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How can membership organizations not only stay relevant but keep growing?

The membership of the American Medical Association continues to fall each year, and according to the American Society of Association Executives, it’s not an isolated trend. Membership organizations are struggling to recruit a new generation of potential members to their organizations and to maintain relationships with existing members.

To continue to grow, associations are being forced to reconsider the old “Here’s our magazine, see you at the convention, pay your dues” model in favor of a new, digitally-focused experience.

We’ve highlighted three digital strategies that associations can leverage to grow their membership and to increase engagement with existing members: providing content that members want, personalizing the member experience, and connecting every department in your association to your digital presence through an association-wide digital transformation.

Provide easy access to the content members’ wants.

Some of the associations struggling to grow their membership today have forgotten what their members really want: career advancement, mentoring, and education. Your digital presence is the key to providing access to these valuable resources to your members, not just a tool for republishing feature stories from your member magazine.

Educational resources are a big draw for members in many types of organizations, such as medical associations. However, members are often put off by barriers to resource access beyond the cost of dues, including terrible user interfaces, multiple disconnected systems, and unintuitive organizational schemes. Providing resources isn’t just about uploading scanned copies of journal articles. Associations need to consider their digital user experience as important as large eCommerce companies (the Amazons of the world) consider it for their purchase paths.

Along with investing the time and money in user experience research and planning, the difference-maker in leveraging resource access for memberships is often search capability. You probably found this article via a Google search—your members will expect it to be just as easy to search your site. Well-implemented search should return results quickly, search across different systems and databases, and provide tools for narrowing down results (faceted search). Search is often available as an add-on to your content management system (for example, Episerver Find for the Episerver CMS).

Access to career opportunities is another of the most desired association resources by early-career (read: millennial) members. A well-designed career portal is a useful tool for not only maintaining membership but also for recruiting prospective members. Some associations have experimented with a “freemium” model, in which non-members have a basic level of access to the portal, but have access to further detail if they become a member.

The most successful associations also understand that their digital presence doesn’t start and end at their website—it involves every digital channel—and has made expanding access to development and career resources part of a multichannel strategy. Including resource content in your social strategy is especially important for millennials, who are often averse to email communication.

Personalize the member’s digital experience.

In a study by Accenture, 56% of consumers admitted to being more inclined to patronize a retailer if it offered a personalized experience. The same logic applies to association memberships.

One of the biggest digital experience buzzwords right now is personalization. Personalization, in a nutshell, means offering targeted content and experiences to specific segments of your digital visitors. Personalization sometimes gets a bad rap, especially for those who have only experienced it in the form of sometimes creepy eCommerce advertising, but it can be a powerful tool for nonprofits and membership organizations.

Personalization offers the ability to provide a unique experience to each of your members, whether they’re one out of a few thousand or a few hundred thousand. Personalization can leverage both data from a member’s profile (pulled out of your AMS), as well as behavioral data. The actual targeted content involved can range from things as simple to a custom greeting page to a personalized conference agenda based on a member’s interests.

Simple personalization strategies can also help to engage prospective members without a profile. Personalization based on geographic data can offer local events to prospects, or offer returning (and a higher likelihood to convert) visitors a membership deal to push them forward in the process. Based on a visitor’s pages viewed, your site can also direct a prospect toward a relevant area of your resource section.

How does an association actually implement personalization? While very complex personalization schemes may require specialized software, most leading content management systems (such as Episerver) offer easy-to-setup rules-based personalization. These CMS-based systems can usually be connected to your AMS or another system without too much work by your digital partner.

Connect your entire association to your digital presence.

The most important digital strategy for growing and maintaining your membership starts a step away from your website. In talking with leaders from a diverse variety of associations, we’ve learned that the biggest issue for many organizations is the wall separating many of their internal departments from their digital experience.

The answer to this organizational issue is what’s become known as digital transformation. As opposed to a simple digital upgrade project (upgrading your content management system) or a new digital campaign (using personalization for events), digital transformation refers to the organization-wide change in the way you interact with customers via digital channels.

Digital transformation won’t be identical at every association, but executive Donald Patrick Lim explained one potential outcome at the ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference:

“Organizations will no longer have a separate digital strategy. Rather, digital will be second nature and be part of every single thing you do. No employees will have words like “digital,” “online,” or “e-“ in their titles. Again, digital should be a part of everyone’s job, so there’s no reason to call it out in a position title.”

This end goal might be a little too optimistic for most associations. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, 66% to 84% of digital transformation projects fail. Often this is because the organization fails to commit to removing silos. Associations must be willing to change their structure to move digital out of a pigeonhole in marketing or IT. This can involve, as the HBR puts it, changing where employees sit both physically and in the org chart and creating cross-departmental digital teams.

Digital transformation also involves changes at the technology level. The many systems—CMS, AMS, learning management, publication management, eCommerce, PIM—that the different departments in your association use must be integrated to provide a complete picture of each member and prospective member. Digital metrics should be shared throughout your association and there should be clear paths (publication workflows) for every department to contribute to digital content.

While you can always organize your own digital transformation, often the most successful digital transformation projects are led by an external firm or agency. An external firm provides the unbiased, top-level view that a digital transformation requires. Just make sure your firm is willing to invest the time to get onsite to really understand your employees and members.