How professional member communications changed in 2020 – in 14 big numbers

Launched a podcast? Turned your annual conference into a week-long virtual festival? Hosted a webinar (or 200)? Jackie Scully, Executive Director (professional) of content marketing agency Think, gives us insight into their latest member comms research and explains why the pandemic has led to a positive shift in the way we engage with professional communities…

15 Mar 2021

For years, professional membership organisations have been circling around one big fundamental question. How do we (often organisations with heritage, legacy structures and big constitutional commitments) become more relevant in the future to those entering and driving forward the professions?

In 2020, organisations up and down the country found their answer...

If COVID taught us anything, it is that relevance comes from being relatable and responsive, from listening to communities and from using content (magazines, emails, social, reports, events etc) to start and encourage conversations in those communities.

As we all know, sometimes, when you stick to a plan and design at the white board, you can end up missing the point. Membership organisations are the masters of planning and process and, by ripping up their own content programmes last year in response to COVID and becoming the true voice of their communities ­– across webinars and on podcasts and via virtual coffee mornings – they positioned themselves firmly at the heart of the professions they represent.

And, members everywhere, looking as they were to belong, to learn and to advance at a time when the world had other ideas, were really rather grateful.

We saw innovation become the day job. We saw new messaging, rustic content, imperfect but clever ideas delivered at speed. And we saw results, great results.

So what can we learn from the year a pandemic forced us all to pivot our content programmes? A lot – according to the results of our latest Re:member research, looking at trends in professional members comms. Here are the juicy data points that you can take back to your organisations and use to change the conversation with your comms…

The channels

  • 95% of organisations are now using webinars to engage members

Up from 70% in our 2018 comms research, webinars are the hero of the research. This is not just because we’re all doing more webinars, but because those webinars are considered to be the most effective channel currently in the member comms mix. The reason? They are relatively low-cost, quick to deliver, help with global reach and engage younger people. What’s not to like? More significant is the fact that this is the first time a digital channel has topped the effectiveness charts in our research. A massive – and welcome – move.

  • 65% of organisations are unsure how best to measure ROI of email

Email is the channel all organisations use. It’s also the channel people spend the most time delivering and the one most comms professionals want to improve. While 47% of organisations increased their email output during COVID as a response to the pandemic and 35% reported a spike in engagement, organisations recognise that they could and should be doing more to consolidate and challenge the emails they are sending to members. 2020 also saw the rise of the long-read email, with feature-length content being included in the body of email comss to provide the same reward members get from reading a print feature. It remains to be seen whether long reads will have a lasting effect on engagement levels, but they are currently a great way to serve carefully-curated content to audiences, particularly with print magazines reducing in frequency.

  • 71% of organisations report a rise in traffic levels to their organisation’s website

While it is great to see the number of unique users rising, this stat only tells us part of the story. With other metrics (eg bounce rate) not showing the same improvement, however, organisations now need to look more at what happens to users when they land on the site. The customer journey is key. This would explain why nearly two thirds of organisations are finding it hard to measure the ROI of online content. An important consideration is how members are accessing your site online too. Our findings suggest that less than a third are now using desktops to browse your content. This is down from nearly 40% in 2018.

  • 57% of organisations are going to invest more in online content (behind the login)

Every survey, we ask people about the channels they are prioritise in terms of energy and investment. As you might expect, all growth areas are in the digital space, with virtual events, webinars/roundtables, podcasts and video at the top of the list. An interesting development, however, is online content behind the login. Two years ago, we created the doughnut of discoverability to explain why unlocking content online was a great move for organisations. The latest findings would suggest, however, that now more members are now looking for answers online, selecting what to lock away is of increasing significance. Our rule of thumb, if the piece of content is worth a member going through a ‘forgotten password’ cycle to read it, consider locking it down.

  • 87% of organisations are now encouraging their content to be shared

Of course, locking down content is only one part of the online puzzle. Open access content has a crucial role to play and it is great to see that organisations, far from hiding away all their clever thinking, are now actively encouraging members and communities to share and advocate on their behalf. This is a great step, but now the attention needs to also turn to paying for profile and putting money behind the promotion of content on social media. Only 17% of organisations currently have a paid-for amplification strategy in place.

  • 76% of organisations say video is an important part of the comms mix

Successful online content is as much about content types as it is channels. Video, interestingly, is now considered to be almost twice as important as it was before the pandemic. That said, organisations are still trying to work out how to make video effective so that they don’t lose ground on this wider consumer trend. It all comes down to working out where video can and should fit in and being surprising and different when you use it. The same goes for podcasts. The verdict on audio is still very much out, but with 47% of organisations now using them, we are watching with interest to see whether professional member bodies have the voice to cut through the noise.

  • 37% of organisations will produce a quarterly magazine in print in 2021

Still used by 84% of organisations, printed member magazines are not dead, just different. Frequencies have dropped and, with quarterly now the most popular frequency for many professional bodies, organisations need to think carefully about the role of the printed publication in the comms mix. Used well, it remains a powerful, attention-grabbing tool. The same, however, cannot be said for digital editions. A necessary evil during 2020 to support teams when postal services were disrupted, there is still no evidence to prove this is the way members want to consume information.

  • 47% of organisations do not think they will go back to their previous events programmes

Face-to-face events are still considered an effective channel, when we are allowed to hold them. The question is, now we are all used to virtual events, what will face-to-face events look like in the future? Our findings would suggest more traditional events, such as annual dinners, may soon be a thing of the past, but many are excited to see the return of awards and networking opportunities, which don’t currently have the same appeal online. Whatever happens, the future is likely to be a blended approach, making the most of virtual learnings.

  • 64% of organisations have opened up new revenue streams as a result of COVID

Confidence levels are still low when it comes to commercialising member comms (with more than two-thirds of organisations not confident they are maximising the commercial potential of members). This might have a lot to do with the fact 66% lack the sophisticated tools to track the performance of their advertising, few have one sales team selling their entire portfolio and only 40% feel comfortable allowing advertisers to produce sponsored content for members (creative solutions is a key growth area). The good news, however, is that organisations are opening up some new revenues streams, which is a positive move given there is still an industry-wide reliance of print revenues ­– a channel very much in decline.

Let’s talk strategy – and tactics

  • 84% of organisations are now more agile than ever in the way they communicate

With constantly shifting sands and regular government announcements, it is easy to see why 81% of respondents are now only planning their content in detail three months ahead. This is a welcome move in terms of achieving more cut-through, but one that has left many comms professionals feeling like the job is bigger than ever, without the resources to match.

  • 73% of organisations are not making the most of their content archives

The answer to being more (sustainably) responsive does not always lie in creating more content, but looking back at what you’ve already done. Content archives are a mine of information many people won’t remember they’ve seen. 66% of respondents also said they weren’t repurposing or reusing content effectively and only 29% say they actively use the content they are creating for engagement in their member acquisition comms. These aren’t shortcuts, but ways to be resourceful with existing resources.

  • 39% say content strategy is the biggest skills gap they have

Deciding what to say when comes down to knowing what, in a broad sense, you should be saying. That is why content strategy is so powerful. While 66% of those surveyed say they do have a strategy of sorts, probe this a little more and organisations are quick to recognise that if they could nail what they stand for and the messages they need to communicate to their various member communities to help achieve their business objectives, it would be a lot easier to prioritise content and channels and even ‘stop doing what has always been done’. It is no surprise then that more than half the organisations surveyed are not confident they are making the most of their content.

  • 9% of organisations describe their comms programme as omnichannel

Put simply, omnichannel is where organisations adopt an audience-centric approach to comms, with all content centred around the community and individuals within that community. It’s time-efficient, cost-effective and delivers in terms of saying the right thing at the right time to engage members. Critically, it is the answer to how to use skills and resources in the best way. With 72% of organisations still working in a multichannel way (lots of content, lots of channels, but less emphasis on joining the dots and responding to audience need) and 71% recognising the need to be more integrated in the way they communicate, there is work to be done to ensure that being responsive doesn’t feel relentless for comms professionals. We’ve even drawn a wheel of engagement to show you how to bring it all together.

  • 3% of organisations describe the quality of their data as excellent

An audience-centric approach to content and comms relies on one critical detail: data. Organisations are still working out how to turn what they know about their members into a targeted approach to content creation and distribution. But, for those struggling under the weight of a long-term and costly CRM project, there are quicker wins to be found. With only14% of organisations using flash polls and 20% using focus groups, asking more of the community might help you serve up more relevant information in a more time-efficient way. Of course, it is not all bad news. Segmentation and targeting are on the rise, with 94% of those using more tailored methods choosing to segment by membership status.

Whether our 14 big stats resonate or make you want to run for the hills, do be reassured that every professional body is grappling with the same content challenges. It’s all a journey and, by actively seeking the answers and asking questions about everything you’re doing, you’re already on the right road.

If you’d like a copy of Think’s full Re:member report or would love to discuss your own comms challenges, please contact Melissa Michael for more details.

Think is the UK’s leading membership and branded content agency delivering authentic engagement, driving loyalty and boosting retention rates for an audience of over 4 million people. They specialise in working with membership bodies, and create award-winning emails, SEO driven content, magazines, books and stakeholder publications, downloadable resources, virtual events, webinars and conferences, paired with effective sponsorship, partnerships and advertising sales.

Think Publishing | The Membership Publishing Agency