Association 2.0 – Digital Transformation and Relevance in the Digital Age

Written by Clive Roux on May 8, 2018

In 2012 my association was confronting member disengagement and depletion. We knew that less than 50% of our members attended our events (for multiple reasons). 15% of the membership consisted of international members and the relevance of associations had waned somewhat through the 00’s. Membership was on a slow downward slide and finances were tracking along with that trend. Something drastic needed to be done.

It became clear that the only way to address the problem cost effectively was to approach it digitally – to solve it on-line. We set our Strategic Plan to deliver 50% of our membership benefits physically and 50% digitally through our website. It was a fairly aspirational vision as we were delivering at least 95% physically at the time. We did not intend to stop any of our physical networking opportunities, so that digital value was going to have to grow through newly generated benefits.

I truly believe that associations need to reinvent themselves, and this reinvention was at the heart of my digitally-focused approach to reverse our decline.

It gradually became clear that in order to see the association I ran through a digital value creation mindset, I would need to try to think like a web startup company rather than a 40 year old association. What a breath of fresh air that turned out to be. It took time for things to reveal themselves layer by layer as I dug deeper into the way our website worked and my perspective shifted (over a couple of years), but I gradually came to understand several things about how we operated as an association – as opposed to how web start-up companies operate – that when implemented really started to drive value creation for us.

7 Things we had to do to reinvent ourselves:

  1. Start making decisions quickly.
  2. The CEO has to get their hands dirty. This means learning to code (basics only), and getting involved in projects in a very hands-on way. It is the only real way to get the web start up feeling. All web CEO’s had to do it and it is necessary for your understanding of how to use digital technology to create value!
  3. Cultivate a build, don’t buy mentality. This allows you to customize, change and prototype continuously and easily) No web company ever created a new function, customer experience of benefits by purchasing a standard web package!
  4. Develop creative and product management/services management resources internally.
  5. Embrace design and Design Thinking. Two very different things!
  6. Completely rethink your website. Transform it from a glorified digital brochure into a content portal, and move towards thinking about how data can be leveraged to solve user problems.
  7. Most importantly: Flip the website idea on its head. It should not be about you the association and its activities, but rather about the members, their firms and projects!

To delve deeper into these final two points: take a look at our website, SEGD.org. There is a difference between the way it functions, looks, and feels, compared to the way many associations present themselves online. Thinking about how to use data absolutely transformed the types of value we could provide our members through this platform.

It took time to start to see the tools that could be used to create value. At first my perspective was that the website was our main marketing tool to promote our events, and it felt very much like an electronic brochure for the association.

I knew that content was driving visits and page views and engagement to websites at the time, so I started to look at all the content we had that was not on the website: years of magazine articles, newsletters, all the data in our AMS, our education materials, and white papers. Just getting all of this onto the website would hugely increase the relevancy of our website to visitors and even more importantly to search engines. That is where we began.

The thing about content is that it must be searchable and indexed to become valuable to readers, so we invested our time heavily on indexing and organizing the content.

While that process was underway, it started to dawn on me that we had a lot more assets that we were not tapping. We are all used to saying that an association is its members, but I realized that our website did not reflect that at all. In fact, you would have been hard pressed to even find an image of our president on the website. That’s when it dawned on me that we needed to turn the concept of our website on its head. This was probably the most important step we took in reinventing ourselves. I had been working on Search Optimizing our articles and so was starting to think about what search words were relevant for us and that gradually realized we had a huge set of search assets in the form of the names of our members, their firms, the projects they were working on and the cities where we had chapters. All of these would be great search terms for us not only to transform the website into a place that embraced the importance of our individual members, but to draw online traffic!

Once we started to generate member specific content (Member Bios, Firm Listings, awards articles) we immediately saw our search traffic jump up. In fact, over 4 years visits to our website have grown over 400%, and the search traffic has just kept creeping up to around 62% of our visits today. That was a revelation and I started to see how much we had broadened our audience, and how much information we were disseminating about our profession, its members, firms and good project work.

We were creating a valuable asset in the traffic, just like any web company does! As it grew, we started to ask what we could do with this huge traffic flow that would benefit our members even more. Our members only make up 0.5% of our unique visitors. Why not try to connect it to our members’ websites? It was clear that we had become an aggregator of visitors interested in what they did, so it made sense to work to connect them. In three years we have gone from about 2,500 outbound links to members’ sites to over 100,000! This comes out to an average of 4,000 visits to our members’ websites per year.

And one more thing – when we measured how many pages people were reading about members and their firms on our website we discovered that in addition to our visitors we were sending to their sites, people were actually reading between 10-60% as many pages about them a year on our site as they were on the firms sites themselves. In other words, we were greatly increasing their exposure and awareness about them. A real marketing benefit.

While not the full picture, I hope that the general flow of this description, a lot like peeling back the layers of an onion, helps you to grasp the evolution of our thinking over the past 4 years about how an association website re-imagined can create new value for your members. I can’t stress enough just how dramatically this shift in our way of thinking has changed our association, let alone our membership which has grown over 75% in the past 4 years.

By the way, this did not cost us that much ($100k over 4 years). We built most of the website ourselves - all of it the first year. It is vital to roll up your sleeves, and to get familiar with the internal workings of your website and the data you have, in order to really gain a good understanding of how to manipulate your assets digitally in the most valuable way.

There might be a thousand reasons you could throw around as to why doing this might be hard, but I know one great reason why you should.

It works!