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Every industry and business sector has its own unique needs and challenges with how to embrace digital technologies. There's plenty of information out there on the thousands of different platforms, products, and services that enable organizations to make the move to digital. Yet there's little information that speaks to how all of the pieces fit together, especially for unique organizations like associations.  This article will focus on non-profit associations and professional societies, and the journey they can take to progress towards digital maturity.  

Some Background on Associations and the Challenges They Face

Professional associations have existed for over 100 years as a method of furthering a particular profession or occupation, the interests of the professionals within it, and the public interest.  They are typically organized based on a membership model – where professionals pay a fee to join the network so they can contribute to the cause and receive benefits.

This model was highly successful for many years, until the internet and social media became prevalent.  The "privilege of belonging" and the associated value propositions have been eroded by social media and the web - where networking opportunities and content are abundantly available, free of charge.

"Facebook is the world's largest association with over a billion members and anyone can start a group for free. Many people are no longer willing to plop down dollars for the privilege of belonging [to an association]. They need more tangible value.

Education, previously a core value proposition [of associations] is now available everywhere to anyone who can search, which is everyone."

Fast Company - 6 Key Issues Facing Association Leaders

Change Creates Opportunity

The pressures noted above (along with others) have some associations concerned, and rightfully so.  Members are the lifeblood of associations, so acquiring and retaining them is critical to their survival.  We’ve worked with dozens of associations and discovered something interesting: most of them don't have a problem with creating value for their members. Rather, they have challenges with how they deliver that value to them.

As concerning as it may seem for some associations, the new landscape is full of opportunities.  With the right people, processes, and technologies, associations can position themselves not just for survival, but for growth and advancement.  Below we’ll suggest a progressive model that demonstrates how an association can take the next steps towards digital greatness.

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Digital Marketing Maturity Roadmap for Associations

At Velir, we embrace the Sitecore “Customer Experience Model” and have adapted it to associations.  The model below provides the high-level conceptual steps that most associations can follow to achieve an engaging and rewarding digital presence:

Stage 1: Initiate

The entry point for most organizations is a brochure site. A brochure site implies that it’s relatively static, with infrequent content changes and no dynamic features.  It’s rarely engaging for visitors to experience and is mostly a one-way communication device to describe the association and their offerings.  It’s effectively the same as the print brochure, only viewed on a screen.

Beyond the website, there might be a dated, light-weight, or home-grown web content management system (CMS) involved, and some basic web analytics to track page views.  There also may be a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Association Management System (AMS) in place but it’s not integrated (or integrated poorly) into the main website.  Other solutions involved at this stage might include an email newsletter service for blasting out messages to subscribers, but it is disconnected from the CMS and content sources.

The challenges that most associations face at this stage include:

  • Difficulty updating the site due to the lack of a reliable CMS
  • Challenges with organizing and presenting large amounts of content to users
  • Limited reach of content and an inability to attract and retain new visitors
  • Weak or non-existent mobile presence
  • Low levels of business intelligence for monitoring the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and related investments

In essence, the brochure site stage of the maturity curve means that you’re only utilizing 1-2 channels to distribute your content.  It’s a one-way conversation.  To move on to the next stage, it will require investment in the underlying technologies powering your websites.  It’s worth noting that some associations in these early stages already have capable technologies (CMS + AMS) but they’ve been poorly implemented or they’re not being utilized at their full potential.

Stage 2: Radiate

“Radiate” refers to the ability to distribute content across multiple channels.  Most organizations get here by convincing their leadership to invest in a robust CMS architecture, by demonstrating how digital efforts across multiple channels can contribute to the bottom line.  It requires executive buy-in to increase investment in technologies and an emphasis on prioritizing digital initiatives throughout the organization.  It also may require changes or additions to internal teams.

The “multiple channels” mentioned here typically include the main website and then one or more of the following outlets: Blog, Social Media, or email.  Radiating content usually occurs via “sharing”, as in the context of Twitter of Facebook, although in some cases it’s a manual effort to distribute content across these channels.  In recent years, it increasingly involves a mobile component.

The challenges that most associations face at this stage include:

  • Digital efforts are still not linked (or are loosely tied) to strategic objectives
  • There are technical barriers to integrating the site and the CMS with peripheral technologies
  • Content managers find themselves duplicating efforts for entering and posting content on each channel
  • Measurement of earned media is difficult or non-existent
  • Monitoring the effectiveness of campaigns is limited to page views, “likes” (on Facebook), or “followers” (on Twitter)
  • No easy way to determine the “quality” of traffic

If you’re at this stage you’re heading in the right direction, but there’s still plenty of work ahead before you fully realize the benefits of digital.  You’re not alone - it is estimated that as many as 86% of organizations are in Stage 1 or 2.  To move up to Stage 3, most associations will require:

  • An enterprise-level CMS that is integrated with multiple channels
  • Content management architectures that enable the repurposing of content, regardless of the device or channel
  • Digital marketing technology that is capable of some level of content personalization and optimization
  • full-featured AMS that can be tightly integrated with the CMS
  • Integrated systems that tie into all of the major channels for customer interaction
  • A digital strategy that incorporates content, campaigns, and technologies that are capable of testing and measuring the results

Stage 3: Optimize

If you’re at this stage it means you’re already ahead of most of your peers.  “Optimize” mainly refers to the ability to test and tune your digital marketing efforts based on insights drawn from analytics and campaign measurement.  It requires a culture that places emphasis on data and testing and continual investment in the teams and technologies that enable it.

For many of our association clients, optimizing also involves some basic elements of website personalization.  Personalization in this scenario refers to detecting users’ interests or preferences and catering to them by dynamically presenting contextually relevant content. For example, if an anonymous user in California visits your site, the CMS detects their location and features the west coast conference first, instead of the east coast one.

The challenges that most associations face at this stage include:

  • Site does not dynamically adapt to real-time behaviors (i.e., user actions)
  • No automated triggers in place to nurture conversions
  • Contextually relevant content and offers are not being presented at opportune times
  • Mid-level analytics are in place, but unable to measure and report on the true level of user engagement
  • Some manual A/B testing is occurring but without an automated approach for running and optimizing multivariate tests

While Stage 3 is a great place to be, there’s plenty more than can be done to increase your return on investment.  Assuming you’re already generating a healthy amount of traffic, it’s now time to focus on how you can maximize conversions and engagement with your audience.  To get to the next step, most associations need to place the customer (or member) and the relationship with them at the forefront of their digital strategy.  This may require research, surveys, and user testing to truly understand the audience and their interests.

Stage 4: Nurture

If you’re at Stage 4, you have a solid foundation of technologies in place that will enable you to perform all of the functions necessary for a highly effective digital marketing program that is focused on audience engagement.  “Nurture” is in reference to the ability to foster relationships with your visitors through relevant and engaging conversations across their preferred channels.  At this stage, some level of automation is in place, based on user behaviors and triggers that lead to facilitated conversations.

The challenges that most associations face at this stage include:

  • Large amounts of data is being collected, but it requires more governance to be managed and used effectively
  • Gaps exist between the online and offline data that are collected
  • There is no single data repository that can manage and merge disparate sources
  • Conversions and the journeys that lead to them are not fully automated
  • Not yet able to fully predict visitor behavior with a high degree of confidence

While the technology is still critical, much of what will take your organization to the next level will require connecting online and offline channels through the associated data.  Process and governance for how data is collected, managed, and shared across the organization is paramount.  Most of the marketing efforts will need to be oriented around the customer experience, using data to formulate hypotheses that can be tested and validated based on actual visitor behavior.  The primary goal is to predict what the user will want or do next. Implementing triggers based on visitor actions lead to a series of automated responses across channels to nurture the journey towards a goal.

Stage 5: Engage

At Stage 5, we’re in the thick of modern digital marketing.  Your organization has established an infrastructure capable of collecting, connecting, and utilizing all of the data resulting from visitor touch points. The AMS and CMS are tightly integrated along with all of the other technologies and channels involved with customer experience management.  Decisions and investments are being made based on data and analysis, instead of conjecture and opinion.  Campaigns are calculated, measured, continually refined, and tailored at a 1:1 level.

If you’re here, the focus is now shifting towards turning anonymous visitors into actively engaged members and converting your members into die-hard brand advocates.  A comprehensive engagement model is being established and constantly tuned to meet the needs of the audience.  Prediction is now the focal point of the visitor relationship and your digital marketing efforts.  Investment decisions can be proposed, analyzed, and forecasted with a high degree of confidence.

Any challenges faced at this stage are welcomed.  Your organization is prepared for change and has the people, processes, and solutions in place to quickly pivot if needed.  Most of the effort at this point is being placed on optimization, refinement, personalized engagement.

Stage 6: Predict

Stage 6 is a digital marketer’s nirvana.  There is a comprehensive multichannel infrastructure in place and it’s working in a streamlined and automated fashion.  Systems are able to present a single view of the customer’s data, interactions, and transactions - across all channels.  The organization is unified and working collectively towards ensuring the most ideal experience for those who interact with them.  Your website and marketing efforts are able to reasonably predict what your members want, when they’ll need it, and their preferred method for accessing or receiving it.

Stage 6 implies that people, processes, and technology are all working in harmony.  There is consistency across experiences, regardless of the channel.  Your members know what to expect from your association, understand the value of it, and receive consistent and reliable interactions.  You now have lifetime members.


Regardless of the stage you’re currently at, odds are there’s a lot more you can do to improve the experience for your members.  While the technology and infrastructure may require significant time and investment to get in place, it’s all within reach.  The bigger challenge for most associations is the cultural shift and political barriers involved with digital transformation.  That is why data and metrics are so critical to the entire process.  Demonstrating how digital marketing and the related technologies can improve the bottom line is imperative to gaining the support of executives and board members.

The return on investment for most associations can be significant – through operational cost savings, faster time to market, and revenue generation.  But more importantly, the member’s experience can be significantly improved to a level that ensures retention and growth.  In the end, that’s what helps your association achieve that bold mission statement found on your “About Us” page.

Learn more about the many associations we’ve helped achieve digital transformation on our main site:


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