virtual Attendees Tuned In

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Although it can be difficult to keep virtual attendees engaged, it’s imperative that you do—and it must go beyond a chat feature. A look at some investments for associations to make to improve engagement.

As I wrote in my final blog post of 2020, associations really need to adjust their virtual offerings so they better meet attendee expectations this year. Complicating that, however, is that people are sick of sitting in front of their computer screens.

According to the 2020 Redback Report, 86 percent of respondents said they have left a virtual event early—up from 66 percent a year earlier. So, what can associations do to ensure that participants don’t tune out during their virtual events? Here are three ideas.

Invest in Production

If we’ve learned anything from working remotely for almost a year now, it’s how to make yourself look good when videoconferencing. (Hello, ring lights and high-definition external webcams.) That means that your attendees aren’t going to put up with speakers who look like they are in the Witness Protection Program or whose sound is muted or garbled. That’s why associations need to help their keynoters and other speakers look their best, whether by providing specific instructions for sound and video or by sending them recording equipment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics did the latter for its plenary and VIP sessions at its 2020 Virtual National Conference & Exhibition in October. AAP sent speakers recording packages that included a high-end laptop, high-end webcam, nice microphone, and a hardwired internet cable. These speakers also recorded their sessions with a producer and technician. Other breakout session presenters could schedule an appointment with a technician prior to the event to get feedback on their setup.

Encourage Creativity

While your attendees will appreciate speakers who look and sound good, they’ll get tired of sitting in front of their computers watching presenters who are also just sitting in front of their computers. In-person keynotes and education sessions are compelling partly because dynamic speakers walk around the stage or even draw a picture or do something else creative while presenting. Find a way to get your virtual presenters to do the same.

For example, during his prerecorded keynote for the Turnaround Management Association’s IMPACT 2020 virtual meeting, Duncan Wardle, former head of innovation at Disney, walked around, used different camera angles, and had large paper slides hanging behind him that he illustrated himself. (He did something similar at ASAE’s 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting last August.)

Try Something New

Some things that may have been huge successes—and revenues wins—for your association at your in-person annual conference just won’t translate to the virtual environment. So, now is the time to experiment and try something new that will appeal to your attendees.

For example, next week’s CES 2021 will feature CES Live, a new livestreaming hub for news and interviews. Shot from Microsoft’s production studios in Redmond, Washington, according to Variety, the news desk will be anchored by talent including YouTuber Justine “iJustine” Ezarik and “The Ready Room” host Naomi Kyle. Karen Chupka, the Consumer Technology Association’s executive vice president for CES, told TV Technology that they’ll provide continual updates throughout the show and talk about what’s “new and hot at the exhibits and conference sessions.”

What have you found successful for keeping attendees engaged for duration of your virtual events? Please share in the comments.

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[Webinar] Rethink, Restart, Refresh Your Panels: Advice for 2021

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Ring in the New Year with advice from two renowned experts on speaker coaching and panel improvement, Kristin Arnold and Sarah Michel. The shift to virtual events has magnified the need to add spice and spunk to your conference’s panel discussions so that you leave the audience begging for more. You’ll get more than a few nuggets from Kristin’s just-published book, “123 Ways to Add Pizazz to a Panel Discussion.”

Please join us on Wednesday, January 27, from 12 noon to 1 p.m. EST for an interactive webinar.

By attending, you will learn:
• How to design an inspiring panel format for both virtual and in-person events
• Best techniques for curation and preparation of panelists
• Strategies behind question design
• And much, much more.


Register Here


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Why Subscription Boxes Could be a Smart Quarantine-Era Member Perk

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Subscription boxes, once seen as a fading trend, are showing signs of resilience during the COVID-19 era. Associations might consider the idea as a way to surprise and delight members when in-person interactions can’t happen.

Subscription boxes were already seen as a peaking craze nearly two years ago, when Marketplace noted that the industry had reached $10 billion in value in 2018. They’d been picking up interest for years before that.

Might this be time for a comeback, perhaps as an association member perk? Subscription value is close enough to membership value that it could be a good idea to give the box model another look. At a time when in-person events are off the table, it could offer a much-needed personal touch.

If you’re intrigued, keep in mind these points on the status of the subscription box in the COVID-19 era:

Many subscription box firms are growing because they fill a pressing need. Many subscription box firms seem to be drawing interest because their products can keep people occupied at a time when they’re stuck at home more often. This is especially true of children, who no longer have their school routine, noted the toy news website Kidscreen. “All of the subscription services I spoke with are experiencing an uptick in members now, and for obvious reasons: They arrive at the house without families having to leave for pickup, with minimal human touch, and in answer to a parent’s specific need,” wrote the site’s Robin Raskin. “Toy subscriptions and online services for kids providers can offer predictability, constancy, and quality.”

The market is crowded and complicated, however. A recent analysis of the subscription box business by the National Retail Federation explained that COVID-19 has increased uncertainty in the sector and could distract people who might otherwise be interested in the services. And the added competition could make it tough to stand out. “Subscription models require a high level of commitment on the part of the consumer,” said Unity Marketing’s Pam Danziger. “And it’s hard enough to get that commitment in normal times.”

Nonetheless, subscriptions are showing resilience. In the latest edition of Zuora’s Subscription Impact Report [registration], the firm found that roughly half of the subscription companies it analyzed were maintaining the status quo with limited impact from the COVID-19 crisis, with some areas growing faster than others—in particular, video streaming (a 400 percent increase over the norm at the start of the pandemic), digital news and media (a 110 percent increase), and e-learning software (an 80 percent increase). Digital Media Solutions noted that the food-delivery service Blue Apron and the STEM activity kit seller KiwiCo have been particularly strong.

Getting started requires some good vibes. Word-of-mouth is essential to building growth, notes TotalRetail, and often a little boost from an influencer or a strong customer support game can make all the difference. “By partnering with websites like My Subscription Addiction or influencers who post unboxing videos on social media, businesses can gain an advantage over competitors and prove attentiveness to customer satisfaction,” author Georg Richter writes.

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