MYTH: There are very few ways to reach, recruit, and engage association members online; and you can reach only a tiny fraction of your stakeholders that way, compared to traditional avenues like a hard-copy newsletter, snail mail, etc.

 FACT: The ability to reach, recruit, and engage association members online–or, in other words, through your connected online community–is becoming more efficient and effective every day, and the wide range of tools and tactics at your disposal means that you can radically improve your member engagement program.


Resistance is futile.

I began working with associations, advocacy groups, and member-based organizations during the very early days of the dramatic rise of Web-based marketing, advertising, and communications. And in my experience, the most painful—and most resisted!—transition that organizations like yours have gone through has been the transition from traditional member communications to digital member communications.

But the bottom line is this:

Traditional member communication is more expensive. And…

Traditional member communication is less effective. AND…

Traditional member communication is less likely to result in action.

Worse still, traditional member communication appeals to yesterday’s stakeholders, activists, and leaders in your organization…and completely misses the boat when it comes to the stakeholders, activists, and leaders of tomorrow. And if you don’t start connecting with those folks soon, you may lose them.

Intuitively, association leaders generally understand this, and yet time after time I have heard from clients and partners in this market space the following rejoinders to my pleas to move beyond these antiquated methods:

          “But ALL our members open our mail automatically when they see it’s from us.”

          “When our members get our newsletter (or newspaper), the first thing they do is read it cover-to-cover.”

          “Our members don’t consider it telemarketing when it comes from us.”

          “Our members don’t really go online.”

          “Advertising and marketing techniques that work on other people just won’t work for our members.”

Allow me to respond: false, false, false, false, and false.

Sure, nearly all (actually, probably all) associations, advocacy groups, and member-based organizations at least dip their toes in the water when it comes to online member communications. Some do it through social media, primarily through Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Others may send “eblasts” to their member email lists. And many consider their Website to be (and in some cases it is) a primary form of member communication.

But the question is: how many members actually see or engage with those communications?

One of the primary advantages (at least emotionally, though certainly not functionally) that traditional member communication offers is that it is almost impossible to measure and verify. Because you really have no idea how many members opened the snail mail you sent, read the newsletter, or listened to the robocall message that landed in their voicemail, you have the luxury of assuming that everyone did…and loved it!

Or perhaps you have given members a survey and asked them for feedback on how often they engage with those communications? And perhaps the results came back great!

Of course, if we are to believe everything that people tell us in surveys, then we can assume that advertising doesn’t work on anybody, that every American votes in every election, and that the average person watches only PBS, C-Span, and the Documentary Channel on TV. (P.S.: These channels are so well-watched that one of them no longer exists!)

By contrast, everything about online member communications can be verified, measured, and analyzed. And more often than not, the numbers are eye-popping.

Advances in technology and emerging strategies in various Web platforms have dramatically changed the member communication landscape for associations, advocacy groups, and member-based organizations…even if they don’t know it yet. That change has resulted in a new era of opportunity in which your member communications and engagement program can immediately become more cost-effective, more efficient, and more powerful. Suddenly, there are multiple ways to reach, recruit, and engage association members online.

Much of that opportunity has come in the form of emerging Web communications and engagement techniques like:

  • Retargeting: Retargeting is that thing that happens when you visit a Website and a “cookie” is added to your computer or other device “marking” you for future advertising. Well, think about how that might work for members. Let’s say you DO have a members-only, protected area of your Website…or let’s say you have a page that’s “hidden” and only members can get there through a special link or other technique. Well, every member that visits you there can be “marked” and added to your members-only retargeting list…and then used later for targeted, members-only advertising! The number of member “cookies” you gather is part of that capacity, as well.
  • Members-Only Advertising: I just talked about how you can build a members-only advertising group through retargeting. But that’s not the only way. For instance, many social platforms now allow you to set up custom advertising lists in various ways. One way that would be a huge asset for you would be to take your member email list, for example, and use that to identify members who may be on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Then, you can add those social-media-using members to a custom advertising group—a group that consists ONLY of your members—and advertise exclusively to that group! And it just isn’t social media that allows you to do that. A similar process—and opportunity—exists for most Web advertising: search, display, Web video, and on and on!

One more word about these custom advertising groups, or—as I like to think of them—members-only advertising groups. These are extraordinarily powerful tools for expanding your communications capacity and improving the efficiency of your online member engagement program. Can you imagine having the power and flexibility—not to mention the metrics and analytical capacity—of Web advertising…and ALSO be able to ensure that you are not spending a single penny on anyone but your own members? How amazing is that?

That one Web strategy alone represents a revolution for associations, advocacy groups, and member based organizations in their efforts to reach, recruit, and engage association members online. If you are not doing it—or don’t starting doing it soon—you are not doing your organization justice.

The same can be said of online member engagement and recruitment in general. Its power and potential are practically limitless, and unless you are taking full advantage of the tools and tactics at your disposal, you are likely spending more and achieving less than you should be.


(A version of this blog post originally appeared in the e-book UNSHACKLED! Dispelling 7 MYTHS that May Be Stopping Your Association from Harnessing the Power of the Web, written for associations by Visuality principals Glenn Chung, Christopher Micklos, and Jay Sapiro…who have been helping associations, advocacy groups, and member-based organizations all across the country succeed for nearly twenty years. Click to download UNSHACKLED! for FREE!)