Every association knows it’s a lot harder (and more costly) to acquire new members than to keep them. By nurturing relationships with this ongoing base, content marketing is an extremely powerful tool associations can use for long-term retention.

Keeping membership high and churn at a low should be a priority for any association, given the cost of acquiring new members. For many organisations, this existing constituency represents around half of all revenue in dues, with the other half typically coming in from events. As such, members’ value to your organisation should never be underestimated nor their loyalty taken for granted.

Content marketing is a way to cultivate and nurture relationships with this existing base over the long term. Through a targeted approach, it maintains consistent and relevant communication focused on audience interests and needs, distinct from a promotional agenda. Implemented as part of a documented, whole business approach, it publishes high-quality material (whether that’s print magazines, blog articles, infographics, videos and more), distributes it strategically across channels, and amplifies it on platforms their members use most.

Good association content marketing will do more than this however. Through publishing reports, industry insights, and keeping audiences apprised of their activities, associations not only establish themselves as an authority in the industry. Content marketing will also foster a sense of belonging – helping to create a network of informed, interconnected people, who are able to relate themselves to each other, and to the profession or special interest area as a whole.

Delivering quality to targeted audiences

There are some ‘push’ factors that associations have no control over when it comes to member retention. People change careers, they move overseas, they’ll hang up their helmets/lawyer robes/branded cufflinks when the time has come to retire. Sometimes it comes down to a company choosing to no longer pay membership fees for their employee base, and the individuals lack the motivation to re-enroll themselves.

It’s when members feel that they’re no longer getting a sufficient value for money that associations need to pay attention. ‘Value for money’ can mean many things – but relevant, useful content will always rank near the top.

If the only time you’re communicating with your members is when you’re reminding them to renew their dues, you’re in trouble. Likewise, communication focused on sales is unlikely to enrich relationships. But if you provide members with information that enables them to be better workers or at the vanguard of industry news and developments, they’ll have a different view of what your association is all about.

Content marketing that puts relevancy before frequency

It’s not how many times you touch base with your members that counts either. Sending your subscribers 100 emails annually won’t add value if they never open them. According to the 2016 Association Email Marketing Benchmark Report, only 36% of subscribers open association emails – and only 65.71% of this percentage give them more than a skim.

Results from the report confirm that the priority for association marketers shouldn’t be volume. Analysing over 1 billion emails from Informz’ association base in the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, it was found that message relevancy has a greater impact on subscriber engagement than message frequency. Increasingly, association marketers worldwide are aware of this too – sending fewer emails than they have in previous years (currently, 88% of subscribers receive 10 or fewer emails monthly), with no correlated impact on engagement.

“This is likely an indication that marketers are moving away from large volume email blasts and moving towards customised communication to precise target groups,” write the report authors.

Worryingly, Australia seems to be lagging behind the trend. Where other marketers are being more strategic in their communications, associations Down Under remain the second largest sender and saw a 21.5% a year-on-year growth in email volume.

Content marketing is designed around the ‘relevancy’ principle. Through developing buyer personas, using sophisticated personalisation software and tools and striving to educate rather than sell, it is a useful strategy to ensure your members receive value back on their membership dues. When this happens, they’re far more likely to stick around.

Producing prestige gated content as part of a wider strategy

While ‘limited access’ content is unlikely to attract new members, gating ‘premier content’ as part of a diverse content marketing strategy remains an excellent value-add for retention. Print magazines in particular remain a powerful positioning and staple.

The fact that magazines are the most ‘tangible’ benefit associations provide many of their members makes it incredibly important that they are seen to encapsulate the organisation’s identity. They should reflect its brand and core values in all aspects of editorial and design, and avoid the dull and impenetrable language that associations are sometimes prone. If members don’t get that anticipatory thrill when they see the next issue poking through their letterboxes, then your magazine is likely to share the same short-lived fate as most product catalogues: the bin. But when this and other forms of prestige content live up to their name, they can be hugely valuable when it comes to retention.

Establishing associations as industry exemplars

It’s a mistake to think members purely view membership as a transactional utility. Sometimes, deciding to belong to an association stems from more ideological, political or ethical reasons. Members will align themselves because of the advocacy work an association undertakes for instance, or because membership will demonstrate to their own professional networks the values and industry commitments they personally espouse.

Content marketing is a means by which brands can cultivate this status. It furnishes proof that the organisation is a respected voice within the industry, accomplishing great things within it. If, for instance, an automobile association is campaigning for improved signage in regional areas, this is a subject which should be covered and broadcast – where the facts behind the issue are made clear, along with the objectives of the association and the progress made.

The best association content marketing hence will be intimately tied to community-making; transforming an association into a space where the profession is able to better define and understand itself. Ultimately, members will renew not to get notified of an education course happening next September. They’ll do so to continue feeling part of a body which serves as an exemplar of the profession’s values: which constantly challenges the status quo, and works towards creating a better working landscape for them and their peers.

Case study: AHRI’s HRM

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In the changing working landscape, the effective and ethical management of employees presents ongoing questions and challenges for HR professionals. The Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) understands this well. In 2014, they launched Human Resources Media – a multi-channel, multi-platform initiative, with a content hub, daily enewsletters, fortnightly video, social media channels and the monthly print publication HRM. (Full disclosure: AHRI is a Mahlab client.) It brings a wealth of insight and conversation starters relating to the profession, all geared towards helping their 20,000 members and thousands of readers.

With engaging content hub headlines like “Sorry to bother you!!! Just wondering why I keep getting interrupted at work??” (on gender and punctuation in the workplace), videos and interviews, HRM positions itself as the opposite of stuffy. Instead, it creates a vibrant, knowledge-driven community, dedicated to exploring what matters to its members now.

The results speak for themselves. In the latest 2017 HRM reader survey, 74.6% said they read the HRMonthly magazine to “keep up to date on the latest industry news”. What’s more, 62.73% of respondents agreed that the “HRM magazine, website, enewsletters and videos are a good member benefit”, with 27.34% strongly agreeing.

Case study: RICS’ Modus

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Modus, a magazine of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveying (RICS), is a sterling case in point. Produced by UK content marketing agency Sunday, this monthly publication is read by over 12,000 members worldwide and available in print and digital formats. With gorgeous cover-to-cover design, it is a veritable beauty (and not just for a member magazine – it’s beautiful full-stop). Driving conversations on the shifting landscape of the surveying profession and showcasing the ‘best in show’ across the globe, it has increased traffic to RICS main site and inspired a wide cross-cut of audience members, while generating revenue for the association with relevant advertising.

In essence, Modus combines genuine thought leadership in its content with premium design. Establishing a distinct aesthetic, it makes it clear to readers that there is nothing else out there created with such dedicated care. A true prestige product, we’re not at all surprised that a survey found 93% of recipients engage with the magazine each issue.

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