The Ultimate Guide to Association Marketing
Everyone benefits from the connections and resources provided by professional membership organizations. They serve as valuable community hubs and as storehouses of knowledge and resources for members across a wide range of professions and industries.
Membership organizations are also innovators who embrace new technologies and ways to reach, engage, and delight members. That includes harnessing the power of inbound marketing, an effective way to nurture relationships and convert interest into memberships.
Many nonprofit membership organizations are lean operations with small staff wearing multiple hats. This guide is designed to help membership associations create successful, sustainable strategies to attract and retain members by using existing resources.
According to the Center for Association Leadership (ASAE)—an association for associations—the United States is home to more than 92,000 trade and professional organizations.
All this competition for eyeballs and engagement is a good thing. It also means associations need to stay on top of changing trends to maximize experiences for their prospective and current members.
How do membership organizations stand out in today’s digital marketplace? In the old days, businesses, nonprofits, and membership organizations all relied on pushing advertisements out to the public. This one-sided, transactional model didn’t take into account the need membership organizations have to deepen engagement and involvement among supporters, volunteers, and donors.
That’s why inbound marketing provides tremendous value to associations. To understand this value, it’s helpful to visualize a flywheel with members in the center:
Inbound marketing constantly engages members and prospective members via your organization’s content, experiences, and relationships.
What Is Inbound Marketing?
In order to attract and retain members, associations need to get valuable content to the target audience. That content should reach them in a way that feels natural and organic, not intrusive or interruptive.
Inbound marketing is planning, creating, distributing, and sharing content with the goal of reaching your target audience and increasing brand awareness and sales engagement. Your association’s content—from social media to newsletters—provides the foundation for inbound marketing.
Most membership associations already have marketing assets, such as
- White papers
- Case studies
Inbound marketing is an approach that helps you to build relationships with potential members and guide them to solutions to their problems. But it goes further than that. It also deepens their connection with your organization, facilitating long-term growth. Members consider the organization to be a valuable resource that they can return to. They will renew their membership and recommend that others join.
Why Inbound Marketing?
People join associations to be empowered, educated, and inspired. That happens when high-quality content works to attract, engage, and delight them.
Inbound marketing helps to educate members and prospective supporters about the products and services that an association provides. It builds on top of previous successes. It also provides advanced tools for data collection and analytics that give associations new ways to recruit, retain, and engage with their members.
- Boosts conversions
- Builds relationships between members and organizations
- Results in increased loyalty
- Shows your audience how your products and member services solve their challenges
- Creates a sense of community with your brand
Every association has its own goals, but getting started with inbound marketing means paying close attention to the following essentials:
- Personas. These are fictional representations of your ideal consumer: members, donors, supporters, volunteers. Personas help you discover and understand who you’re trying to connect with. It’s a way of finding your community.
- Keywords. After you understand your personas, you need a strategic SEO plan. Keywords and phrases help you target the right content to answer people’s questions. SEO is key to your audience finding your association.
- Content strategy. A content strategy is the way you plan a two-way conversation between your association and your potential and existing members.
- Social media. A social media strategy driven by principles of inbound marketing focuses on sharing content: your own and from sources your personas will enjoy and engage with.
- Website design. Your website needs to work for your association by providing an experience for potential members to engage with the organization. They should have the opportunity to engage, join, and learn more at multiple stages. Too many associations have outdated websites that are not optimized. An optimized website is the key to a sustainable organization.
Your association shouldn't be the best-kept secret. Every potential member should have a chance to learn about the value your organization provides—and existing members should be shouting it from the rooftops.
A strategic marketing plan can help you share the value of belonging with everyone who needs to hear it.
Inbound marketing helps you realign your content strategy to become more interactive and dynamic. Belonging is a reciprocal experience where both parties grow and change. And with all the options available, people aren’t likely to pay to be part of an organization unless it is clearly a community that welcomes them, responds to their needs, and delights them.
Associations have an advantage when it comes to creating marketing materials. That’s because great content exists already. It is baked into your organization’s events, presentations, publications, webinars, and training.
A solid marketing strategy and content mission helps associations share valuable information with potential and existing members to deepen their relationship with the organization.
Your Mission Matters
The importance of a mission statement in driving an association’s marketing strategy can’t be overemphasized. A powerful mission guides everyone’s priorities and helps target marketing efforts. But creating a mission statement can’t be rushed. It involves deep soul searching and conversations with the team to make sure that it is a genuine expression of your organization’s mission.
In Chip Conley and Eric Friedenwald-Fishman’s book Marketing That Matters: 10 Practices to Profit Your Business and Change the World, the authors write, “A powerful mission statement articulates the … aspirational and often audacious outcome that an organization is pursuing.”
Here are some tips for getting started with a new or revised mission statement:
- Make it a group effort. Set aside time for brainstorming or a retreat for uninterrupted focus.
- Start by reflecting on the need your association fulfills in the market. What value is being created?
- Ask questions like
- What do we do?
- How do we do it?
- Who do we do it for?
- What value are we bringing?
- What level of service do we provide?
- What three words or phrases would we use to describe our mission?
A mission statement doesn’t need to be long, but it should be audacious and inspirational. Once that’s in place, you can move forward with a mission-driven marketing strategy.
The most successful businesses, organizations, and associations are those with a clearly defined mission—a commitment to making an impact beyond the bottom line.
The voice of the brand and the mission ring out loud and clear in the content elements of an inbound marketing strategy. Inbound marketing also helps align the entire team and organization around the meaning, messaging, and branding—making for a unified and streamlined process.
A clear mission and a solid brand platform form the basis for a beautifully aligned marketing strategy.
Locating Content Sources
Where is all this great content? Membership associations have distinct advantages when it comes to creating marketing and SEO content. There are already myriad sources of content at your association. Here are just a few examples:
- A conference presentation where you have a transcript, video, and deck. These raw materials can be mined to create multiple pieces of content in multiple formats across several channels. Webinars, explainer videos, blogs, and pillar pages can all launch from one session.
- Members and internal experts can provide interviews, posts, videos, and stories that will resonate with members and prospective members.
- Publications can be retooled into blogs, videos, infographics, and fact sheets.
The tech tools for associations are growing and expanding at a dizzying rate. That’s a wonderful thing—unless it becomes overwhelming. One peril is called “frankensteining.” That’s when your organization is expanding and cobbling together various technical elements: your website and its content management system (CMS), a membership management system (AMS), a learning management system (LMS), a customer relationship management (CRM) system, and a donor platform. If these various systems don’t work together, you’ve created a monster called a frankenstack. As a result, your organization, staff, and tech might have to work harder than they need to.
From managing your members and prospective members to creating valuable experiences and educational content for them, you need to harness your technology to save your staff people time and provide even more value for your members.
Your tech stack should help keep your organization running smoothly. You can’t do this if all of your platforms aren’t working together.
But how do you know if you are creating inefficiencies by frankensteining your tech stack?
- Learn from your data and make sure your technology is set up to take advantage of it.
- Compare your tech stack to that of your leading competitors.
- Talk to your team about their experiences. Do you always feel like you’re trying to catch up?
- Put yourself in the shoes of your members. What are their experiences like? Can you do better?
Watch for the Signs
Change can be hard. We get that! But it can only help to take a look for signs that it is time for a tech change.
- You have unintegrated tools. Too many associations are running operations with tech tools that don’t talk to each other. One sure way to identify this problem is if staff are pulling data from one place and manually importing it into another.
- Staff is wasting time reconciling data from many different sources.
- You’re not saving money. Your operations budget is growing as you spend money on support systems from multiple vendors, and your members get frustrated with poor user experiences.
- You don’t know who your members are. There is no way to serve them, delight them, and solve their problems if you don’t know who they are. Your tech stack needs to help you segment and target content to members.
On this last point, successful membership associations have been perfecting the art of using ideal supporter personas to keep members at the center of their efforts.
Successful membership organizations are learning to get the right content to potential and existing members. That starts with attracting the right folks to your content.
The key to this strategy is nonprofit personas. These fictional representations of ideal supporters or participants are a variation of buyer personas used in marketing goods and services.
Nonprofit personas are based on market research about the demographics, attitudes, concerns, goals, motivations, and behavioral patterns of people who would be ideal members for your association.
There is a free template for creating nonprofit supporter personas to help organizations get a taste for this process that helps bring precision and delight to membership marketing efforts.
Using personas helps a marketing team to use inbound marketing strategies to bring ideal supporters into their orbit by creating educational content that solves ideal members’ problems. It puts you in control of your marketing and the members in charge of their membership journey.
What does your association provide for prospective members? For new members? What about experienced long-term members? These folks all have different needs and respond to different types of content and offerings. You don’t want anyone to let their membership lapse because they feel like they have gotten all they can from your organization.
Mapping the membership journey is a way to meet the audience where they are. This content mapping template helps associations learn what type of content to deliver and what channels to use to deliver it.
What are the most common questions or problems people are searching the internet for? What can you learn about their lives and needs? The more you learn about prospective, new, and long-term members, the more you can use that information to educate and delight them.
Provide Content for Every Career Stage
Think about the people your association serves, and whether they're at the start of their careers or at a later point on the buyer’s journey you're supporting them on. Those at the beginning of that journey are likely to have different challenges and goals than those who are farther along. Plan content—from the sources you already have—that connects with your members at every stage. Understanding where they are and the pain points they have at each stage along that buyer's journey will help you to nurture your contacts with varying content all the way through to joining.
Example: Your association has an ultimate guide to your field. You build it up as an introductory offer and generate traffic through a simple form. Then you email those contacts information based on either their actions or your typical sales cycle. As your contacts move along, offer them things of value, such as your compensation survey or links to webinars you're offering, and then ultimately, if they join, you offer them the guide to the field you have been promoting since initial contact.
Inbound marketing for associations is based on getting potential members to enter your orbit. Your authoritative and unique content keeps them coming back. When the time is right, you ask them to become members, and they just might take you up on that offer.
Create a Membership Benefit Download
You’ll need something juicy to offer as an incentive for joining. This is where all your research on personas pays off. Is there a comprehensive guide, a checklist, or a collection of resources that arrives in their inbox as soon as they pay dues? That kind of collateral is useful, educational, and a valuable resource that helps members understand the value of belonging.
Many associations face internal debates about restricting content. How much content should you restrict to members? Is your journal off limits to people who don’t pay dues? Do members receive a different newsletter than prospective members?
All of this depends on your organization. You can help discover the answers by mapping content to different stages of the members’ journey.
Marketing When Your Association Has Chapters
An association’s regional or local chapters are often an underutilized resource for expanding the organization’s mission and increasing engagement. Chapter members and volunteers are sources for storytelling and can energize an association’s social media and web presence. Chapter members can become social media influencers.
To be an effective marketing catalyst, chapters need to stay connected with the messages, mission, and technology of the parent organization.
Many associations with chapters find the brand platform to be an essential tool for keeping everyone on the same page when it comes to messaging, both visual and verbal. An association brand platform creates alignment across teams and departments. It generates excitement and brings the brand’s personality to life.
It’s also crucial to have a unified website theme. For example, HubSpot’s themes and templates allow associations and chapters to create their own content that fits the look and tone of the overall brand.
The Student Veterans of America (SVA) has a dynamic and integrated marketing strategy that harnesses the power of chapters. Here are a few of the approaches they use.
- Creating branded T-shirts and swag (hats, stickers, etc.) to turn members, families, partners, and allies into “walking billboards”
- Partnering with other student organizations to diversify the audience
- Cultivating relationships with influencers
- Opening Snapchat or TikTok accounts and posting chapter updates to these media
- Creating chapter playlists or events
- Creating and using a “true-to-mission” logo
- Collaborating with other organizations and groups to pool resources
Like all aspects of marketing, the chapters are sharing their delight and excitement about their association with a wider audience. And they are doing it in a way that aligns with the national or international organization.
Content boosts conversions. Without it, your social media followers, for example, can't be nurtured in the journey toward association membership. A prospect needs to “hear” an advertiser's message at least seven times before they'll take action. By using content mapping tools to share select pieces of your most valuable content, you can in exchange earn the trust of member prospects that you can:
- Communicate with
- Build a relationship with
- Encourage to join your association when they're ready
Does your organization have a marketing plan? You need one. For an association, a good marketing plan is also a blueprint for building a community, creating connections, and deepening engagement and relationships.
For a membership organization committed to growth, marketing is simply widening the circle of folks who share and contribute to your mission. There is a nonprofit marketing plan template that helps jump-start the process of creating a marketing plan.
HubSpot outlines five steps to creating a nonprofit marketing plan.
- Define your marketing goals.
- Understand your audiences.
- Craft your key messages.
- Choose, plan, and create your marketing strategies.
- Analyze your marketing performance.
Associations want to learn all they can about people who sign up for their fee‑for‑service training, consulting, and events, as well as members, donors, and volunteers—anyone who will contribute to the organization's success.
The key to marketing an association is creating an engaging online presence that goes beyond just having a website. You’ll invest in a presence that also includes SEO, social media, email marketing, blogging, and other ways to share your content and use it to convert strangers into friends and supporters.
And this strategy will further your mission.
Build a Community
Content is connection. It’s a way of taking potential members on a journey from interest to engagement.
These can be challenging times for engagement. Some of the traditional ways of reaching prospective members include in-person educational events, conferences, and annual meetings. All of these had to be moved online in recent years to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The silver lining of this terrible pandemic is that organizations had to learn to rely even more on online strategies for staying in touch with members and prospective members. Some were able to expand their reach and membership because of the limitations.
Paul Stark, marketing and communications director at the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), shares insights on how his association has been able to survive and thrive by harnessing the power of collaborative partnerships and technology.
This organization’s marketing team has learned new skills and ways to connect with members, such as creating and sharing more digital and video content. They have even expanded their reach because virtual meetings allowed them to connect with different segments that normally couldn’t attend.
And they are working tirelessly to understand the behavior on their website, how people are responding to the content.
Retain Members by Delighting Them
Where is all this delightful content? It’s there, if you know where to look. Membership associations have treasure troves of great content already. They have brochures about the value of membership. They hold annual conferences every year and record sessions that can be turned into blogs. They have white papers, educational materials, research studies, and journals. The content is there.
We just need to learn better ways to use it, share it, and get it into the right hands. A great place to start is to take inventory of all the literature your organization has, even if it’s an old print piece, or something buried on a server. You might be surprised to learn what’s already out there that can be repurposed to educate, engage, and delight potential members.
Case Study: Professional Association
In this case study, an association increased web traffic by 43%. Their leads increased by 57%, and they converted 10% of leads to members, just in the first year. This organization already had a wealth of content at their fingertips. They just learned how to get it into the right hands.
What happened? Working with their inbound marketing partner, they
- analyzed the competition and their peers,
- figured out how they could offer unique content for their potential and existing members,
- created personas—profiles of ideal members and influencers—and helped them create and target content to those individuals, and
- developed an inbound marketing content strategy.
When associations use all the tools at their disposal to understand who their members are, what they need in their professional journey, and how to get it to them, the results become obvious. More clicks, more engagement, more downloads, more shares.
Marketing becomes a continual process of discovery that leads to a passionate, engaged membership.
It can also be a lot of fun.
All About Relationships
By using inbound marketing, focusing on attracting the right visitors, and providing content that answers their questions/problems, associations cultivate relationships by providing delightful, meaningful content.
With smart strategies and mission-driven marketing, the right content gets to the right people when they need it. The result is a thriving membership organization—where paying annual dues is a joyful way to participate in a community where the value of belonging is demonstrated all along the career journey.