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Using Thought Leadership to Leverage Brand Champions and Grow Your Association

Using Thought Leadership to Leverage Brand Champions and Grow Your Association

Using Thought Leadership to Leverage Brand Champions and Grow Your Association

As the saying goes "admitting you have a problem is the first step." For many member-driven organizations, this means acknowledging that our focus on new member acquisition often comes (misguidedly) at the expense of membership engagement and retention.

For many of us, the adage hits a little too close to home.

A stale or missing marketing strategy, limited resources, and a mixed bag of inconsistent tactics can feel like overwhelming obstacles. But the solution becomes clearer once we identify what's standing in our way. Namely, in member-driven organizations, we often think of members as customers rather than as brand champions. In turn, we spend a disproportionate amount of our time, effort, and resources on new member acquisition over member retention.

According to the Harvard Business Review, acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to twenty-five times more expensive than retaining an existing one. And organizations invest a disproportionate amount of marketing attracting new members. We spend the majority of our time and effort on the most difficult customers while neglecting the lowest hanging fruit. Which begs the question: is recruitment more important than retention?

In fact, acquisition and retention are simply two sides of the same coin. Moreover, the challenge isn't unique to associations. It appears across the board in other industries that rely on annual sales models, like insurance. No matter how effective your acquisition strategy, if you're losing members, you're not operating as efficiently as you need to be.


Leveraging Brand Champions to Lighten Your Load

But improving our focus on retention doesn't have to come at the expense of acquisition -- luckily, there's no need to divide to conquer. One of the best strategies to increase retention is to drive engagement. By encouraging member participation across multiple service lines and through multiple channels, you can effectively turn members into brand champions. And brands that attract champions have members that sing their praises -- and do much of the heavy lifting for the organization when it comes to attracting new members. When you turn customers into champions, not only does your retention skyrocket, you're better able allocate your internal resources where they're most needed.

Creating champions means delivering on your brand promise at every stage of the purchase funnel and in every interaction with your organization -- from the C-Suite to the front desk. You can think of it as a continuum of engagement. It's a process that generally involves three steps:


  1. The process starts as soon as you convert a prospect to a member; however, unlike the traditional sales funnel, the real work starts here. Post-purchase, or retention, becomes the focus of your marketing efforts.
  2. In this critical second step, your organization needs to surpass expectations to deliver on your brand promise, build trust, and deepen the relationship. Moreover, if you can deliver value cross-functionally to members across multiple service lines (or in the case of associations with institutional memberships, downstream across different levels of the organization), you build trust and loyalty through both emotional and rational perspectives. Among the many benefits, members who are engaged with you at this stage are much less sensitive to price and less inclined to shop around at renewal.
  3. In the third and final step, customers transition from members to ambassadors. This cornerstone of brand commitment means shouting their enthusiasm from the rooftops. At this stage, not only are your members committed to your brand, but they're actively willing to influence their networks to spread your gospel. They are committed to your brand mission as a partner.


Thought Leadership and Content Marketing

While there's no magic bullet, there is one strategy that can position you effectively for both acquisition and retention, and move you from purchase to ambassadorship. Thought leadership -- positioning your organization as the credible leader for expertise within your industry -- is key to gaining customer trust and building engagement.

Odds are good that you're already engaged in the thought leadership space. After all, your membership value proposition likely positions you as the eminent source of expertise in your field. Much of the content needed to support your position probably lives on your website, in your email archives and newsletter, in reports and other publications, media releases, and elsewhere. Moreover, this original content -- generated over the course of your organization's history -- can be balanced with curated content from your network and within your ecosystem.

The internet is full of guidance on how to integrate a content marketing strategy into your mix, but associations can be best served by keeping these key principles in mind:


  1. Content marketing is yet another tool to communicate your membership value proposition to your members. Share original and unique perspectives that can't be found elsewhere, with insights that only your organization can provide. When sharing curated content, add to the conversation in ways that help position you in the space you mean to own. Remember: there's a difference between informative and insightful content.
  2. Segment your content marketing. Study the customer journey and identify different segments within your membership and prospects. Get to know these segments from a demographic and psychographic standpoint. Doing the legwork up front will let you unite your content in a way that actively shepherds members through the pre-and post-purchase funnels. It may seem like heavy lifting at first, but the work is guaranteed to pay off in the long run.
  3. Share the load. Placing the responsibility on your marketing team is a fast track to failure. To succeed, you'll need to engage staff at every level of the organization to develop the right mix of inputs and insights. Pay special attention to employees on front lines -- often neglected when it comes to strategic heavy lifting. Spend time talking with your database administrator, reception staff and those closest to the customers. Their perspectives will often surprise and delight you.
  4. Never create anything once. As non-profits, efficiency is the name of the game. Slice, dice and repurpose your content across multiple platforms. Ensure your evergreen content stays in your queue for as long as it remains relevant.
  5. Be personal. Follow the 'what, so what, now what' model. Many organizations fail to translate their content to the 'what's in it for me?' in each audience segment. Don't fall into this trap. Give your audience personal insights that are most relevant to the key challenges and issues they're experiencing -- in short, talk less about you and more about them.
  6. Be consistent. Once you decide to pursue a thought leadership or content marketing plan, it's important to create and publish on a regular basis.


A Word on Common Pitfalls

Be patient. It can take time to see results from your strategy. This is a long-haul approach, so be prepared with short-term metrics that will keep your contributors energized and engaged while you wait for your efforts to gain traction in the long term. 18-36 months isn't an unreasonable timeline to slog away before you start to see significant gains.

Be wary if your engagement levels start to plateau. It's not realistic to expect double-digit climbs right off the bat or indefinitely, but you should be able to see measurable improvement. When engagement looks like it's stagnating, it means you're probably not attracting new customers. When engagement is falling, you're probably losing retention.

Odds are, you're already well on your way to a strategy that will help you turn your members into champions. Facts and figures on the costs to attract new members rather than keep your current ones abound. By taking the steps today to cultivate brand champions through a thought leadership strategy, you'll surely drive engagement and membership growth in a new and positive direction for 2018.



Jill Knaggs is a senior marketing and communications leader with extensive experience solving problems, developing strategies and managing campaigns. Her background includes specialty marketing supports for association and nonprofit clients and employers across all kinds of industries; from big business to niche not-for-profits.



Taking Jill's suggested changes to heart can be difficult for an association at first. Change is not always easy. So, how does your organization embrace changes to how it produces content that matters to its membership, not to mention all the other paths of innovation and change associations face these days? Attend the CSAE Trillium Fired Up & Focused session on navigating change and delivering extraordinary, successful outcomes to find out how.



Content Marketing, Innovation


Marketing, Guest Contributor, Governance / Leadership



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