Impact for Members, for Advertisers, for Industry

By Caryn Smith

Communications in the shadow of COVID-19 is new territory. Many of us feel if we never hear the word COVID-19 ever again, it would be too soon.

Yet if you haven’t completely blocked out the memory (and for good reason) of 2008’s economic collapse, these times can feel eerily familiar. As we learned then, navigating your way through times of crisis depends on a plethora of things, and no directional pull offers solid data to forecast too far ahead, if at all. Instead, we all are left to feel our way through it, staying flexible, nimble and creative. It is like sailing in choppy waters, trying to catch the wind with your mainsail, yet not get knocked off the boat by the boom.

As you undoubtedly know working within membership-driven organizations, the reality is that though your association might be somewhat stable at the moment, your members are really struggling in the water. Boom! And now your job is to get them in the life raft. You can’t save them, but you can give them the clarity and the courage they need to regain strength to re-chart their journey. As a communicator, the goal is to reframe their reality into actionable steps that they can take to be their best in this mess.

You can remind them, for one, that new and exciting trends emerge when the economy gets kicked in the pants. One I have seen working well is the emergence of online fitness classes produced by boutique-style gyms in local areas (Pilates, Pure Barre, CrossFit). People are responding to this new trend, and once classes are back in full-swing, this could be added revenue stream to keep the online option available with minimal investment from the business owner or trainer.

Another example is the food service industry who was forced into take-out and delivery options to give them any chance of survival. Now, almost every restaurant will have that in place (if they didn’t already) as added revenue so that no one need be denied their cuisine – either dine in or at home.

The point is, if you are communicating in only one or two ways, you are leaving some members high and dry – and those are the ones who will say you did nothing to help them through this crisis.

Opportunities are right around the corner for your members if they hang on. Your job as a communicator is to help them find their way to these open doors. Every article you publish, blog you write or webinar your host should reinforce this mission to your members. It is a great opportunity for your organization, as well, to engage them with your expert leadership.

Rest assured, there are no right or wrong answers. To reframe the current situation, here are three ways to consider which you might be overlooking to give wind to your sails and not leave your publishing and communications efforts stuck on a sandbar.

Consider the Three M’s – Messaging, Mediums and Methods.

1 – Messaging

 You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “it’s not what you say, it is how you say it.” Let’s dive in.

“It’s not what you say…”: Well, actually, what you say is as important as saying it in the right way. Depending on the state of your association industry, the news you report may not be good. Yet, as its voice, your job is to provide information while offering hope and help. A hard look at your messaging is vital right about now. Maybe it is time for a change.

If you haven’t done a member survey lately, why not dust off your Survey Monkey subscription and take the temperature of your members. Exactly how are they doing? It is essential that you know the answer to that question to be most effective in your communications. Then, you will know what to say, or not say…

One of our clients is conducting a monthly survey on a different topic. We are compiling the results into a feature article for their publication. This is a great way to tell the story of your industry in a meaningful way, as members share with other members about their experience. It takes the pressure off of you to be the bearer of potential unpleasant news, and builds community within the industry.

“It is how you say it …”: You have to relate to your audience in ways they receive it. This would seem obvious, right?

But if you’ve ever read The Five Languages of Love by Gary Chapman, you know everyone receives messages differently. Ways people interpret levels of love and concern, in his view, are through Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch. Or consider the impact of the various learning styles – Visual (see), Auditory (hear), and Kinesthetic (touch).

The point is, if you are communicating in only one or two ways, you are leaving some members high and dry – and those are the ones who will say you did nothing to help them through this crisis. I suggest that you engage all the platforms you can: print, website, email, video, social media — even the old-fashioned U.S. mail system still works for many of your members! The same message dispersed in multiple ways goes a long way to say “we care!”

Let’s circle back to the MESSAGE. Are you communicating with purpose? Ask hard questions of yourself and your team to start your plan the engagement with members.

In your planning, consider:

  • What is the messaging/content plan to address COVID-19 across all your platforms?
  • How can you reframe the reality to be of service?
  • How long should you continue to cover the crisis (is there a planned end)?

In your publications, consider:

  • Do you publish your regular editorial calendar in your publications?
  • Do you dedicate whole issues or special sections to pandemic coverage (conversely, is that COVID overload for your members)?
  • Do you create a hybrid solution and place antidotes, references, resources and member quotes throughout your regular editorial calendar (working so as not to appear too passive)?
  • Do you veer off course and report only COVID-19 realities, devastating economic impacts, financial bailouts and more?

In your email, consider:

  • Do you send more, less, or the same amount?
  • Should the content be all crisis-related? If not, how much should there be?

 In your online platforms, consider:

  • Is your website current in design, content, and a valued resource for members to draw on?
  • Are you using social media wisely to not only inform and interact, but draw new followers?
  • Are you able to get conversations going online? If not, does that mean you are not posting relevant information?
  • Are you utilizing all different types of social media?

What is your communications strategy for those that support your association – associate members, advertisers and sponsors – who are possibly experiencing significant loss of income?

  • Do you let them out of their contracts?
  • Do you come up with new payment plans?
  • Do you drop sponsorship prices?
  • Do you give them free advertising to keep them on the hook?
  • Do you add value to whatever they’ve already bought, like throwing in free web banners or items that won’t cost extra to produce?

These are all million-dollar questions to consider. Here is my two cents on choosing the right direction.

Yes. Yes to all of it.

There are no wrong answers. All of these (and other ideas not mentioned) are valid. Try one, try them all. But whatever you must do, in every effort, be a leader through strategic communications.

I firmly believe that the mediums you choose to use to deliver your message can have a direct correlation to the members you keep and the members you lose. Smart association communicators will be strategic about how they deliver their communications.

2 – Mediums

Well, we are not talking about the supernatural here, but if I could predict the future for you, I surely would. I can foresee, though, that to ensure your organization maintains its loyal membership, your choice of platforms is important to reconsider right now. As we’ve already established, each one of your members will respond to the same communications message in different ways.

I firmly believe that the mediums you choose to use to deliver your message can have a direct correlation to the members you keep and the members you lose. Smart association communicators will be strategic about how they deliver their communications.

For instance, throughout this crisis, I have seen communicators up their game by utilizing:

  • COVID-19 information dashboard web pages
  • breaking news email blasts
  • email updates on PPP, PPE and the other acronyms we have all come to know and love
  • guides on workplace safety for the industry
  • encouraging tweets
  • special blog posts
  • social media news reporting
  • impromptu or regular videos from leadership
  • scheduled Facebook and YouTube Live events
  • Zoom and GoToMeeting webinars
  • member phone calls
  • conference calls
  • town halls
  • surveys and questionnaires
  • mailed letters from the ceo/executive director
  • direct mail efforts

And, of course, my favorite:

  • printed magazines and newsletters

I  am sure there are other ways I have not mentioned – and if you have a creative idea, I would love to hear it. Your message through the right mediums will make a difference to your members. They won’t tell you that, but, again, it is what you say and how you say it that counts.


3 – Methods (A Case Study)

We’ve established the message, we’ve figured out the best mediums. The last piece is to establish some methods. A method, for our purposes, is a particular form for accomplishing or approaching your content. It is a plan with tailwind. It is more than getting that member onto a life raft to regain composure. This is the process of giving them back the ship’s helm and helping them to navigate to their desired destination with smoother sailing.

You have to start first with another question: What is it that your direct and associate members need from you right now? That is a question only you can answer, and once you determine the answer, the plan will be easier to strategize.

What I can do is give you some ideas that we have helped to implement during COVID-19 together with one of my valued association clients. We’ve been quite busy.

Initially, my team focused heavily on the associate members where we have developed key relationships. These valued partners fund the association mission with their advertising and sponsorship dollars. We felt it was important to empathize with their predicament caused by a cancellation of numerous events. With no industry trade shows to attend, their opportunity to get in front of prospects and current clients was wiped off their calendars in one fell swoop. These important meet-and-greets are the lifeblood of their business-building.

The May-June issue of the bi-monthly publication we produce for our client is bundled with a printed annual Products and Services Buyer’s Guide. For years, we have kicked around putting it online as more than just a hyperlinked flipbook, and I knew if there was ever a time to launch it, it was now. The problem has always been, how do we launch it online without degrading our profitable printed guide?

We decided to, first, enhance the printed guide with editorial pages (not just an associate member listing with display ads, as in previous years). Full-page advertisers were offered the opportunity to upgrade for a small upcharge to also buy a full page of editorial, thus making their ad placement an impressive spread. Half-page advertisers could also buy a half page editorial, hence making their ad space a full page. This was very well received and boosted the printed book advertising sales.

Then, we strategized on how we to present this online. We’ve created a separate “Buyer’s Guide” website, yet similar in design to the organization’s main branded website. We decided to put the advertisers who purchased the editorial upgrades first and foremost at the top of the homepage as “Featured Suppliers.” Their company name and logo links to a blog-style page with their editorial, logo, photos and full contact information, providing extra SEO to the company, as well.

Because we knew the associate members could use a helping hand, we offered this for free ­­– included in the price of the print upgrade. We didn’t want to loot the money-making printed guide, and putting them on a webpage for free didn’t cost us anything but our time.

We then listed the regular display advertisers without editorial in a “Supplier Roundup.” We felt because they purchased a display ad, they deserved extra attention, too. Further down the webpage are “Industry Supplier Categories,” where all the associate members are listed under their appropriate section. We also include a hyperlinked flipbook and a downloadable PDF. The site has other features, like a blog for supplier press releases, videos (a section to come), and, of course, the association’s media kit in detail.

In a time of crisis, we created opportunity for associate members, a valuable new resource for direct members who are also missing out on trade show opportunities, bonus non-dues revenue for the association that we can build on for the future, and a home for the media kit in detail, away from the news and information direct-member focused association website.

Turning efforts toward direct association members, in the magazine, their needs were addressed in a series of articles on COVID-19 that help them through safety and compliance issues. We also gathered experiences of members and associate members into a reflection feature. We tailored our regular editorial calendar toward COVID-19 where it fit, but otherwise are running the planned itinerary of articles. We felt during this time, members are working on their business to better themselves, so we felt this would best help them accomplish this.

We created opportunity for associate members, a valuable new resource for direct members who are also missing out on trade show opportunities, and bonus non-dues revenue for the association that we can build on for the future.

The association staff got busy assembling COVID-19 news into a daily e-blast that we also added to their website. This turned into a “COVID-19 Dashboard” webpage that houses links to state’s essential business orders, a chart of resources, blog posts of news, and a resource blog. Over time, we have slowly decreased blast frequency and put the onus on members to visit the Dashboard. While it took a pandemic to “wake up” my client’s website, we plan to keep it fresh going forward. Not too surprising, we have been able to leverage more online ad sales.

Finally, the organization’s director of member relations who is usually traveling to the cancelled industry events found himself home-bound. We assisted him in his efforts to establish more social media presence for the association, adding two new channels of social media to the mix. He has risen to the challenge, and is even producing video for social media including conducting webinars, coffee talks, live Facebook Town Halls, and more.

His most recent project is developing a series of four, monthly, 30-minute webcasts that feature the motivational Keynote Speaker who is scheduled for the annual convention in November. This serves many purposes – it creates hype for the annual event (whether it is in person or online is yet to be determined), it empowers members with actionable steps to not let the crisis get the best of them, and it engages members with the association as a leader guiding members back to their ship’s helm.

I am proud to say that this organization is firing communication on all four cylinders.

This is one case study of what we accomplished in what was supposed to be “COVID-19 downtime.” I have to admit, I am tired. But it has been so satisfying as a communicator to help an association rise to meet the need of its members, and do it so creatively.

How will you pull it all together going forward to be of service?

If you need some ideas on how to rise to the need of your members, give me a call. I will brainstorm with you, at no charge. As an idea person, nothing makes me happier than to help an association master their messaging, methods and mediums.

Caryn Smith is CEO of Driven By Design LLC, a Communications, Publications, Marketing and Brand Strategy firm established in 1998. For 30+ years, Smith has worked in the association world, with a specialty in print and digital publications. Her company’s publication designs and content have won numerous awards, but their shinning achievement is the long-standing relationships they’ve built with their association clients. Whether it is a logo, event marketing, magazine, website, or social media, the team at Driven By Design tells compelling stories to energize your community so you can focus your energy on building lasting relationships with your members.


© Caryn Smith, Driven By Design. Graphics from