Sunday, June 12, 2011

Frequency of Communications

Writing about communications reminds me of a study we conducted for the DMA Nonprofit Federation when I was their vice chair in 2006-07.

Many associations ask themselves a basic philosophical question regarding the appropriate frequency of member communications. We've also discussed this many times in ASAE Idea Swaps and of course there is no one right answer, but the conversations have been consistently enlightening, particularly from my dual perspectives within associations and large non-profits.  

In our old study, which was not scientific—only 150 organizations participated—there were striking differences in frequency of contact.

On the donor side, we found an average of 25 contacts a year including mail, email, and phone, which can be excessive if you support a charity and then wonder if all your money goes to fund more solicitations. Never mind that charities were reporting that they promote to current donors "only" monthly, but with email frequency running about the same level, large charities rarely lose touch with active current donors, or former donors particularly if they had a reasonable  giving history. Often working with an "ask forgiveness" approach, they will automatically go with this frequency but gladly respond to donor requests to cut back on the volume of contacts. This and the normal RFM segmentation strategy used by most sophisticated direct marketers means that they often achieve a hard-fought goal of contacting the right people at the right time with the right messages, and they do so with enough frequency to effectively compete with the other causes competing for their donors' attention.

On the association side, we saw a much more varied approach that has been confirmed in later Swaps and 'hand counts' at education programs. Associations communicate more often on average with their members, but the media mix is weighted far more heavily toward email. Some associations are firm believers that monthly is an appropriate frequency of contact, which feels very light to me for a membership that the decision maker pays $150 or $5,000. Often the context is very apologetic—membership associations fear that they will wear out their welcome with more frequent communication. Yet at the same time, others tell us that they increase regular e-newsletter contact to weekly or more often, they might run more than one title, and when probed their estimates often fail to include other regular communications such as conference promotions, renewals, etc.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we have taken away from the audits & reviews we have conducted—beyond reminding ourselves that measuring common practices is not=best practices, is the observation that content makes all the difference.

Some associations spend almost their entire time talking about themselves. Their e-newsletters, web site, and other regular communications always have a 'purpose'—and that purpose is focused on introducing or reminding the audience of an event, subscription product, news, etc. Even the news is focused on what will feel to the reader like internal issues—new officers, chapter activities, advocacy positions, etc.

These are all legitimate things to cover and report, but they defeat the typical association mission of serving as the voice of the field. Even a small-staffed association has, between the ears of their staff and their top volunteers, a tremendous reservoir of knowledge—and most of this doesn't reach the general member, or a prospect who can't visit anything to get a flavor for just how integral to the industry or profession the association really is. All they will see is promotional material—harkening back to the "brochureware" that usability experts always warned us to avoid as we evolved into a Web 2.0 era.

Now, one might reasonably object that being organized to deliver timely, vetted professional news is far easier said than done. I would normally agree with this, but the existence of syndication tools and semantic web services mean that a little investigation and investment will allow any association to access a stream of content they can post with or without commentary. At first, it may feel like "me too" content because it is, but adding commentary over time such as blogs to take advantage of the newfound traffic driven by your push email and search engines is a second logical step.

For now, do a basic analysis of what you currently deliver … and don't deliver… via email and online to your members. An objective review should make the benefits clear quickly, even if you can't measure a direct ROI from talking less about yourself and more about the industry you serve. Until you give members a real reason to visit your website daily, they won't—and the sheer information overload of the web today means that a large number of people in the field will visit, and they'll appreciate that you tried to consolidate the content that they need to stay on top of their environment. 

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