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Keep Your Association Marketing in Focus

Keep Your Association Marketing in Focus

Effective Association Marketing Begins with Effective Communications

Successful, carefully and properly planned association marketing may be a challenge for some not-for-profits. In these organizations, marketing materials are devised, designed, and delivered by volunteers who lack extensive (if any) marketing experience due to budgets that cannot afford marketing professionals as staff, and only infrequently (at best) contractors and consultants.

Among organizations that have access to marketing professionals, the latter must work using content and context provided by other members of the association. Far too often, a lack of proper training needed to communicate with marketing professionals in terms the latter understand and can craft around hampers this process. Even the best marketer can only produce value that is as good as their understanding of what the task at hand calls for.

To facilitate more efficient output from your association marketing team, be they true professionals or untrained volunteers doing their best, successful marketing begins with solid communications between all involved. To keep this process as simple as possible, I have broken it down into three initial steps. 

Step 1: Define Features

From a marketing perspective, a feature is what makes your product (or whatever) what it is. It is something your product has, is, or does in an objective, measurable sense.

What are the characteristics that define what your association marketing content is meant to present? The answer is found in details like: is it a physical product? Webinar? On-site event? The following are examples of key details CSAE considers features for some of its more common marketing campaigns:


  • Topic: What the book, event, or education session is about and the angle it is being addressed from.
  • Publishing Date: If a book, the date of publication indicates if the content is likely to still be relevant based on its topic.
  • Author / Presenter: Provide their bio to communicate why their expertise should be trusted.
  • Page Count & Book Size: A book's value is often determined as much by its physical size as what it addresses.
  • Duration: How long an event or education session lasts is often used as a benchmark to determine if a customer is "getting their money's worth" from the session.
  • Collateral: Any additional materials or outcomes the attendee walks away from the event or education session with, such as a recording of the session or a file of the speaker's slideshow, add to the value.
  • Cost: A critical feature the market frequently compares to all other features to see if the price is comparable to the expected return.


Step 2: Define Benefits

A benefit is a desired or expected result of using the product, event, etc. From your market's perspective, this is the value they expect to derive from what your association is trying to get them to buy or engage with. Typically, benefits are derived from a combination of the features in relation to their overall, unified context. Regardless, they are presented in terms the target audience will easily understand without getting into the details.

Non-marketers often confuse benefits and features because they misunderstand the former to be characteristics rather than an outcome of them. Arguably the most common misunderstanding of a feature versus a benefit is when it comes to cost. Non-marketers look at the cost (a feature) and think "our low price is very competitive" and thus consider "save money" to be a benefit. In fact, saving money is something that falls under messaging (which I will explain in a moment.)

For example, there are plenty of webinars and training videos available to help associations master social media. So, if your association is putting together a speaking session on this topic to sell to its members, what are the benefits of what you are offering that cannot be obtained elsewhere? Simply saying "we are cheaper" is not a true benefit because it does not address your session's quality. Without defining benefits beyond the cost, your market may think you are cheaper because your session is not as informative or relevant as your competitors'. Is that the meaning you want them to take away from your association marketing efforts?


Features vs. Benefits

I've created the following image to help you better understand the difference between features and benefits using a common consumer product: a smartphone. On the left is a hypothetical list of the smartphone's features, and on the right are the benefits the smartphone offers its users. As you can see, most of the benefits can be traced back to the features if you understand what the latter mean, but hold value in their own right if you do not because they speak more plainly to a customer's wants and needs.



Step 3: Define Messaging

Any marketing process requires sorting out what it is you are trying to say and to whom -- the messaging, as I call it.

Why are you creating the marketing materials to begin with?

Why do you have to say it at this particular time?

What is the goal you are striving to achieve?

Who do you want to say this to, and why them and not someone else?

What meaning do you want them to walk away with?

These questions are all critical for developing successful association marketing messaging for your content.

Association marketing differs from that of more commercial markets in so far as its messaging often has to be gentler and subtle. You cannot go after the market with a "BUY, BUY, BUY!" approach that clubs your potential customer over the head with your sales pitch.

The nature of a not-for-profit's markets, no matter one's endgame (e.g., engaging interest in a cause, selling a product, providing education) is typically not as open-ended and broad as is that of a commercial product or service, so messaging has to be incredibly deft. For example, there is a tighter focus on a particular demographic, especially for organizations operating within a membership model. As such, finding the right voice and understanding the nature of any gatekeepers for your targeted market segment is essential.

Messaging should not be confused with the actual copy used in a particular piece of association marketing. It is the general message you want to convey -- the tone, the feeling, the purpose, and the desired outcome all rolled into one. It is what tells whoever is writing the copy the overall direction they should take when presenting the features and benefits within the marketing content.


Successful Association Marketing Combines All Three Elements

On their own, none of the previous elements is likely to result in a successful association marketing campaign. Sometimes you can be effective with just two elements, but doing so weakens your chance of success and narrows your audience to those with the personal experience and know-how to fill in the blanks.

With messaging alone, you are telling the audience something but not providing the information to convince them you are telling them anything worthwhile or truthful. On their own, features do not make much sense because they exist in a vacuum of context and comparison. And without messaging or features to back them up, benefits seem little more than mysterious and insubstantial promises without a frame of reference.

To better understand how this is done in terms of association marketing, let's consider an educational event your organization may be hosting. As was done earlier with the smartphone, we will break the event down into its features and benefits.



  • Topic: Changes to provincial and federal laws relevant to the target audience's operations within their respective organizations.
  • Speaker: Someone who has actively participated in shaping the changes to the relevant laws and is also experienced working with the audience's sector.
  • Date: A Tuesday evening in July; 7pm.
  • Duration: 1.5 hours; 60 minutes for the presentation, and 30 minutes for Q&A.
  • Venue: A local, centrally-located hotel known for its great restaurant.
  • Materials: All attendees will be emailed a copy of the presenter's slideshow, notes, and an audio recording of the session.
  • Cost: $125 per attendee. $85 for a copy of the session recording afterward for non-attendees.



  • Access to the latest details on critical changes to laws that will drastically affect the sector's organizations before those changes are rolled out.
  • The valuable information will be provided by someone who has been in the attendees' shoes and has first-hand knowledge of the changes. They understand the attendees' worries and how the changes address them.
  • The session is conveniently located and will be happening after business hours, so attendees can first get a good meal on-site and won't get stuck in rush hour traffic. Plenty of time has been set aside to ask questions.
  • All attendees will be given materials they can take back to disseminate within their own organizations in case not all key parties are able to themselves attend.


With the features and benefits worked out, what is the messaging this association wants to build this marketing piece around? The key factor is that the pending changes are necessary and can detrimentally affect organizations in the sector if they do not pay attention or do not understand the ramifications. So, it is decided the messaging needs to play up on the anxiety and uncertainty changes to government regulations, laws, and the like can cause in those affected by them.

And who is the target audience of this particular association marketing campaign? Not everyone in the market will need to be intimately familiar with the law's changes, so a broad message is not appropriate. Most likely, directors and managers will be the ones in need of the education so they can pass along what direction is required to those working for them.

Here is a possible messaging option for this piece: "Your association cannot afford to suffer the legal ramifications of not knowing how these changes will impact your operations. Make sure your teams know what needs to be done before the changes roll out and it's too late. Get the critical details from the experts who know."

Note that the messaging addresses both the targeted market's need and the value of what will be delivered. There is no need to focus on price in this messaging because, given what is at stake, the cost should be reasonable and comparable to what the market expects for what they are getting in return.

Knowing the difference between features, benefits, and messaging is a big step for non-marketers on the path to understanding successful association marketing. Once you work out the differences and roles each component plays, not only will you be able to communicate more effectively with trained marketers, but you will also be more capable of creating marketing campaigns and content of your own.



Steven provides a weekly Facebook Live session to offer advice and take questions regarding content creation, social media marketing, SEO, and the like. Join in or watch the recorded Conquering Content sessions afterward if you are not able to make the live broadcast.

You can also join Steven in talking about creating and employing creative content for associations at CSAE National Conference 2017 this October in St. John's.



When looking at the CSAE BoardREADY Card Deck, two cards really jump out at me as relevant to this topic. True association marketing success not only means knowing the difference between features, benefits, and marketing, but also making the most of each. This means keeping your eyes on the prize -- understand what your ideal result is and keep everything working towards that end. If any of your features, benefits, and messaging seems to be off target to this end, bring it back in line with your objectives.

When it comes to content, a critical aspect of this process is knowing how to optimize your resources and output. Often, "covering all the bases" expends a lot of time for insufficient return, and can even harm your messaging. As such, focus on the content channels that work best for you. Design processes to get the best possible return from them for the least amount of effort possible, and that should free up some time to experiment with other possibilities.

Click a Card to See its Content






Associations, Best Practices, Blogging, Content, Marketing





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