Many trade and membership organizations face a unique branding challenge with no easy solution: How do you brand association products and events in order to effectively tie the name of the association together with the offering> It’s not an easy question, especially when the event – typically a large annual trade show – has a long history and generates an important source of revenue for the organization. It’s even more difficult when the association’s asset is a product as opposed to a conference, such as a valuable industry certification. In a competitive market, the further the event or product is from the association, the more that brand equity is being lost.
Marketing trade associations is never easy, especially considering that the competitive landscape has never been more crowded. Not only are there more organizations chasing new members, but there are also more for-profit companies offering competing services. As a result, whether you are with a trade association whose members include large corporations, or a membership association with thousands of individuals enjoying your services and offerings, it takes a strong brand strategy and a sophisticated outreach plan to efficiently and effectively attract new members, retain existing members, and drive attendees to your conferences and events.
Having to reconcile the association brand with the brand of its products and events is not uncommon. It can often happen when the organization itself rebrands and updates its name without progressing the brand of its assets. Even among some of the largest and most established trade groups, this brand reconciliation can be a significant challenge.
What’s now known as the Consumer Technology Association holds its annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January every year. CES is one of the largest and perhaps the most famous trade show in the U.S., primarily because electronics manufacturers annually launch their newest smart TVs, VR devices, and other cool technology at the show – guaranteeing media coverage from reports who want to showcase the future of innovation. For decades, the trade group was called the Consumer Electronics Association. So when it evolved to its new name in 2015, it had to decide what to do about its trade show CES. The answer was to leave it alone because its name had become much better known than the association that sponsors it every year. That wasn’t an easy decision, and the CES brand is prominently displayed on the Association website.
But when the trade show or other product becomes much better known than association itself, that creates significant challenges. For one, it makes selling memberships to the association more difficult because the connection between the association and the product gets lost. In one example, a long-established membership association that was feeling the increased competition realized through market surveys that its brand awareness had been flat or declining over the past several years. It turned to Bluetext for help in overcoming this downturn.
With more competing organizations offering similar services, the client recognized one of the reasons for this decline: It had spent years branding its products and events separately from the association itself. This divide can present a significant challenge for organizations which offer a wide range of services which have each been branded individually. As new membership prospects are entering the market, they may know the products – in this case, the professional certifications – but they don’t know the association itself. Our solution was a multi-tiered, integrated approach that combined programmatic online media campaigns, fresh and compelling themes and creative, and a separate set of campaigns for the branded products themselves. We tied all of this together with new messaging and gave the campaign the simple yet measurable goal of increasing brand awareness and engagement with the association.
For another large association that has been around longer than any other competitor in its vertical, one of the challenges had been a result of its age – its brand was getting stale. Our approach was to develop a fresh look for its annual conference that brings in most of their annual revenue. For this client, our focus was on a bold new creative design that took the brand color palette and re-imagined it in dynamic, contrasting tones that pop from a distance, with 3-D shapes that both fit the brand and stand out at a large trade show environment.
For trade association marketing, there is no one solution when rethinking the brand. But having a strong brand strategy is a critical first step.
Today, a website is the front door to your association, and every effort must be made to deliver a powerful user experience for current and
prospective members. Your digital platform must be modern and intuitive. Beyond a great design, it is important to make sure your website is addressing all of your association’s key performance indicators around member services, member retention, communications, activism, and engagement.
To this end, when thinking about your association’s website, a great design is not necessarily where you should begin. The first question you should ask yourself is, “Can our website help us achieve our association goals in the most efficient manner.” Understanding where your members and prospects are coming from, how are they accessing the site, and what tools they need to be successful all must be asked up front through a discovery process in order to maximize the impact of a new website.
With that thought process in mind, here are some recommendations to consider when undertaking a new website design for your association:
- Provide the tools and resources to help your members do their jobs more effectively. They are paying you to be their advocates, and they need your help in taking action, remaining relevant, and proving the impact and rationale for their membership. For one membership organization, we built a tool that enabled human resources professionals to directly send a presentation to their bosses to show the value and impact of their membership in that organization. It was a very effective tool for ensuring membership dues.
- Clearly communicate the value and impact you provide. Make sure your messaging and value is clear right up front. We have worked with many
associations who are going through an identity crisis and don’t understand why membership may be down or why they are less relevant
than in the past. It may be time to audit your messaging and positioning, both internally and externally, to ensure it is relevant to your
members and the communities you serve.
- Don’t be afraid to brand with impact. Changing colors or changing logos can go a long way toward sending a powerful signal to your constituencies. And make sure that the design direction you take aligns with that of the industry you serve. If that’s the tech community, make sure your brand feels “techy.” If you serve the healthcare community, make sure your brand aligns. You get the picture. Modern, fresh and engaging can really make an impact in the perception of your association as you go to market with a new website.
- Content. Content. Content. Being a thought leader and delivering authoritative content is critical for success. Keep your content fresh and engaging, update it regularly, and address the current and emerging topics that are of importance to your members. Association content marketing is becoming a must for the most advanced associations.
- Make sure your content is Search Engine Optimized and your architecture is designed for SEO best practices. There is so much talk about SEO that people get confused. But that should not be the case. Go analyze what people are searching for and align your content around that. Ranking high with Google can be very effective.
- Go mobile. Look at your stats. People are accessing the web from mobile devices more than ever and the stats continue to rise. A responsive site is a must in today’s digital environment. If a user does not have a great experience with your association on a mobile device it can impact your value immensely.
In their drive to attract, engage, recruit and ultimately retain new members, Association marketers are facing added competition from more
than other trade associations. Increasingly, they are being squeezed by for-profit commercial businesses that have ramped up their own efforts to attract this same audience. One of the primary services that associations offer to their members is information, in the form of content, and that’s where the battle lines are being drawn.
The majority of the critical information that members used to get solely from an industry association today can be easily found and obtained elsewhere—and typically free of charge with no annual membership fees. The American Heart Association for example – once had a near-exclusive lock as the sole source of premium content for all things related to the heart. That role kept membership strong and growing. They now are now facing increasing competition for share of mind from hospitals, medical groups, for-profit businesses and manufacturers of prescription drugs for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. As more competing content sources compete for mindshare, the less valuable the association becomes as a leading resource for information – let alone a ‘paid’ resource.
Associations should look at this as not just a challenge in terms of member acquisition but also as a major threat to their member engagement and retention strategy. And what aggravates that is the fact that many lack the resources and strategy to run robust and ongoing integrated member acquisition and retention campaigns to keep existing and prospective members engaged.
The bottom line is, Associations can no longer rely on traditional tactics to acquire and retain members – they need to get into the content game and start producing fresh, relevant content to drive traffic and engagement. This is not a simple task – it takes a disciplined approach that regularly creates and distributes new insights, ideas, and information, packages them in a concise and compelling way that attracts attention, and communicates the value that the content delivers to its members. And to truly be effective, that content must also be search engine optimized to make it easy to find, and properly coded with relevant keywords in key areas of the site that Google is looking at, including page URLs, page titles, and content across the association’s website. When this is done properly, a dashboard can be set up to track, measure and optimize engagement and conversion of the content marketing program.
With organizations of all sizes jumping into the content game – it is absolutely critical that you begin a smart content marketing strategy to re-capture and retain the membership base and reclaim your stake as the dominant voice of your industry.
Trade association marketing is never easy, and for trade associations, the competitive landscape has never looked more crowded. Not only are there more organizations chasing new members, there are also more for-profit companies offering competing services. As a result, whether you are with a trade association whose members include large corporations, or a membership association with thousands of individuals enjoying your services and offerings, it takes a strong brand strategy and a sophisticated outreach plan to efficiently and effectively continue to attract new members and retain existing members, and to drive attendees to your conferences and events.
The old way of doing business for even the most established associations may not cut it anymore. In just one example, we’ve been working closely with a long-established membership association that is feeling the increased competition and has realized through market surveys that its brand awareness has been flat or declining over the past several years. Part of the reason is that more competing organizations are offering similar services. But much of the cause may be a result of having spent years branding its products and events separately from the association itself – a significant challenge for organizations that offer a wide range of services that have each been branded individually. As younger prospects are entering the market, they may know the products, but they don’t know the brand. Our solution is a multi-tiered, integrated approach that combines programmatic online media campaigns, fresh and compelling themes and creative, and a separate set of campaigns for the branded products themselves, all tied together through new messaging with the simple measurable goal of increasing brand awareness and engagement with the association.
For another large association that has been around longer than any other competitor in its vertical, one of the challenges has been a result of its age – its brand was getting stale. Our approach was a fresh look for the conference that brings in most of their annual revenue. For this client, our focus was on a bold new creative design that takes the brand color palette and re-imagines it as bold, contrasting tones that pop from a distance, with 3-D shapes that both fit the brand and stand out at a large trade show.
The point is that, for trade association marketing, there is not one solution for associations who need to up their game to attract and retain members. We’re not in Kansas anymore, and the old ways of doing business won’t get you where you need to be. It’s 2018, and time to take your marketing program to the next level.