Marketing is one of those disciplines that leaves you feeling one step behind all of the time. Particularly now with the increased use of social media and the hundreds of startups flooding your inbox with digital marketing tools, it’s hard to separate what new marketing techniques are actually being implemented successfully vs. what seems to be trendy purely because it’s new.

If that’s not enough to contend with, marketing an association is even more complicated. It’s not just about the technology and tools you can use to market to your members — you’re also juggling the expectations of your board, navigating around the initiatives of other departments and balancing your time between finding new members and keeping your current ones happy. When you get down to it, marketing encompasses a much broader picture for associations, making it even more difficult to spot the trends that are worth risking resources to pursue.

This is why I set out to interview some leaders in the association space. The goal was to uncover the positive trends and share them with the community as a whole. After interviewing 15 association executives, from CEOs to digital marketing directors, I came up with five marketing trends for the association space in 2017:


One thing associations have in common is the amount of content they have spread across multiple programs and departments. Getting a bird’s-eye view of that content can be a challenge, particularly when you work at a legacy association with departments that struggle to get out of their own swim lanes. More and more organizations seem to be either reorganizing or implementing strategies to allow for better collaboration and insight into the types of content the association is producing and how to better leverage it across multiple channels and platforms.

For example, the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) implemented cross-departmental teams for social media and their online community. Kim FitzSimmons, senior director of marketing, membership and communications at AANA, showed how they started using a content audit worksheet to track their content and see, at a high level, what is available. It also helps them brainstorm ideas and ways to leverage that content.

Similarly, Rachael Bell, content and communications director of the New Jersey Society of CPAs (NJCPA), said they created a “Content Steering Team” where they talk about what is hot with members and how they should address their issues.

In some cases, associations even choose to restructure their marketing and membership departments so that all content – from their website to their magazine – is managed within one.


Research is nothing new. It’s a tried and true way of understanding what your members think about your association and how you can provide value. And research continues to offer insights into what members are expecting from you in regards to the types of content they want to access and how they they want to access it.

Even beyond the more expensive quantitative and qualitative research initiatives many organizations undertake, associations are finding ways to uncover what their members care about on a regular basis. Lisa Berardi Marflak, communications director with the Transportation Research Board, uses member surveys to find out if members are familiar with the opportunities for content customization and if they are happy with the results of that effort.

Multiple organizations leverage their online community when it comes to mining data about what members are interested in. This is a great way to keep a pulse on the topics that are trending in your industry and what your members really care about.


Your members are now accustomed to getting personalized newsfeeds via Facebook and Twitter lists. As software tools get smarter, the expectation of members is that your content delivery systems are keeping pace.

Consequently, it’s critical that associations get smarter in this area too. While the opt-in method is still going strong for many organizations to determine member preferences, there is an increasing need for better, more up-to-date data.

The incumbent challenge for many associations when it comes to expanding on the data they have on their members is that their initial data is so old and outdated that they don’t feel like they have a good place to start. One organization mentioned they hadn’t scrubbed their database in 10 years!

Data hygiene and segmentation are two big buzzwords that fall under the personalization umbrella. Quite a few organizations are undergoing big initiatives in 2017 related to getting their data to a place that will allow for deeper and better segmentation in the long run. Like Jason Glei, senior director of marketing at The Associated General Contractors of America, who said the organization’s biggest challenge in 2017 would be “building a bigger, better, more robust database to further identify people and really start to hyper segment folks so they are only receiving what they want, when they want, and how they want it.”

And in fact, one organization saw a steady increase in attendance at their annual symposium when they leveraged one specific data point in their email promotion. Danielle Duran Baron, chief marketing officer at ABET, said that when they started marketing their event to members two years ahead of when their accreditation needed to be renewed, they saw a major uptick in attendance. Now, three years later, they have increased attendance from 485 to 800 people.


There are a lot of opinions out there about the utility and benefits of keeping content in front of the member wall. But when your association’s primary value proposition is that very content – how do you decide when it should be member-only, and what content can be leveraged to pull more people in?

This conversation is going to be had across departments all year – with varying outcomes. FitzSimmons says that AANA historically tended to put quite a bit behind the member log-in, but that in more recent years they have tried to make more content publicly available. But she says that, “it’s definitely a hard balance between what you have on the public side versus the members-only side.” On the other hand, Marianne Strobel, of Meetings Professionals International, have gone in the direction of making their content available for members behind the gate as a part of their core membership value proposition.

There is no right or wrong approach here. For organizations that have a mission involving educating the public, or making information available to the public, it’s of course important to have that information readily available. It will be interesting to see how some of that valuable content that is traditionally gated is leveraged to engage and entice non-members into the association’s sphere of influence.


Throughout my conversations with these association leaders, I noticed an underlying shift away from the traditional thinking of member communications and member recruitment and towards a more for-profit sales approach when it comes to marketing their programs.

Glei (AGCA) said, “when I’m marketing a conference or product or program…I very rarely delineate between a member and nonmember in how I market to them other than the discount.” Above that he advocates that associations collect data on anyone who is interacting with your organization, member or not. He’s not alone in this mentality either.

Strobel articulates the current atmosphere, explaining that “marketing has changed…right now it’s all about digital and the days of the 4 Ps has evolved.” For their part, MPI will be adopting HubSpot as a marketing automation tool, which Strobel says her team has previous experience with and is excited to leverage at MPI. And in fact, marketing automation platform adoption was a common thread across organizations.

Sure, these may not be the sexiest of marketing trends … but we see some big waves underneath these strategies. What is exciting is that these are indications of greater change in the industry. Better interdepartmental communication can lead to major efficiencies in the way organizations operate, and the marketing team is leading the charge in facilitating that communication. Further, as the results of the gated content debate begin to be seen, organizations will follow in the footsteps of those pushing the boundaries before them.

So, take another look at the list. Seeing any of these trends in your association?

  1. Ditching the organizational silos for better content distribution.
  2. Research leveraged to influence content strategy.
  3. Emphasis on getting data cleaned and segmented for better personalization.
  4. Ongoing debate on “to gate or not to gate” content.
  5. Sales-oriented marketing strategies powered by marketing automation tools.

Stephanie McGehee is the Marketing and Operations Manager for MDRG, Inc. A market research firm focusing on Brand Research, Product Development, Advertising Research and Customer Experience. Stephanie is former Director of Operations at Grit Marketing, giving her a unique perspective on how market research can impact associations.

Stephanie McGehee is the Marketing and Operations Manager for MDRG, Inc. A market research firm focusing on Brand Research, Product Development, Advertising Research and Customer Experience. Stephanie is former Director of Operations at Grit Marketing, giving her a unique perspective on how market research can impact associations.

There's More To Discover

Subscribe today for more thought-provoking content.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.