AssociationChartSPT and True recently reached out to over 100 associations and non-profits headquartered in the metro Washington D.C. area, in order to determine how the slow economic recovery and rise in new technologies have affected marketing communication strategies over the past three years and expectations for 2014. Our association and non-profit sample included organizations with both national and international members in a variety of professions and industries.

As expected, and as seen in other industries, the down economy and the rise of digital media have caused some serious changes in the way associations and non-profits approach communications.

The Long Road to Recovery

Our survey found that approximately 60% of associations and non-profits felt their organization was negatively effected in some way in the last three years.

Fifty percent felt a dramatic impact due to some regulatory change in their industry including the Affordable Care Act. The other 50% attributed the impact to purely economic forces.  One communications director we surveyed stated that, “Financial constraints on our constituents have resulted in the loss of over 25% of our members,” highlighting the fact that many organizations will be facing a lean year in 2014.

Success GraphicA Bright Future

Fortunately, this isn’t the case for all non-profits and associations. Forty percent felt little to no impact in that last few years and do not foresee any major impacts in the near future.  In fact, 71% of all the associations and non-profits surveyed believed that next year will be the same or better than the previous three. Only 14% stated that they believe it will be significantly worse in 2014. The other 15% only believed it would be slightly worse.

Further evidence of non-profits and associations’ resiliency is indicated by the number of major events they plan on holding and the number of materials associations and non-profits plan on producing in 2014. Over 90% of the organizations surveyed said that they would make no changes to the number of major events—held at an average of two per year. They also plan on maintaining the same quantity of marketing materials produced per year—at an average of twenty pieces annually per organization. Sixteen percent plan to add new content into to their rotation in 2014.

BudgetSqueezeBudget Squeeze

Association and non-profit budgets will not being staying the same. Fifty-seven percent anticipate operating with a reduced budget in 2014, with the other 43% maintaining their budget from 2013.  Of the organizations with decreasing budgets, 40% attributed it to the lower production costs that are associated with digital materials. The other cause of decreasing budgets is financial hardship—40% cited this for their organization’s reduced budget in 2014. The remaining 20% is due to shifting marketing material production to an in-house team.

Associations and non-profits need to adapt to a changing environment, but one thing they must not do is skimp on the quality of their marketing materials. Brian Hefner, Director of Membership and Business Development for the Truck Renting and Leasing Association, says, “Over the past few years, we have seen our associate members pull-back or eliminate their marketing through the association due to the economy. However, most others stuck with their marketing programs, even during tough financial times. Many of those that stuck with their marketing budgets are thriving today, while the others that did not, have to rebuild their marketing programs aimed at our regular members.”

Brian’s message is one that we truly believe in as well. Organizations cannot let up on marketing efforts even when faced with financial uncertainty or constrained budgets. What is the saying again, “Doing more with less?”

GroupCommunicationEffective marketing is what connects members to the associations and non-profits they choose to belong. This connection should be strengthened in order for support to continue. High-quality marketing and communications materials such as a user-friendly, mobile-ready website, social media strategy, and flagship industry newsletter or magazine draw individuals into your cause, creating enthusiasm and commitment to your organization. Poor quality marketing materials and a disjointed communication’s strategy or a lack of any strategy, do the opposite by diluting your message or worse, turning an important cause into spam that gets passed over completely and is forgotten.

Robert Garber, Director of Marketing for the Cato Institute underscores the importance of high quality, professional communications when he says, “We have seen a 100% increase in article downloads each year for the last two years due in large part to our incorporating  the work of outside designers into converting our written materials in all of the different formats readers and consumers use. It’s important that we use quality designers so that both our print and digital media are in high quality, error-free formats—for those who read us in print, on their laptops, to those who read our work on smart phones, iPads, and everything in-between.”

So how are associations and non-profits able to maintain the same number of events and materials when over half of them are dealing with significant financial strains?  By going digital of course! The reason behind this can be attributed to an upward trend toward more digital materials and less traditional marketing materials (printed materials).

SignsOfCommunication“Online communications does more than save an association or non-profit money in printing and mailing costs,” says Sharon Ritchey, Owner and Creative Brand Director for Home Row Editorial. “The initial savings from moving online are important,” says Ritchey, “but they are soon absorbed into another budget and forgotten. The boost comes from the ability to target communications to various users within an organization and deliver current, important content to members where they want to see them. When news happens, whether an important award or something needing crisis communication planning, an organization with an online delivery strategy can immediately distribute their voice, their message, and their benefits to members.”

We found that of the associations polled, all of them had an existing digital marketing strategy. What is interesting though, is that they planned on increasing their digital marketing presence by an average of 7.5%, which is nearly twice the amount of growth digital marketing saw between 2012 and 2013, which was 4.2%. Associations are focusing more on their digital strategy because it allows them to focus more on the quality of their materials, by spending more money on the design side and by hiring talented graphic designers. In fact, 83% of those surveyed said that electronic newsletters represented the majority of their marketing materials.

CreativityHow Content Is Created

Approximately 60% of the associations and non-profits surveyed use a combination of in-house creative teams as well as outsourced work to freelance design teams. The other 40% use only their own in-house team. All of the associations hiring an outside design team in the last year did so because they felt that there were serious limitations to what their in-house design team could produce. Ironically, those associations and non-profits that do not use an outside designer felt the same issues, but believe that they cannot afford to hire outside designers due to budget limitations.

It is interesting that almost all the associations and non-profits polled felt the need to use outside designers. This highlights an increasing demand for talented individuals and that organizations are recognizing that high-quality marketing materials are necessary to attract and sustain their members.  Janet Haley-Varre, a professional event planner at Exclusive Designs 4 You, LLC, told us that “as an event coordinator with over 10-years of experience planning and organizing specialty events, conventions and fundraisers for associations and non-profits, I see time and time again, a direct correlation between professionally designed marketing and communications materials and successful events.” She adds, “If organizations want great results from their events, they need to invest in their image and their messaging. If you don’t have top-notch talent in house, hire a professional design company—experienced with associations and non-profits—to provide you with this level of service. Your results depend on getting your marketing and communications right.”

If you or your organization would like its voice heard in this matter, we would love to hear from you to add to the results of our survey. Please reach out to us at 703-539-2195 to get your voice heard!




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