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Membership organisations: big challenges, digital answers?

By The Drum Team | Editorial




April 11, 2012 | 7 min read

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.
The diagram does not attempt to challenge any existing membership journey models, but rather to simplify them into four stages (the x axis) and understand the relative appeal (from broad to niche) of a digital information source, technology or channel in delivering best value to the individual member (the y axis).The points highlighted are illustrative of key stages of the membership journey at which all organisations should ensure that they are delivering to their members and meeting their own corporate objectives to ensure mutual value. A simple example of how this works is that at point 1 on the diagram where an organisation wants to build awareness with their future members, building an educational Facebook community might be most appropriate. At point 2 where the organisation might want to acquire new members from those embarking on their professional career, facilitating them in connecting with their professional peers via an endorsed LinkedIn group might be effective. At point 4 developing closed communities where members can share specialist knowledge might reinforce members’ commitment to the organisation and encourage them to take a more proactive advocacy role. For each of the seven challenges in our report we have provided examples of a series of work streams that could help organisations achieve their digital objectives as they relate to their corporate objectives. The aim is to show them that there are indeed digital answers to the majority of the challenges that they currently face, but that they need to view their digital communications strategically and holistically.Being strategic and relevantClearly in the current economic climate there is a temptation for organisations to be conservative in their ambitions and protect what they have and the way that they have traditionally operated. However, in our view this is a risky approach that is likely to leave organisations in a state of increasing irrelevance to all but their most ardent supporters, and potentially in a situation from which there is no recovery, only contraction.The MemCom 2012 Conference has, as this year’s theme, posed the excellent question: Cutting edge, or Cutting back? It intends to focus on the future of digital strategies and the ‘membership brand’, and look at whether membership organisations should be embracing technology and innovation in pursuit of efficiencies and cost saving. In our survey 95% of organisations said that they are currently trying to cut costs, however, in our view it is clear that the answer to the question posed by MemCom is that organisations must start to look at digital as their future, not just as a means of driving efficiencies.This means taking a strategic approach to digital based on organisational objectives, not demands from the committee that shouts the loudest. If you would like a free copy of the Membership Organisations: Big Challenges, Digital Answers? report, please request here or email Adrian is the head of strategic research at Precedent and report author. If you’d like to speak to him about this article or any of the report findings, please contact him on+44 (0) 207 426 8900 or at

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