Things Not From the 1990s: Marketing Your Association in 2018

In fashion, everything old becomes new again. Thin ties were out, and then back in. Glasses were oversized, then small, and then large again. Right now, the 1990s are having their renaissance, with rompers and high-waisted jeans all the rage.

The idea that everything becomes new again works beautifully for the runway.

It does not, however, work so well for associations and membership organizations.

The 1990s are definitely not back in again when it comes to thinking about why people join and engage with your association. However, a lot of associations are stuck there.

What do we mean by stuck in the 1990s?

We mean focusing all marketing and outreach efforts around education and networking. We mean laying out everything you offer in a direct mail piece or an email that essentially says, “We’re the only ones who have this! Come and get it!”

A few decades ago, when there wasn’t as much to compete with, people simply joined the association their mentor, boss, colleague, or previous person in their job joined. People followed the path set before them. Join this association. Here are the benefits. This is what you do.

This mindset was fairly standard, and it worked pretty well. For a while.

It doesn’t work anymore though. The most obvious reason it stopped working is that there are far more channels to compete with now. Professionals can get education through webinars. They can hear thought leadership by watching TED talks, reading blogs, or listening to podcasts. They can network through social media.

Essentially, your association is competing with what they can access on their phones.

The second reason, and the one that associations struggle even more to understand, is that the marketing tactics that worked on Baby Boomers do not connect nearly as well with Millennials, or even the younger side of GenXers.

These populations are looking for something else.

What are they looking for? This is one of the questions keeping leaders of membership associations up at night.

Luckily, we have the answer.

Cause Marketing for Membership Organizations

We’ll get right to the point: Your association needs a cause.

By cause, we mean a simple, easily understandable, highly relevant idea that members can embrace, rally around, and spread.

A cause is not the same thing as a marketing campaign. A campaign is short lived, and usually has a clear beginning and ending. A cause, by contrast, is about the long view.

The right cause inspires people and spurs action. Unlike education and networking, which are plentiful outside of your association, your cause is unique to who your association is and why it exists.

A cause is an idea, which you articulate in a succinct phrase. It’s more than a slogan. A cause must have movement behind it. It must direct what your association focuses on, how you allocate your resources, and how you bring new members into the fold.

Millennials are not a shallow, entitled group, despite how much other generations like to pick on them. They are incredibly savvy and unapologetically passionate—but only about things they truly care about.

To get them to care about you, you need a cause that speaks to them.

But first, you have to get their attention.

Reaching a Millennial Audience

Can you communicate something valuable and inspiring related to your cause in 10 seconds or less? That’s the length of a Snapchat video. We call it the “Snapchat test.” It doesn’t mean you only ever have 10 seconds, but it’s a good idea to start thinking along those lines.

In fact, you most likely need to rethink your communication approach altogether, if you are still using tactics from the 1990s (or even from the 2000s or early 2010s).

In 2023, effective marketing is about using one channel to lead, and another to follow up. Just like a smart phone can “hand off” to a computer, or a tablet can “hand off” to a television, you need a strategy for “handing off” content between platforms.

The key is that you need to tweak your communication plan based on how your audience is behaving. Their next moves after engaging with your content determine your next moves.

That might look like . . .
  • Leading with a Facebook video, and remarketing on Facebook again to people who have shown interest.
  • Leading with a LinkedIn post and then retargeting on Facebook to those people who showed interest.
  • Leading with a Snapchat video, and then retargeting on Facebook.
  • Leading with digital and then following up with marketing automation.

All of your association’s thoughtful and strategic work in articulating your cause will be lost if you go back to a 1990s way of trying to reach an audience. Today’s audience simply isn’t in the same place as your audience used to be, and they are not behaving in the same way.

Your association has to LEAD if you want to attract Millennials, and then—just as important—you need to FOLLOW them where they go and keep the conversation going.

In other words, you need long-view thinking (a strong cause to rally around) with shorter-view action (using the latest tools and content platforms).

Wear all the high-waisted jeans you want, but 1990s marketing best practices are not coming back. It’s time for your association to embrace the NOW.

If you are the leader of a membership organization, your single most important priority right now is to develop and articulate the cause that your members and perspective members can rally around.

Do you know it? Can you write it on a cocktail napkin? Can you get it across in 10 seconds?

Need help? Borrow our brain, and let’s see if we can come up with it together.

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