An industry-wide survey commissioned by Mahlab has revealed that associations are struggling to communicate their value to their members. Those that are meeting this challenge are often connecting with current and future members by being unafraid to take a stand on issues relating to their industry.

The idea that organisations can create deeper and more meaningful connections with their audiences has been gaining momentum for some time. Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign, where the company aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, courted controversy (and derision from the U.S. President), but sales soared, stock reached an all-time high, and the campaign yielded record engagement.

While taking a stand on a divisive issue initially seemed to be a risky move for the company, commentators soon noted that it demonstrated a savvy understanding of their core demographic.

“About two-thirds of Nike’s core customers are under 35, according to research firm NPD Group, and they tend to side with Kaepernick,” Quartz reported. “Those young consumers, it’s said over and over, increasingly want to know that the values of the brands they’re buying align with their own.”

The same logic holds true for associations, where members are increasingly engaged with professional bodies that speak to their personal values. The findings from the survey, which compiled qualitative data from over 100 leading Australian member organisations, found associations that are experiencing member and/or revenue growth are twice as likely to take a strong stand on issues.

This was the case for the Australian Physiotherapy Organisation, whose commitment to advocacy has seen a marked increase in membership acquisition, according to General Manager of Member Engagement, Anja Nikolic.  

“Our communication around advocacy in recent years has been really important in acquiring new members,” she said. “Our acquisition efforts certainly touch on functional benefits of membership, but it’s a tribal call. We have a sense of momentum around advocacy because it tends to bind people, and they can see what the benefit of their membership is.”

The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) experienced similar success when they voiced their support for pill testing at music festivals. The policy, which had been widely condemned by the NSW Government, was nevertheless endorsed by PSA as a harm prevention measure. It was a stance that spoke to the principles of the pharmacy profession, and the statement was praised by members. Engagement on the post announcing the association’s position on pill testing in the PSA Early Career Pharmacist Facebook was notably high, with one member commenting that they would pay their PSA fees “with a smile now.”

The HR community was similarly engaged when, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the rise of the #MeToo movement, the Australian Human Resources Association intensified its reporting on workplace sexual harassment. Online articles that tackled the volatile issue saw high levels of engagement, and association members came forward with their stories of managing the issue in their respective workplaces.

For all the benefits of taking a stand, execution is important, and time and time again brands have tripped up in their attempts to align themselves with social movements when they misread their audiences. The infamous Pepsi ad that preceded Kaepernick’s Nike campaign has become a cautionary tale for organisations who seek to profit off the public’s desire to engage with ethical brands without truly investing in a specific cause.

Survey respondents reported a similar trend in their communications that engage with social issues.

“There are elements of advocacy that hatch directly on the day-to-day life [of our members],” Abderazzaq Noor, Manager of Communications and Advocacy at the Royal Australian College of Surgeons said. “To give you an example, one of the things that we advocate for is road safety. For surgeons, they get directly impacted because the trauma surgeons are the ones who will be in the operating rooms when a massive road accident happens. It is a direct impact on what our surgeons do and they would like to see that trauma reduced.”


To view the full 2019 Member Communication Survey, click here.

Mikaela Dery contributed to the writing of this piece.

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