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Digital Trends Watch: Why Associations are Outsourcing Digital

Posted by Suzanne Carawan

9/23/16 11:10 AM

I'm either proud or ashamed (on any given day it varies) to say that I've been in and out of the association world for about 20 years so I have a certain longitudinal perspective on trends and certainly, on digital technology adoption. I worked at National League for Nursing way back in 1996 while I was studying at Columbia in an admin role and the only reason we had a computer was for email.  Over the course of twenty years, I was here for the advent of websites moving from brochureware to content management systems and was on the front wave when social media and mobile hit.

I've worked on every type of software product that associations use and how to best apply these to business challenges. What that translates into is hundreds of completed projects and probably more that weren't completed because of shifting priorities, summer Fridays off and slashed budgets. Hundreds? Yes, I mean hundreds and that probably equates to thousands of meetings spent consulting with associations cross-departmentally to understand how their normal course of business can translate to digital, how digital can be used to promote, measure and increase their brand reach and how workflow processes change when digital is central to the process.

So here we are in 2016 and I'm fascinated to see that there is a new trend emerging that is busting up the predominant philosophy that has governed association management thinking for the last 20 years:

Stop the do-it-yourself (DIY) madness and outsource the work.Voicing that type of thinking has been close to heresy in the past, but I've talked to more and more association executives (granted, the huge influx of for-profit professionals who are flooding into the association market are likely the culprits for bringing in this new philosophy which dominates the for-profit world which is based on efficiency of labor to maximize profit) who are asking us if they can look to us to "just take the whole thing off our plate".

What's the "whole thing"? Typically, it's the promotional efforts for a particular program, e.g. the annual meeting or their online professional certification program. Associations accept that in order to grow, they need to do more than email marketing andneed to be comprehensive in including social media, digital advertising and content marketing.

The issue is two-fold: 1) they don't know how to budget for a cross-channel digital promotion program and 2) they don't know how to execute on it in a way that results in measurable results.

The previously for-profit executives don't even flinch because when you hit this problem, you turn to an agency. However, old guard association professionals struggle with this because they have so long been in the DIY mindset and that the most efficient way to solve a skill gap and gain productivity is to hire a worker and bring them in-house and that often relates to hiring an inexperienced worker and growing them.

This human capital capacity growth strategy works great based on a couple of premises:

1) you have all the time in the world

2) capacity can be achieved through skills development 

3) productivity is directly tied to skill and is not reliant on accumulated experience

The problem with today's digital labor skill gap and the way that associations are trying to ameliorate this with the DIY approach is that all of the above premises are false. Here's why:

1) associations have waited too long to re-invest to evolve into a digitally-minded association and are now in a crunch time to undertake lead generation and become customer-centric

2) the skills you need in a digital marketer cross many specialties and the likelihood of finding all these skills in one person is very low and if you do, you're looking at a six figure salaried person who is not going to be keen on spending their time doing the grunt work of digital of posting to social media and manually creating emails. This means that you're going to need the six-figure person and some entry-level supporting staff who can take on the daily heavy lifting. Now you're probably realistically looking at a $175K increase in payroll with a return further out because

3) growing in-house and adding people to your staff also means that you're adding people into your current culture and embroiling them in your workflow processes which probably haven't been scrutinized for a decade or more (my experience says this is absolutely true when it comes to digital-email, web & social). This means that these new staffers are going to have to navigate all of your politics, get pulled into the cadence of the organization and spend a lot of time and energy trying to fit in. Again, great if you have all the time in the world and are trying to develop staffers for life, but most organizations now are trying to get quick results.

We return to where do I go to amplify my staff's productivity in a short time period where I can tap a team of experts that have the requisite skill AND experience to guide us through this digital transformation and garner measurable results of specific programs?

It's called an agency.

When we take an observational trend and start to break down the "why are we seeing so many people asking us to take on their membership lead gen campaigns or annual meeting registration growth campaigns", it seems pretty clear.

Associations are understanding that the only skills you need in digital today are:

  • deep understanding of user interaction design through the web
  • deep understanding of mobile-first email design, deliverability, segmentation and testing
  • deep understanding of content marketing
  • deep understanding of social media audience development, channels, content development and testing
  • deep understanding of digital advertising from banner ads, AdWords, retargeting and social media paid advertising
  • deep understanding of data and the data science behind analytics
  • deep understanding of infrastructure  and the ecosystem of business applications that can be integrated together to provide the business tools needed for optimum productivity

And by the way, you really also need to be an expert in go-to-market strategies, product development and management, social marketing and know how to create, execute and measure programs.

If you're a traditional association using a DIY mindset, you look to hire and/or buy a new software tool. If you're thinking like a for-profit and how would they approach it, you look to outsource to an agency that already has the in-house know how of both the strategy and the tools.

Both approaches can work. The only difference is the time it takes.

The digital trend I've seen the most for Q1 2016 is this: associations are seeing that hiring and waiting is a penny-wise pound foolish approach and are finding that the solution is to outsource to an agency to expedite their leap into lead generation and new growth programs. The focus is shifting away from being software platform-centric and instead, focused on the know how and results because no software tool is going to provide you with ROI--it's the human know-how running the tool that's going to get you results.

The bottom line becomes this-if your association already has everything it needs in-house in terms of digital strategy, program planning and execution, then you only need a tool. If the answer is you don't, then what you need is an agency with who you can partner.

Based on our past State of Digital Marketing in Association research studies , it's clear that the associations surveyed don't have the requisite knowledge in-house and are highly tactically-focused and email-centric. That was the going strategy in 2000, but it's 2016, the membership market has drastically changed and that mobile device movement have changed all the rules.

It's all too much when you don't get to give up the day job of being an association professional who is already pulled in too many directions and wears multiple hats! Who has time to work through this when there's an annual conference to plan and certification courses to develop?

When we take the time to flesh out the trend in depth, is it any wonder that associations are coming to the conclusion that outsourcing--even if for a certain time period--might just be the best way to get ahead.

Does this resonate with you? If so, let me know as this might be the next trend to really start to track and measure as we continue to study the massive shifts currently underway in the association industry.