Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.
Membership is growing for many associations, but they’re not all seeing the same return on investment for member acquisition. With new digital marketing tactics and growing sophistication in reaching members in their favorite social media channels, associations are finding ways to both recruit broadly and target narrowly, resulting in high-value returns.
The American Nurses Associations is on track to log another record-setting year for member acquisition.
Over the last five years, ANA has seen membership grow from 6 to 9 percent annually, and Membership Director Carol Cohen expects to top that in 2017. She’s forecasting double-digit growth this year—a projected 15 percent or higher increase in membership.
What’s one of her secrets? Facebook.
The world’s largest social networking site is a favorite with nurses, and after a few years of experimentation, Cohen and her team have begun optimizing Facebook’s paid-advertising capabilities, using it as a recruitment driver with a high return on investment.
“Facebook has far and away been our most effective tool for direct-join appeals,” Cohen says. “We’ve done a lot of testing and optimization, and the results speak for themselves.”
For Cohen, the value of digital marketing is simple: These tools and tactics allow you to “follow the ROI,” she says. Facebook’s audience-matching and geo-targeting capabilities make it possible for ANA to put a dollars- and-cents cost figure on each new recruit.
A recent success story was a “lookalike” campaign that targeted Facebook users who “look” similar to ANA members. Cohen created ads highlighting the value of monthly membership—a simple “join for only $15 per month” appeal. The campaign brought in nearly 650 new members in the first half of this year.
These days your member prospects are more likely to discover your association in their Facebook feed than in their mailbox, says Tony Rossell, senior vice president at Marketing General Incorporated (MGI). Associations are adopting digital marketing strategies more widely because they produce good ROI and trackable results.
“With digital marketing, there’s a fingerprint that can be tracked,” Rossell says. “You can say here’s how many clicks, here’s how many impressions, and here’s how many people joined.”
“We are bringing in more members online and at a lower acquisition cost than traditional methods, such as direct mail,” Cohen says. “What’s interesting, as our online performance improves, so too does direct mail.”
Digital acquisition strategies are helping to maintain healthy membership growth rates across the association space, Rossell says. According to MGI’s 2017 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 45 percent of associations reported an increase in new-member acquisition last year. That’s down slightly from 2015, when 53 percent saw new-member growth.
Associations face many membership challenges that digital marketing tools can help to solve, Rossell says, including communicating member value and serving diverse member segments. And digital marketing can help when staff and resources are feeling squeezed.
In this year’s State of Digital Marketing in Associations Report, association marketing and communications professionals reported that the average estimated marketing budget for an association was down from $260,000 in 2015 to $205,000 this year. But there are signs of hope, says Suzanne Carawan, chief marketing officer for HighRoad Solution, which published the report.
Carawan says many associations are spending significantly on digital marketing, investing in marketing automation software, and reporting high conversion rates from digital advertising and content marketing.
“At this point, digital marketing should be a valuable part of any association’s marketing mix,” Carawan says. “Successful organizations are using digital techniques and tactics that give them key indicators to say, ‘Yes, we are actually moving the needle forward and in the right direction.”
Acquisition growth is also a good sign for other membership indicators. According to MGI’s study, associations that reported an increase in new members were more likely to see five-year membership growth, as well as an increase in renewals.
To get those results, associations are increasingly looking to bring marketing savvy to their membership teams. Case in point: Kerri McGovern, who a year ago joined the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) as director of membership after working in a marketing and member services role at the American Chiropractic Association.
“Membership for me is always about providing value at a fixed cost. It has always been about ROI,” McGovern says. “What works for one member might not work for another, especially when it comes to recruitment.”
One year into the job, McGovern is experimenting with new ways to bring prospects through the door. That includes testing messages on email and paid-social campaigns and making multiple touchpoints across both digital and traditional marketing channels.
Her latest experiment is on Instagram. Many interior designers use the highly visual platform every day for design inspiration and networking with clients and colleagues.
“We have made a pretty significant investment in pay-for-clicks,” McGovern says. “That includes social retargeting, which can generate impressions that soar through the roof.”
Typically, retargeting campaigns serve as way to circle back with the customer. If you’ve ever window-shopped online, only to see ads for a product follow you as you browse the web, then you have been hit by a retargeting campaign.
Retargeting can help seal the deal with a potential member because a recruitment ad can get served across multiple websites, apps, and devices. A few of the most popular retargeting tools for associations include AdRoll, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
“The great thing about retargeting is that your impressions are absolutely free. Unless that person clicks on the ad, there’s no charge,” Rossell says. “It’s also flexible. You can launch an ad in about two days and allocate or change funding as needed.”
But direct referral and click-through campaigns can only get you so far.
“Once a person has a question about membership or gives a ‘yes’ to membership, we like to make the outreach much more personal,” McGovern says. “Because interior design is a relationship business, the technology may help connect us, but it still might take a phone call to close.”
Highly effective marketers understand the audience they’re trying to reach. For trade associations seeking to acquire new members, that often means marketing to prospects through digital content, not ads.
“Usually, these are organizational or big-dollar-amount memberships,” Carawan says. “So you have to use content to outfit your business development and membership acquisition strategy.”
Take, for instance, the Construction Financial Management Association, a small-staff organization with a popular online tool—the Construction Financial Benchmarker, which allows contractors to see how their services are priced compared to the competition. The tool is available to members and nonmembers alike, which makes it a source of hot leads on new-member prospects, says Fern Oram, CFMA’s director of content marketing and communications.
Over the last three years, she’s built a content strategy around the benchmarker. “We started by identifying content that our nonmembers were interested in the most,” she says. “Then, we created a form to collect their information, so we can go after them with a pitch for membership.”
CFMA currently has about 18,000 nonmember prospects in its database, Oram says, and it adds to that number through other content efforts, including a webinar series. CFMA makes an automated appeal for membership after a registrant signs up for five or more courses.
“Go where the data leads you,” says Patrick Haller, director of membership and member services at the National Business Aviation Association. “You have to pay attention to what content is being consumed and what’s trending online.” For NBAA, a trade association with an organizational membership model, that means closely watching page views and click-through rates, as well as a visitor’s traffic referral source. NBAA also frees up certain content to nonmembers, so it serves as a driver for member acquisition.
Regardless of the organization or its membership structure, all high-ROI marketing campaigns seem to have one element in common: continuous experimentation and testing.
At ANA, Cohen uses A/B testing, also known as split testing, to compare two different versions of a digital ad and determine which one performs better. And she uses statistical analysis—a built-in feature of Facebook advertising campaigns—to show which ad variation works best for member conversion.
“You also get a quicker response rate, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to test your messages online,” Cohen says.
That same kind of experimentation is happening at ASID. What they’re learning is that images and marketing language that work well in one channel can fall short in another.
“We’re trying to unravel why the image that’s doing best on social is not the same image that’s getting the highest click-through rate on our email,” McGovern says. “On Instagram, we’re exploring using artistic and striking visuals with a very small amount of promotional copy.”
While there’s room to learn, there’s also room to grow. ASID plans to spend about 15 percent of its recruitment budget on social media marketing this year, and it’s planning to increase the budget by 5 to 10 percent next year.
“We’re looking at rededicating some traditional recruitment resources and budget for social,” McGovern says. “In three months, we’ve seen early, positive results, and we hope to grow this in a much more sophisticated way into the future.”[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Follow the ROI."]