Last February, before the global pandemic had dismissed us from our offices, we sent out a survey to membership professionals to find out how they were planning to communicate with their different audience communities in 2020.
In March, we shut it down.
What the 30 organisations that responded told us (thank you if you were one of them), was that 2020 was going to be another ‘business as usual’ year for professional membership organisations.
How wrong we all were.
Roll the clock forward a year and we have just published the findings of our latest Re:member survey, which paints a rather different picture of not just how ‘business as usual’ was thrown out of the window last year, but how it isn’t coming back.
In ripping up our content programmes and disrupting planned comms activities, Covid did something none of us predicted. It made what we do relevant. It made us relatable. It made us a little more rustic in the way we communicate. But it was responsive – and that’s what matters.
By stopping ‘doing what has always been done’, we started walking by the side of members everywhere. And those members really rather liked it.
So what exciting insights can we learn from the latest research? Here are my top takeaways…
1. If in doubt, hold a webinar
For the first time in the history of the research, webinars have taken the top spot in our effectiveness charts. Of course, you’re all doing more of them (because, well, Covid), but they are resonating with younger audiences, they are helping organisations extend their global reach and they are a great way to both encourage community engagement and share learnings. One member said to us: ‘I wouldn’t ever dream of speaking out in an auditorium at a conference. But, via webinars, I feel more connected to industry experts and able to ask questions.’
2. Stick to the programme and you might miss the point
If you could distil all the report learnings down into one word, it would be agility. 54% of organisations have ripped up their comms programmes and 81% are no longer content planning in detail more than three months ahead. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an overarching content strategy underpinning your work, because there absolutely must be (39% say content strategy is their biggest skills gap). But, some of the most high-performing content produced last year was done so quickly, imperfectly and intelligently. The result? Increased relevance all round.
3. Be resourceful with your resources
The need for speed (thank you government for making weekend announcements) has left many recipients feeling that the work rate is now a little relentless. Question is, are you thinking tactically about ways to make more of what you are able to do? 66% of organisations said they either weren’t repurposing and reusing content or they weren’t sure. And, nearly half of those surveyed said they weren’t delving back into those content archives to republish relevant content. Reusing content is not cheating, it is a great move when budgets and resources are a challenge. Google rewards the updating of content too. Also, ask yourself whether you could be using content created for your member loyalty programme in acquisition comms and at other stages of the member life cycle? Chances are, you have the content. Now, you need to chance to use that content in new ways.
4. Think omnichannel not multichannel
You’ve dusted off the archive, but what about doing more to integrate your comms efforts? With so many content generators in some organisations, joining the dots between channels is easier said than done. But, with increasing demands on our time and attention, integration is essential. Think less about multichannel comms (creating content for different platforms and products in isolation) and start moving toward omnichannel comms (a member- and customer-centric approach to communicating with your communities, where all channels are linked together). In this area, there is much work to do, with only 9% of organisations describing themselves as omnichannel.
(I am so excited about this point, I actually drew a Wonder wheel of engagement with crayons to show how an audience-centric approach could and should work. There is a simplified version in the full report, but do write to me directly if you’d like the full tour).
5. Just ask…and listen
Data collection and analysis remains an ongoing issue for organisations looking to understand their audiences (only 3% describe their data as excellent). But, there are some positive signs, with segmentation on the rise and 63% of organisations stating that they now have a series of member personas. If your data project is slow to progress, as part of wider digital transformation plans, try to think of other ways that you can build up a picture of your audiences. With only 14% using flash polls and 20% conducting focus groups (at a time when member communities appear to be more interested in answering surveys), now is the time to start listening to what your community is telling you – and acting on it.
6. Think customer journey, not just content
As you would expect, all planned investment for 2021 is in the digital space. Traffic levels to websites are rising, as members are increasingly searching for content digitally to support their learning and development. But, what is important to note is that bounce rates (a blunt instrument, yes, but an interesting indicator) are not improving, meaning that more attention needs to be given to the customer journey when people actually arrive at the site. Engaging, awareness-raising content is just the start. And don’t just write things down. Varying content types and introducing audio and video, for example, could work well as long as they are unpinned by solid strategy and never boring.
7. Leverage that login
Two years ago, in our previous research, we were all about the doughnut of discoverability (we actually handed out doughnuts) and ensuring membership organisations unlocked as much of their content as possible to drive interest and advocacy. With increased focus on improving digital channels, however, organisations are now turning more attention to what content they put behind the login. 57% of organisations are looking to invest more in locking down content over the next 12 months. The question I get asked a lot is: ‘what should I lock down?’ My answer is always: ‘if you find yourself going through a 5-minute forgotten password cycle to read it (who can remember all the symbols and capitals), is it worth it when you get there?’
8. Find your storytellers
Let’s not forget though, that locking down content will only be part of any strategy. If you want people to start shouting about what you do (and, let’s face it, we all want that), then you need to give members something worth sharing (and the ability to share it). It is great to see that 87% of organisations are actively sharing their content, but don’t overlook the power of paid amplification. With only 17% paying to promote content, why don’t you see what happens when you put your money where your content is? The good news? Nobody has yet delivered in a professional membership TikTok campaign. There is hope…
9. Is it the end of the annual dinner?
You may be mourning the fact your black tie is gathering dust in the cupboard. But, the feeling is not shared with the professional membership sector as a whole. While there is a growing sense that a blended approach to events might soon be our new normal (learning online and networking and awards back to physical), there may be some casualties. Annual dinners and breakfast briefings are among the events tipped to be on the back burner for the foreseeable future.
10. Innovate to resonate
Confidence remains a key challenge for those looking to commercialise their member engagement and comms programmes. 68% of organisations say they are not maximising the commercial potential of their members. That said, 57% are open to new opportunities and 64% have opened up new channels as a result of Covid. Innovation is great to add a real point of difference, but don’t overlook measurement. 66% say they lack the sophisticated tools to track campaign performance for advertisers. This is a relatively quick win, that can lead to immediate uplift.
11. Print…still not dead. Digital page turners…toast
The printed member magazine may have lost its top spot as the most effective communications channel, but it is still holding its own. Frequencies are dropping, yes, and for good reason (quarterly is predicted to be the most popular channel this year). But, what organisations are losing in frequency, they are more than gaining in quality. Less certainly is more to ensure you don’t make members feels guilty about the pile of magazine stacking up in their (sustainable) paper wrapper.
Whatever you do, don’t turn to page-turners as the answer. They might have been a necessary evil in 2020 (and yes, we have sent the report out as one for easy and early access to the findings), but read times are low, engagement is generally poor and, with mobile access on the rise for professional content, the medium certainly doesn’t stand a chance in the future.
If the prospect of remodelling your comms teams, remaining responsive, nailing that customer journey and updating your LinkedIn community while simultaneously delivering exceptional thought leadership in print and via a podcast, do not despair. Your challenges are shared with the rest of the sector. It’s a long road and just walking down it and getting started is the best next step.
Ours is a report filled with hope, not too much hard work. In 2020, I genuinely believe that we witnessed the rise of Business to Membership (B2M) comms. Forget B2B and B2C comms. Last year, we saw what happens when you blend great technical expertise with meaningful community conversations.
The findings of our research show that professional membership comms specialists have so many reasons to be proud.
If I could leave you with one thought it would be this. True member engagement does not start with an annual budget and a set of comms channels but with a clear understanding of your audience. Only when you know what your members want and need (to help you achieve your wider business objectives), can you create a relevant and relatable roadmap for the future.
Executive Director, Think Publishing
For a full copy of the membership trends report, contact: email@example.com
Think Publishing are the UK’s leading membership and branded content agency delivering authentic engagement, driving loyalty and boosting retention rates for an audience of over 4 million people. We specialise in working with membership bodies, and create award-winning emails, SEO driven content, magazines, books and stakeholder publications, downloadable resources, virtual events, webinars and conferences, paired with effective sponsorship, partnerships and advertising sales.