Insights From Our Personifest & AUDC Survey: Top Challenges

Matt Zellner 4/17/2017


The past two weeks have been busy for our team as we travelled cross-country for our association management system conference tour! First, we attended Personifest in San Diego, and then flew almost immediately after to Nashville for the Abila User & Developer Conference. Both conferences offered great opportunities to connect with their respective AMS communities. And in the case of AUDC, take in some great country music.

Both conferences also offered us a chance to roll out our 2017 Association Digital Survey. Visitors to our booth at both conferences were given the chance to enter a raffle by filling out a survey about their association’s digital status and challenges. While not an entirely scientific survey, we thought we’d use our blog to highlight some of the big takeaways.

This blog focuses on the first question in the survey, and we’ll be addressing the other two major questions in blog posts later this week.

Question #1:

What is the biggest challenge facing your organization this year?

The first question we presented to every survey taker asked them to identify their organization’s (some of the attendees at the AMS conferences are not associations in the strictest sense) biggest challenge for the current year. We gave the following possible responses, based on conversations with some of our current association clients:

  • Growing your membership.
  • Engaging your current members.
  • Improving outreach to younger members/millennials.
  • Improving your digital experience/website.
  • Improving your internal processes/operations.
  • Other: An option that could be filled in with any response.

All three of our top three responses ended up—perhaps not surprisingly—being pretty closely related. Let’s take a look at the top three responses, starting with #3.



3. Engaging Your Current Members.

The third most selected response to the survey was the challenge of engaging current members. Similar to the retail ecommerce world’s common failure to give returning customers the same level of focus as new customers, some associations fail to invest adequately in their existing members.

Focusing on engaging existing members is essential to fighting membership attrition. According to the 2016 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, a lack of engagement with the association is believed to be the number one reason for membership lapse. The good news, at least, is that according to the report, most associations are still doing okay for now. Fewer associations reported declines in membership compared to last year and 71% of associations reported renewals have increased by up to 5%.

So how do you increase your member engagement? Association professionals agree that the most effective way to address this challenge is to give your members easy access to the resources that are consistently rated the most important: networking/career resources and continuing education.

One note: We were surprised to see Improving outreach to millennials not make the top three, despite us consistently hearing it from our association clients and partners. Our survey-takers may have grouped it in with this general engagement category, despite there being some significant differences between how older and younger members engage with associations.

2. Improving your digital experience.

Member engagement strategies provide a nice segue into our second highest noted challenge, Improving your digital experience. Many associations (and nonprofits in general) lag behind when it comes to their digital experience; however, these digital shortcomings often aren’t solely a result of budget. There are a number of areas where associations can focus on their digital experience for significant return-on-investment, without breaking the bank to get started.

Here are two we often advise:

Focus on the content and features that members really want.

It bears repeating: research has shown that members really want career and networking tools, along with educational resources. If you don’t want to take our word for it, send out a survey to your members and ask them. If you’re already offering these resources on your website, take a look at the user experience you’re offering, as well as analytics data on how many members are actually using the services to see if they could be improved.

One very common resource user experience fix for associations: improved search functionality. We’ve worked with a number of associations that saw drastic improvement in resource use with addition of faceted, cross-site/system/resource search tools.

Take full advantage of your content management system.

Even open source CMSs such as Umbraco offer a wealth of capabilities that are probably underutilized. These tools are usually either already installed or available for free via the open source community. You’ll just have to work with your internal IT team or your development partner to get them added.

Often underused functionality includes personalization and A/B testing. Most CMSs today will offer some form of personalization—some form of a tool that will allow you to serve up targeted content to specific segmented groups that visit your site. With some investment in integration, you could use this to serve members offers based on AMS data, but there’s still a lot you can do with only the standard Google Analytics-type data. For example, something as simple as promoting an event only to site visitors from a certain region.



A/B testing is another feature that usually comes standard these days. Most CMSs will allow you to perform a simple automated test in which two possible pieces of content are tested by showing them to different halves of your visitors and measuring the clicks or goal conversions. Most association marketers have heard of A/B testing, but few are regularly implementing it on their site.

1. Growing your membership.

The top response for our challenge survey is probably not surprising. Membership in many of the largest associations has consistently fallen over the last ten years. Before the conferences, we actually wrote a blog post addressing this very topic, but we’ll give you a quick peek into our response here.

What it comes down to: associations must shed the “Here’s our magazine, see you at the convention, pay your dues” model in favor of a new, digitally-focused experience in order to keep growing. This is digital transformation, or organization-wide change in the way you interact with customers via digital channels.

How do you go about digital transformation? Digital transformation won’t be identical at every association, but executive Donald Patrick Lim explained one potential outcome at the ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference this year:

“Organizations will no longer have a separate digital strategy. Rather, digital will be second nature and be part of every single thing you do. No employees will have words like “digital,” “online,” or “e-“ in their titles. Again, digital should be a part of everyone’s job, so there’s no reason to call it out in a position title.”



According to the Harvard Business Review, 66% to 84% of digital transformation projects fail, so it can be helpful to have an experienced guide for the process. Many digital firms (including Adage!) now offer digital transformation support, so setting up a consultation about the process is usually a good first step.

You can learn more about digital transformation and other specific digital strategies for growing membership in our last blog post, 3 Digital Strategies to Grow & Engage Your Association’s Membership.

Keep an eye out for our next two association survey blogs coming out soon, highlighting content management systems and mobile-friendliness.


Read the blog post now