How to Pick the Right New-Media Communications Tools

By: Karla Taylor

Some new media surge in popularity and then quickly disappear. Others really are around for the long haul, or at least long enough to make a difference for your organization. The trick for association communicators is to know which is which.

If you've worked in association communications in the past few years, chances are you're familiar with these two phenomena:

  1. New-Toy Mania. The irresistible urge to chase the latest communication trend or gadget. It starts with a flurry of excitement when your CEO, an influential board member, or the head of communications makes a pitch for the newest new thing. It climaxes with a rush of publicity as your marketing department promotes it as the coolest idea since Zhu Zhu Pets. Then the fun fades, like Mr. Squiggles two weeks after the birthday party.
  2. Old-Shoe Syndrome. The irresistible urge to deny that you've needed anything new since you installed that fax-on-demand system—which still works perfectly well, doesn't it? Typical symptoms include the inclination to say, "Let's wait and see if this internet thing is going to last."

These unfortunate disorders have one cause in common: a lack of strategic focus that can help your association—and your members—keep up without chasing every shiny, new fad. Striking that balance can be daunting at first, but as numerous association experts explain, it's worth the effort for sake of your members—not to mention your sanity.

Nothing Lasts Forever

New technology spreads like swine flu. Facebook now has more than 400 million active users. Twitter users tweet 55 million times daily. A huge amount of noise bombards us from all directions. The problem is, "We can't say where this is going with any certainty, nor can we gauge with any serious reliability how significant it is," says Michael Stoner, president of mStoner, a firm that focuses on online marketing.

New Trends in Media Strategy

Volatility. Because their users pay nothing, Facebook and LinkedIn could fade just as fast as they flourished. "MySpace was clearly the dominant platform once—just like AOL was," says Terrance Barkan, CAE, chief strategist at Globalstrat. "But they're now on the decline. There is no guaranteed future."

Print—still. "Because of the economy, we're going to see a lot more challenges to print and a lot more electronic options," says Debra Stratton of Stratton Publishing & Marketing. "But I don't think we're going to see the elimination of paper anytime soon."

Less is more. "What we've seen in the past is too much of a push to all-electronic publishing and multiple e-newsletters," says Stratton. "The research we do indicates that members are feeling overwhelmed by too much e-communication—not just newsletters but also marketing."

Personal connection. Susan Peterson, founder and president of the Communication Center, is active on Twitter and Facebook. But when she really wants to connect, "I find I can penetrate even the top layers of an organization simply by sending a handwritten letter," she says. "Secretaries don't know what to do with it, so they hand it to the CEO." Recently, in her role as board chair of an independent school, Peterson sent a donor a handwritten thank you. He responded with another unsolicited $5,000 gift. "People crave connection," she says. It's kind of like Facebook, but on nice stationery.

"Everybody is struggling to figure out what this disruptive technology called 'social media' really means," says Terrance Barkan, CAE, chief strategist at Globalstrat, an association consulting firm. "Most people feel behind the curve, but we're really just at the front end of it. We're all still trying to decipher the hype—and there's a tremendous amount of hype around technologies and tools.

"The question is, what does any of this really mean for your particular organization with your particular mission? People lose sight of the importance of figuring out what you're trying to achieve as an organization."

There are three important points to keep in mind as you decide what's right for your organization. They may not be as fun as a new toy or as comfortable as an old shoe. But they'll help you get the best results for your association.

1. Don't fall too hard for any single technology. Amid all the conflicting opinions, there is consensus on one thing: Avoid fixating on technology for technology's sake.

"You need to be ready to pick up and drop tools as they change," says Barkan. "So you should be dedicated not to Facebook but to one tool today and something else tomorrow, depending on what works for you."

After all, you can't be sure that Facebook won't go the way of the original social networking site, Friendster, founded in 2002 now but largely forgotten in North America. Stoner says that today's fascination with Facebook reminds him of how email's popularity plunged when a convenient, even fun, tool grew into a spam-filled burden: "People will very soon get tired of managing all the engagement and sign off, mentally at least, to a lot of it."

2. Do research. What should drive your association's communications is a combination of what you want to say and what your audiences want to hear. Remarkably few associations take the time to align the two, but if you get it right, figuring out what tools to use becomes a lot easier.

Debra Stratton, president of Stratton Publishing & Marketing, outlines four steps on how to match what your association is communicating now with what it should be communicating:

  • Get a handle on what you're already doing through an organization-wide communication audit, from your magazine to your website, blogs, and social media tools. Examine your content. Is it vital information your members can't get elsewhere? Or is it mainly self-serving? If it's the latter, you have a problem no matter how you send it out.
  • Survey members and study analytics to find out what people say they want and how their actions reflect those preferences.
  • Based on the research, develop a communication plan. A food analogy is helpful here: When do your members want to snack on the news—via Twitter or mobile technology, for example—and when are they hungry for a three-course helping of information delivered through a magazine article, white paper, or book? If news is breaking in your field, be prepared to offer it when readers need it. But if most of your emails simply flog your latest products, members are likely to hit "delete."
  • Benchmark your findings with ongoing audience research to constantly refine what you're doing in print and digitally. After years of conducting reader research, Stratton says, "broadly speaking, most associations' members still want it both ways. Honing the mix is the key."

Going digital just to save money, Stratton says, is "a mistake—a response to a temporary financial problem." The biggest risk of going all electronic, she says, is that when renewal time comes, members may be hard pressed to recall any tangibles they're getting for their dues dollars.

More Resources on Future Communications

Social web consultant Michael Stoner identifies another disorder in his blog post, "Engagement Fatigue—The Ultimate Consumer Response to Irrelevant Engagement Marketing."

Terrance Barkan, CAE, publishes free papers with detailed directions for creating a social network strategy, and shows how 800 organizations are using social media.

The study Web 2.0: How Associations Are Tapping Social Media, which includes data collected by Stratton Publishing & Marketing for the Angerosa Research Foundation, identifies trends in membership engagement and offers live links to associations' social media sites. Associations are analyzed by scope, type, and staff size.

What does your fledgling social media program have in common with Wikipedia, Twitter, and a pointless blog from Johnson & Johnson? Find out in a thought-provoking video from Internet futurist Clay Shirky.

"The Six Primary Components of the Social Media Flower" by Brian Riggs of Association Headquarters, describes how successful social media starts with seeds—content leaders—and finishes with the bumblebee—new audiences.

And for more on online advertising, Mason Wiley recommends three sites to keep up-to-date on trends:

But every association is different. At the American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI), a survey revealed that the vast majority of members would welcome a change from print to electronic communication for anything related to meetings and conferences. When the society made the shift, it experienced zero drop-off in attendance or membership. Now, ASHI posts updates on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn (as well as the newsfeed on its website) on a schedule that lets members know what to expect and when.

"It's like when a child gets a bike and first rides one block down and back, and then rides two blocks down," says Brian Riggs, assistant vice president of business development for Association Headquarters, the AMC managing the society. "For ASHI, Facebook was three blocks and Twitter was four. As members' comfort level with the new approaches grew, we could go beyond one-way communication and widen our circles of influence. But we're nowhere near finished—we continue to learn and experiment."

The Assisted Living Federation of America hasn't cut out print, but it has devoted extensive resources to follow member preferences. President and CEO Rick Grimes says a few years ago ALFA was looking at different firms to provide services such as email, website, financial software, and database management, until he realized that what ALFA really needed was a single integrated and coordinated system. Since then, the association has linked all its association management systems, web assets, and content management systems. The result is a series of indicators of what key audiences actually use.

The goal, says Nathan Nickens, the association's director of new media and digital strategy, was to develop a tool that would "allow us to communicate with anyone interested in senior living, measure the depth of their engagement, and do it all online. We wanted to be able to tell what people really used and valued." Now ALFA has products accessible around the clock, makes communications more relevant by tracking whether ALFA does what members want and need, and is more influential in public policy.

3. Experiment. ALFA also experiments with how to send messages to which audiences. "We now think we're communicating not just to member companies but to anyone interested in senior living," says Grimes. Proof? Web analytics showed that 90 percent of ALFA's web visitors were not members but consumers seeking help finding assisted living.

Here's the logic, Grimes says: "If you can get one percent of your universe to buy a product or attend a conference or learn about senior living options, wouldn't it be better to reach one percent of one million people instead of one percent of 10,000 people?" ALFA continues to publish a paper magazine and member e-newsletter, but it has also expanded its website so that a third of its content appeals to the public. In addition, Grimes says, "we're using a lot of the technology currently available—Facebook, YouTube, blogs, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn."

ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) started publishing e-books in 2000. Ever since, its publishing staff has experimented with a variety of formats (predominantly PDFs) and distributors (such as NetLibrary and "We've had a lot of success," says Julie Houtz, director of book editing and production, though she says "only a tiny percentage" of ASCD's $20 million in book sales comes from e-books.

How does "only a tiny percentage" constitute success? Houtz says e-books have helped ASCD meet goals to keep up with formats customers may want and to make materials widely available. To help expand its market, the association sometimes gives away downloadable books in exchange for contact information. (Book sales remain strong, she says, even with occasional PDF giveaways.)

In the long run, ASCD hopes the e-book format will allow the association to distribute information on issues it cares about for free as an expanded member benefit. What about improving the bottom line? Houtz predicts that will be "a gradual process."

"If you're already producing print publications, repurposing PDFs is the easiest thing you can do as a way to get started and give customers more value," says Houtz. If you're eager to try out the portable reader market, she recommends starting with text-only books; it's more of a challenge to make tables and graphs originally designed for an 8.5-by-11-inch page work equally well in a 6-by-9-inch, e-reader format.

This willingness to try new things extends to product promotion. At ASCD, the book-publishing staff has tried out videos and online author pages as well as different price points and gift-with-purchase offers. Online, "if something doesn't work, you just take it down. Nothing is forever," says Houtz.

The same philosophy applies to advertising. "You need to constantly try new things to get better results," says Mason Wiley, senior vice president of marketing at Hydra, an online advertising network. This means anything from opening new ad positions in different parts of your web pages to figuring out how to mix in new ad channels—search, email, and social media—with such old standbys as sponsorships.

So think about what advertisers are trying to achieve and how different opportunities can help meet their goals with your members (also known as their highly targeted prospect base). Then look for ways to hook advertisers into content that matters most to those members. "Advertising is still all about people," Wiley says. "Look for nontraditional ad opportunities that serve the people on both sides. It requires being creative and thinking outside the ad-space box."

Let Seven Flowers Bloom

Last year Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, spoke to a group of independent school administrators and offered advice that applies to associations when it comes to avoiding New-Toy Mania and Old-Shoe Syndrome.

"You need the ability to try several small things at once," he says. "Don't let a thousand flowers bloom. Let seven flowers bloom. Then you can say, 'Those aren't working, let's stop.' And 'These are working, let's keep going.' And for the stuff in the middle, 'Can we try for another angle on this?'"

Because it's so hard to evaluate the new and recognize when to give up the old, the need to both know yourself and your audience and be willing to experiment is more important than ever. "There is no big jump in getting this right," as Shirky put it. "The real change is the commitment to try to use these tools in a way that is more valuable tomorrow than today."

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland. Email: [email protected]