Reach association membership with digital communication

11 January 2021
web & digital technology

The Innovation Series—inspired by Leadership Forum, AH’s exclusive client-only event—seeks to uncover the biggest, best “what’s next” ideas for associations. 

As technology has evolved, so have the rules of communication. Emails, instant messages, and texts deliver both intended and unintended messages, requiring an entirely new and thoughtful approach to communication. With remote work becoming the new norm for many organizations— 62% of employed Americans made the switch to remote work at the start of the pandemic—meetings going virtual, the advent of chatbots, and teams connecting solely on digital platforms, digital communication has never been more important. 

How can associations improve their digital communication to continue to innovate in a wild time of change?

Changing Platforms for Support and Engagement

Community is the heart of any association. The in-person networking at association events has long-been a key driver for a whole swath of members; that face-to-face time to make new and everlasting connections propels members to join associations.

Erica Dhawan, author and speaker at AH’s 2019 Leadership Forum, challenged association leaders, even before the pandemic, to ask themselves, how can associations foster connections in new ways?

“We can’t meet with our members every month in person,” said Dhawan. “How do we really connect in our new world in ways that foster engagement and are productive? How can we connect intelligently within our associations and with all our stakeholders?”

Association websites are consistently known as the front door to the organization and social media channels are a given when it comes to prime locales to engage audiences, but as those audiences’ exposure to digital information skyrockets, so too do their expectations about what deserves their valuable time and attention.

Data Collection and Personalization

To meet those expectations, personalized content is the critical component that associations must embrace. Personalizing content requires at least some level of data collection—the method used to gather member information such as job title, years in the industry, or areas of interest and expertise, helping associations obtain accurate and strategic insight on their audiences—is necessary to help associations learn not only who their members are more intimately, but what content will be of interest and most valuable to them.

Jon Kinsella, AH’s Director of Digital Marketing, advises that the easiest way for associations to enter the realm of personalized content is by investing in an email automation platform.

“It allows associations to be able to have dynamic articles within one email where you can tailor and segment your messaging,” Kinsella said. That segmented messaging is the secret sauce of personalization: the more segmented the messaging, the more targeted, relevant, and better-received that message is by your audience. “Not only are you providing something that truly applies to that member, you're streamlining your resources and only creating one email rather than three.”

For example, email automation allows associations to send a newsletter to an entire email list. All members may receive one general article (perhaps a member highlight) but the rest of the email is built to provide senior-level members one set of relevant content, early-career members another set of content, and associate members another a different set of content that’s of more interest to them—all in a single build. 

This is especially key for reinforcing an associations digital value proposition to their members.

“In this environment, it's now more important than ever to ensure that your members are getting the valuable content that they need, where ever they are in their current situation in their life,” Kinsella said. “Without that, you're really not going to be able to enhance your digital value proposition.”

For data collection, review how others have collected data. The most effective format includes a handful of questions, the answers to which help identify and categorize the membership according to previously developed personas or audience segments.

All of this data collection will help association leaders to get to know their members a bit more and understand their motivation, pain points, and where they are in their career stage.

“Without that information, anything you do on in the digital realm is going to fall flat,” Kinsella said. “And then, utilizing that data to proactively provide that content is vital so they don't end up searching online themselves and finding a replacement for you.”

The Power of AI-Based Chatbots

Embracing personalization helps associations reinforce their value to members, build community, and engage. But that’s just one way associations can surprise and delight members with next-level digital communication. Recent years have seen more associations take their customer service queues from the consumer industry, and immediate, accurate responses to questions on everything from event registration to website use are increasingly being provided by chatbots on both websites and via text, or SMS.

Chatbots are programs that are written with artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically engage with users when a message is received. If you’ve ever been on a website and a little message bubble pops up on the page, that’s a chatbot.

According to Robert H. Caldwell, founding partner at 42Chat and speaker at AH’s 2019 Leadership Forum, multi-channel support (i.e., chatbots, email, SMS, and more) can support association members the way they want it, especially when it comes to conferences and webinars.

“You need to deliver in a place people want to be,” Caldwell said. “Chatbots can be in multiple places, effective at supporting members wherever they are.” That’s key, according to Caldwell, because members are prone to forgetting—or just not learning entirely—where or how to register, renew, contact, or any other action that might bring them to the association website. “Is that a barrier to them opening, registering, participating?” asks Caldwell.

Chatbots are particularly helpful during association events to help guide attendees through any questions they may have. The chatbot will have questions and answers preprogrammed to more easily help users.

“A lot of the questions can be answered by anticipating the types of questions that would be asked, and then developing those automated chatbot chat responses,” Kinsella said.

Not only can chatbots help members find the information they are looking for, it can also guide those who may not even know what they are interested in. If someone visits an association’s website but they don’t exactly know what they are looking for, a chatbot can ask a series of qualifying questions that will route the user to the right webpage, form, or even call a customer service representative to help that user. This leaves your employees to work on more important tasks at hand.

Chatbots go further than answering questions on a website; people search for answers using social media, SMS texts, emails, and more. It’s a lot for a team of people to keep up with.

According to, around one billion people now use Facebook Messenger every month with over 100,000 bots being used on the app itself. If your association has a strong presence on Facebook, it might be time to see if a chatbot is the right option to use. Twitter also supports chatbots to quickly reply to users.

Chatbots help members and non-members to find solutions in a fast and convenient fashion because they never stop working. 

“Think of a Chatbot as a member of your team,” Caldwell said. “Why? Chatbots work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. They always give you an answer and a written record of what happened.” Only chatbots can be there whenever and wherever members might need them.

Digital communication has advanced significantly in recent years, with members expecting far more from their associations. Providing a personalized content experience not only reinforces an association’s value to its members, but helps build community in a world that’s operating almost entirely in the digital realm, while leveraging AI via chatbots provides a convenient, round-the-clock customer service experience that keeps members happy. These innovations will continue to change the face of association membership and challenge associations to keep up.

Learn more about membership services at AH.


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