Membership organisations: big challenges, digital answers?
Adrian Porter, head of strategic research at Precedent, brings The Drum the latest insight into how membership organisations are facing the challenges of our digital world.A statement from a senior employee at one of our membership organisation clients was enough to convince us to do this latest report: “The web is moving faster than our organisation, its internal structures and decision-making processes can keep up with.”While this sort of comment is not unique to membership organisations, when you add it to the questions that continually seem to plague them such as how to remain relevant and demonstrate and deliver value to their members, it seemed clear to us that many of the related issues can either be met, or compounded, by the rapid evolution of our digital world. In order to inform and build on our understanding of the sector we conducted an online survey of over 60 different membership organisations in which we asked a number of questions about the internal and external communications challenges that they face, and their use of the digital space. After developing our thinking on a series of themes we then tested and developed our understanding further by holding a series of interviews with senior stakeholders from a variety of organisations.Delivering value strategicallyIt became apparent that culturally many membership organisations, while fully understanding the communicative power of digital to deliver and demonstrate value, have only within the past few years accepted that digital communications must be at the heart of everything they do. Whilst this acceptance has manifested itself in websites and dabbling in the social sphere, we saw little evidence of coherence across the organisational piece.For larger organisations a major barrier to coherence appears to be fragmented internal structures that manifest themselves in a variety of different committees and departments following their own communication agendas. For smaller organisations often the problem is simply where to apply the effort and expend limited manpower and budget. The reason in both cases seems to be the constant imperative to demonstrate and deliver value to their membership, which encourages knee-jerk reaction to communication challenges based on perceived need, or internal pressures. However, for both there seems to be a glaring lack of an overarching holistic and strategic approach to delivering value, not just to the membership, but crucially to the organisation itself.In essence the very make up of many membership organisations encourages a short-term view of any initiative, based on its immediate value to the membership. What they fail to take is a longer term strategic view based on identified ‘corporate’ objectives and a fundamental cost benefit type analysis. We concluded that such an approach would ensure that value is delivered to the organisation as a whole, and to individual members, as well as ensuring that return on investment could be measured.The challenges and objectivesWith this in mind, the report is framed around seven themed challenges identified in our research that encapsulate some of the current and future issues common to all organisations before relating them to representative digital strategic objectives. For instance, while the take up of publically available social networks is seen by some organisations as a threat to their ‘control’ over the professional conversation, they still need to understand how, when and why existing and future community networks can be used effectively to increase awareness of their organisation and add value to their members. The simple digital strategic objective that all organisations should aspire to therefore is to provide valued and used communities that further their corporate aspirations.However, while this objective seems simply attained, to be effective in achieving it organisations need to have a detailed and segmented understanding of their audiences and their communication preferences.SegmentationOne aspect that seems to inhibit the delivery of really effective digital communications by membership organisations is a preoccupation with the fundamentals of audience segmentation. While most are able to segment and target their membership in a number of ways based on an understanding of demographic information and the level of their relationship with them, few organisations have a suitably empathetic understanding of their members’ and potential members’, communication preferences in relation to the way they want to consume and use services and benefits. Equally important when considering value, is the context of the information delivery. For instance there is little point providing a database of technical information on a non-mobile friendly membership website if the situation in which a member will require the information is on a building site half way up scaffolding. In short understanding members’ preferences with regard to the timing, method, context and channel of communication delivery is crucial to being effective digitally.Membership journey: the curve of digital engagementIn order to help organisations understand the importance of delivering communications to their members via the right channel and with an appreciation of the context of the delivery, we designed a representation of the membership journey.
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