Here to Stay: Associations Adapting to Social Media

Written by Maggie McGary on July 26, 2018

Social media has changed the game. When I started in social media about ten years ago, associations were asking: Do we really need to worry about this? and Is social media just a fad?

A decade later, that ship has sailed, but as an industry, we still do not understand the ways that social media impacts every part of an association, from leadership to membership. Social media has changed everything - the news cycle, the revenue model for businesses across the spectrum, marketing, campaigning, politics, fundraising, and more. In my experience as a staff member, a consultant, a volunteer, and a freelancer, I’ve seen many associations not living up to their potential.

Associations must transition away from business-as-usual and into new ways of working to remain relevant and competitive into the future. Here are some common factors causing associations to lag behind in the realm of social media.

Silos & Strategy

In large associations particularly, departments often care more about owning social media than working collaboratively across the organization to make the most strategic and effective use of it. Individual departments tend to get pitched social media services by multiple vendors, agencies, and consultants; for example, PR gets pitched by PR firms, marketing gets pitched by marketing firms, ditto advocacy and events. Rather than working together towards one cohesive strategy, working in silos can result in spending a lot of money for little return. It also causes audience confusion when there are too many social media accounts, hashtags, and initiatives used by an organization. Associations tend to see social media as a stand-alone tool rather than one component of an overall strategy.

For-Profit Marketing Styles

A former boss once told me (note: former) that social media isn’t rocket science. While this is true, associations function differently than brands and for-profit businesses, meaning that advice about using social media for brands often misses the mark for associations. When people at associations have learned everything they know about social media from experts in the for-profit world, they don’t know that those same tactics doesn’t necessarily make sense for associations. Association members are sensitive about over-marketing: too many emails, ads, or vendor pitches are a deterrent. People don’t follow an association’s social media accounts just to be marketed to, and this isn’t where the power of social media lies for associations. ​

Lack of budget

While more associations have added social media positions over the past decade, many are still understaffed and under-budgeted. Social media now means multiple channels, graphic design, content creation and curation, video, analytics, keeping up to date with constantly changing algorithms, and monitoring and responding in near real-time - more work than one person can effectively do. Doing it effectively means working across silos, something that non-senior level staff usually aren’t able to do. Most social media positions do not have a seat at the executive table.

Lack of knowledge

Associations tend to outsource social media to agencies that know social media but not associations, or that claim more expertise than they have. The people outsourcing to these agencies don’t know social media themselves, so they don’t know that they’re paying for the wrong tactics.

Social media is bigger than anybody thought it would be ten years ago, and it is here to stay. The good news is that, despite the challenges I mention above, associations have an edge when it comes to social media, with their abundance of great content to share and passion for the professions they support. Getting there will likely involve some uncomfortable conversations—but those are conversations associations must have anyway. Having daunting conversations around social media can help inspire necessary change which will ultimately propel associations forward.