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How to Craft an Advocacy Message Your Members will Actually Read

I am writing this article fully expecting that no one will actually read it. Why? Because it’s being published in an association magazine and magazines only get read when people find the time. And let’s be honest, who actually finds the time to plough through the pile of optional reading on their desks (or inboxes)? If you are reading this, the power has likely gone out and all manner of other, more pressing communications have been halted for this brief moment.

If the power is still on and this article has legitimately caught your attention, then the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) has done two things right: it has found interesting content and used the right vehicle to deliver it to the intended audience. It is this magic formula that every not-for-profit organization strives for, yet only a few consistently achieve. Most are struggling daily to figure out how to get members to read their material.

In a world of fierce competition where every news aggregate, service provider and promotional agency is fighting for your member’s attention, the landscape can be dangerous for associations. How can you keep members engaged and willfully paying membership dues every year if they have no idea what you are doing for them? This concern is especially true of advocacy work - the raison d'être for most associations - because advocacy is not usually something tangible that members can touch and feel, like a discount from an affinity program for example. Advocacy issues have to be effectively communicated and the implications have to be understood.

Communications and government relations are often identified as two separate roles and functions, but they are not; they are necessarily connected. The challenge is that the critical intersection between the two is not as formalized as it should be. The job of government relations staff is to advocate for members by delivering legislative or policy solutions to industry problems. The job of communications staff is to communicate effectively with members and the media. But there rarely exists a strict and rigorous process at the intersection whereby the government relations issue is matched to the right communications vehicle based on urgency, audience and creative delivery. And this presents a big problem. In the absence of a formal protocol, member communications will inevitably look and feel like the same old email that gets deleted more often than it is opened.

RECOVERY

The first step towards recovery from “deleted email syndrome” is to admit that you have a problem. And if we’re being honest, most of us – even high performing associations – are guilty of being “email happy” without critically thinking through the approach, the target audience and the appropriate method of communication. We get so wrapped up in the day to day “this issue is
so important, let’s send it to everyone right away,” that we fail to critically appraise each correspondence and we perpetuate the problem. And the problem is universal and multi-facetted.

UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM

Associations across the board need to come to terms with the following:

  1. The problem is serious. Every word counts, every letter counts. If we keep on wasting our member’s time, we will never reach them and our association will be at risk.
  2. Member segments are different from each other. We should take care in crafting correspondence that clearly outlines the impact and speaks directly to them.
  3. We need to do a better job of listening, studying and understanding our member’s habits and their preferred methods of communication.
  4. We need to invest in technology that will allow us to capture member data in a flexible, usable fashion.
  5. We need to be more creative in our approach and stop using email for everything. And if we must use email, then use 20 words or less with a news-style heading and give people the option to click for a more detailed analysis.

Nobody has the time to read some long prose that isn’t directly to the point and directly relevant to their work. We have to fundamentally change the way to THINK about communicating with members.

WRITE IT IN PLAIN LANGUAGE

Members do not speak association jargon; you have to translate. STOP using acronyms. STOP referring to government processes and government departments in code. What is the bottom line and how will it impact members? Be clear, be brief and make it easy for members to act if there is a call to action.

BUILD UP YOUR COMMUNICATIONS ARSENAL

Association executives need to be distinctly in tune with each of their member segments in order to understand what communication methods make the most sense. Part of the problem here is that most associations lack a creative range of communication mediums and vehicles, so most default to an email that is rarely brief and poignant. Switch things up! Try sending a 5-10 second video of your team standing in front of Parliament Hill as news breaks about your issue; maybe you develop an infographic that boils a complex subject down into something digestible; maybe you need to restrict your message to 150 characters like Twitter; maybe you need to develop a simple “What, How, When” impact statement with less than 20 words that allows members to click for more details; or maybe you send headline style push notifications via cell phone, again with the option to click for more details. Think about the companies that are getting your attention today and get inspired by their ideas. Look at what other associations are doing in terms of technology and tools and don’t be afraid to reach out.

As you build up your communications arsenal, remember that all forms of communications are viable options. With the mad rush to digital, many have deserted the more traditional forms of communication like letters, phone calls, and hand written notes. There is a land of opportunity here that is being grossly under-utilized. Consider your home mailbox as an example. I probably get 14 pieces of mail at home in a week, and oddly, I read them all - every last pamphlet that I didn’t even order and that has nothing to do with my life. How is my irrelevant snail mail getting so much of my attention while my inbox continues to pile up? Because it’s not digital and it’s breaking through the clutter. So don’t be afraid to ditch digital if it makes sense to do so based on your audience and the message that’s being communicated. Go back to phone calls or snail mail if it’s more likely to get through.

The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and flexibility is the key.

TACTICAL NEXT STEPS

So how do you change your communications culture? Here are some practical suggestions.

First, have a brain-storming session to build out your communications tools. You probably have more creative options than you think, but the concept has never been fully explored.

Second, create a strict policy requiring staff to ask the following four questions of any member communication before the content is produced:

  1. Who does this issue impact the most?
  2. Is the matter time sensitive?
  3. How does this audience like to be communicated with?
  4. What is the goal of the communication?

The answers to these four questions will allow staff to quickly identify a communications method (from your toolkit) that makes sense for the target audience based on the urgency of the issue and the goal of the communication. For example, if the matter is not urgent and the target audience is senior leadership – a personalized letter with a handwritten note from the CEO on top is likely to get their attention. Conversely, if the matter is urgent and the target audience is mid-level managers in HR, a quick hit email with a 20 word impact statement could be sent, coupled with a top-line heading like “Government Approves Two Year Maternity Leave” pushed through on member’s mobile devices. The critical piece here is that the vehicle and target audience must be determined first so that the text can be appropriately pointed. This will ensure that the message is targeted, directly relevant and succinctly presented.

Finally, don’t let yourself get bogged down with process. An easy first step is to create a Quick Response Team (QRT) with 2-3 staff who can connect for a quick call when an issue that needs communicating arises. It does not take long to identify the goal and target audience and to select an appropriate vehicle from your communications arsenal. From there, your content experts can start drafting suitable text and you will be off to the races.
Remember to have fun with this! Creating a strict process and adhering to it is serious, but you can have fun and be creative with your language, images, videos and headlines as you seek to grab your members’ attention.

Finally, the principals laid out in this article are foundationally about creating a personalized, positive member experience – and this should be a shared responsibility. Whether you are communicating about a government relations issue or answering a member question on the phone, everyone has a role to play in building a culture of excellent member communications.
Here are your key takeaways:

  1. You are a fierce competitor for your member’s time – proceed accordingly.
  2. If you have something to say, focus on the impact (rather than details) and say it briefly using plain language.
  3. Use a creative communications method that makes sense for the intended audience and the desired outcome.
  4. Have fun!