BlogMembership Is Your Organization Risking a Member Communications Nightmare? Membership Is Your Organization Risking a Member Communications Nightmare? Author: Tatiana Morand March 1, 2021 Contents 🕑 11 min read Could your organization get a message to all your members within 48 hours? One small association thought so, until last week when an unexpected event revealed a major flaw in how the group was communicating with its members. This is a real-life example of a real nonprofit organization, but let’s just call it Association XYZ — a small interest-based nonprofit with a very small budget, run by volunteers working a few hours a month from their own homes. One volunteer created a website for the group a few years ago. He updates the information on the website about every three months, mostly to add notices of the association’s quarterly general meetings. Another volunteer prepares and prints out the association’s monthly newsletter, which then goes to the group’s secretary to be mailed out. Between newsletters and meetings, all other communication with the membership is by emails from the secretary. She also makes phone calls to the handful of members who don’t have email addresses. For many thousands of small nonprofit organizations, it’s not an uncommon way to operate. And for most of those groups, for most of the time, this communications system works quite well to meet their modest needs. Until something out of the ordinary happens, that is. A Breakdown in Communications This past week, an opportunity arose for members of Association XYZ to take part in a special event. The invitation was on very short notice, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All the association’s executive had to do was to get the word out to their membership — within the next 48 hours. Problem: The secretary was away on vacation, out of reach, and no one else in the association had access to the membership database that was stored on her home computer. The printed newsletter had already been mailed out, and the group’s budget wouldn’t stretch to a special mail-out this month — not that 48 hours would be time enough to get a message to the members by mail. Public service announcements normally offered to nonprofits by newspapers and local radio stations weren’t an option this time, because it wasn’t an event that would be open to the public. And because the website was so infrequently updated, members weren’t in the habit of checking it for time-sensitive information. Action: A notice about the event was added to the groups’ website, although it was feared (and a look at the site stats later confirmed this) that only a handful of members would see it in time. The executive also contacted a few similar organizations and asked for help in spreading the word. A small advertisement was phoned in to the local newspaper, and a few hastily-printed flyers were posted on community notice boards. Each board member knew at least a few members socially, so they contacted those people directly by email or telephone. Each of the contacted members, in turn, were asked to get in touch with anyone else they knew who was an Association XYZ member, and so on. The idea was to try to spread the word in an old-fashioned “telephone tree” — a hit-and-miss method without access to the secretary’s list of members, but the best solution they could find in the time available. Outcome: Association XYZ was able to reach only 48% of its members in time for the event. Does this sound familiar? If so, we have a few suggestions to help improve and streamline your member communications. 1. Follow a Consistent Schedule. Coming up with a consistent schedule or communication plan for reaching your members is key. Every organization’s communication plan will look a little different, but here are some of the most important elements to consider when you’re building a plan to consistently communicate with your members. Take into account the culture and expectations of your membership population. If you’re an organization whose members travel a lot, you may want to communicate mainly through email in case their travels take them to places without access to good cell phone reception or texts. If your members are particularly tech-savvy, they may enjoy communication through social media and even video messages. Know the different communication channels and don’t be afraid to use them all (when it makes sense). As a quick recap, here are some of the most popular ways organizations communicate with their members: Emails Phone calls Text messages Social posts Newsletters Annual reports Handwritten letters Using a couple of these channels is best so that you can meet different members where they are. For example, let’s say you have elections for new board members coming up, and you’d like to communicate the election to your members and encourage them to vote. You may want to announce the election in advance in a monthly newsletter, then schedule an email to go out once a week reminding members, and introduce and feature the board candidates on your social platforms in the weeks leading up to the election as well. Plan on communicating your organization’s regularly scheduled events. An easy way to start building your communication plan is by putting any regular events, weekly member spotlights, fundraising campaigns, etc. on a calendar and start planning your communications around those. With a good communication plan, you’re ensuring that your members know when they can expect to hear from you. If they hear from you unexpectedly, they can tell that it’s important, or something that they need to review ASAP — like the event at Association XYZ. PRO TIP: Even though the age-old wisdom of “It’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate,” normally rings true, when it comes to digital communication, there can be too much of a good thing. Be intentional about how many emails, texts, and phone calls you’re sending. You don’t want to overwhelm your members to the point where they start ignoring your communication. 2. Keep Your Member Profiles Updated. There are few worse feelings than spending the time to craft a beautiful and clear member message, sending it out in a timely manner, and then receiving the dreaded response that a message was undeliverable. Or even worse, when you get an email from one member saying they didn’t receive a message they should have been on. Unfortunately, it happens a lot. But the good news is that it’s an easy problem to fix. The first thing you want to do to avoid the problem entirely is making sure that your initial member application has required fields that will give you the information you need. In addition to including the regular fields like first name, last name, and email, ask them to include any secondary email addresses, phone numbers, and social profiles. After the initial collection of member information, include an email in your communication plan once a year to remind members to update their information if there have been any changes. And, if it’s possible, have a place on your website or member portal that allows members to update their information themselves — this will save your team a lot of time and effort! PRO TIP: If you’re still using an Excel sheet to keep track of your member information, it’s time to start researching the many different tools that now exist to help you gather, track, and manage your members. It will save you so much time and heartache, and some platforms even include ways to easily send emails directly from the system. 3. Keep Your Website Up-To-Date. In today’s world, an organization’s website is an extension of their brand, their elevator-pitch to the world, and for members, it’s the main communication hub. We could write a whole other article about the most helpful elements to include on your organization’s website (okay, we already did), but for the purpose of membership communication, here are some of the best ways to use your website: Create a calendar of events that is regularly updated each month. Filling it out at the beginning of the year with the biggest events is even better. Add important updates to the homepage. These updates can be featured on a rotating carousel at the top of the homepage or you can have a small section for “News & Events.” If your organization is active on social media, many websites have the option to feature a glimpse of your social media newsfeed. Having a reliable, updated website builds trust with your members and can cut down on time answering questions once members accept that your website is a source of truth. PRO TIP: Did you know that images engage 30 percent of our brains? Data like this proves that people recall and understand information better when there’s a combination of images and text. Thankfully, most website platforms offer easy ways to add images that don’t require a lot of design skills. Source: Public Health Solutions 4. Communicate via Mobile. All it takes is a quick walk down the street to be reminded that everyone is constantly on their phones, including your members! Phone calls are still a popular way to reach members, and in the last few years, text messaging has become the preferred method of communication. The good thing about text is that it allows you to communicate to members quickly, so if there’s a change to event registration deadlines or a meeting has been scheduled due to inclement weather, your members can have the most up-to-date information. There’s been a little caution when it comes to organizations texting people due to privacy rights, but many of those concerns are related to marketing texts. The trick to making text work for your member communication is giving them the option to opt-in or opt-out to receiving text messages from you. This option can be included as part of the member application form. For those members that do opt-in, you can apply the same intentionality to the number of texts you send to the number of emails. PRO TIP: Beyond text messages, you can leverage the rise in mobile use by using a mobile app for your organization. A mobile app is the perfect way to make sure your members get the same great website experience they get on their desktop on their mobile devices — and best of all, many membership management platforms already have one included. 5. Segment Emails Properly. Emails are one of the most popular ways organizations communicate with their members, donors, customers, etc. It’s partly because everyone has an email address, and their inboxes can be accessed from anywhere on their smartphones. But email is also a main mode of member communication because of all the cool things you can do with emails these days. You can personalize emails, schedule emails ahead of time, include eye-catching design features — the possibilities seem endless. One of the newer email features that organizations are loving is the ability to segment their audiences and send emails to specific people with information that’s most relevant to them. For example, if you have new members that are still becoming familiar with your organization, you can create a segment of members that have been with you for a year or less and send specialized emails that invite them to new member happy hours, opportunities to sign-up to be matched with a member mentor, etc. Segmentation is also popular for event communication. You don’t want to send an email to someone about a particular event if they’re not signed up for it. Of course, proper segmentation is most successful when you keep all of your information properly stored in your CRM. PRO TIP: Wondering what content to include in your emails? There are a lot of options, but people are loving short, clear, and fun newsletters that highlight things like upcoming events, important board decisions, and award recipients, like the one below. Source: American Red Cross 6. Review Your Data. It’s time to come full circle and remember that, when it comes to member communication, one of the best things you can do is keep a pulse on the types of communication that your specific members respond to. Sending communication surveys every once in a while is a great way to gauge communication preferences. However, sometimes people don’t always know the way they like to communicate, or they think they do, but the data says something different, so make sure you’re keeping an eye on your stats as well. And how can you do that? By choosing a membership platform with a good data tracking and reporting system, it should be easy to determine which emails are being opened by members, which parts of your website are the most visited, etc. This can give you a good idea of which communication strategies are most appreciated by your members, so you can double down on them and abandon the less effective ones. PRO TIP: If it’s time to make some changes to capture the most accurate member data you can, check out one of the many guides that break down the pros, the cons, and the process of implementing new membership software. A Plan for More Effective Membership Communication Going back to the real-life example of an unfortunate communication breakdown at Association XYZ from our introduction, here’s what they’re planning on moving forward. 1. A blog will be added to the group’s website. All board members will be assigned user privileges that will allow each of them to post news items to the blog. Members will be encouraged, with the example of this missed opportunity as an incentive, to subscribe to the blog by email. 2. The membership list, and other vital information about the association, will be made accessible to all members of the executive committee using their newly minted online membership database. 3. A regular email cadence with a member newsletter and other updates has been established so that members know when to expect to hear from the organization and are aware of regular events. 4. A task force will be created to find, vet, and partner with a platform that will help the organization create and manage a mobile app. In addition to implementing text communications, they believe the new mobile app will be key in sending urgent information in a short amount of time. What do you think of the association’s new strategy? What else might a small nonprofit do, on a very tight budget, to be able to communicate more efficiently and reliably with its members? 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