There is no shortage of social media best practices advice available in the business and marketing literature, but very little research has been conducted on the role of social media in attracting and retaining members of professional associations. Marketing and social media organizations aimed at assisting nonprofits and professional associations frequently publish benchmark reports on how nonprofits and professional associations are using social media, but these reports are either available only to members or do not focus on social media’s effectiveness. In other words, professional associations like ALCTS must rely on the best practices from the business and marketing fields, as that seems to be where the research is occurring. One will note that the research coming from the library field has been intentionally omitted here, as the patron-library relationship differs significantly from the member-association relationship, which more closely resembles the customer-business relationship.
A search of the scholarly literature and trade sources reveals three major themes that apply to ALCTS’ pursuit of new members through the use of social media:
Listen to your members, go where they are, and engage with them there
It may come as no surprise that using social media as a bullhorn for announcements does less to drive engagement and interest in an organization than using social media as a way for an organization to genuinely listen to and engage with its membership. In their 2013 Membership Marketing Benchmark Report, a survey of professional associations, Marketing General Incorporated found that one of the top three reasons why association members fail to renew their membership is a “lack of engagement with the organization” (7). To drive engagement, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (n.d) recommends that organizations first “[spend] some time upfront listening and observing what is being talked about and how it is being talked about” so that they might learn what social media channels their audience uses and where the organization should invest its energy (n.p.). In an interview with Stanchak (2011), social media strategist Maddie Grant agrees:
The way for associations to grow their membership is to have a thriving open community around them where stakeholders (members and non-members, who care about what they care about) are able and willing to share the love with their individual networks. In order to do that, they need to be fully part of that community; they need to be present in the obvious outposts where their members are. (n.p).
In the business world, researchers Moran and Gossieaux (2010) identified this “go where your users are” strategy as one of the four best practices of effective social media marketing. They observe that, “In a networked world, there is little opportunity for marketers to control the channel and, indeed, the best that can often be achieved is finding and engaging with the networks that matter most” to those they hope to reach (238).
Create value by producing and sharing content and connections that members cannot get elsewhere
Organizations like ALA and ALCTS have traditionally added value to their members’ lives by providing them access to advocacy, continuing education, networking, expertise, and publications not available anywhere else. Indeed, the Membership Marketing Benchmark Report (2013) says that “access to specialized/current information” and “learning best practices in their profession” rank among the top three reasons why members join associations (7). If marketed correctly, these member benefits can be a significant draw for new members. Rather than just pushing out links to the latest publication or conference registration site, however, author and social media blogger Schaffer (2012) says that organizations should consider strategically summarizing members-only content on public-facing platforms such as blogs “to showcase your leadership within your industry and encourage others to join” (n.p.). This kind of free sharing gives even non-members a chance to react to the organization’s niche content and strengthens the association’s position as the leader in their particular industry (Stanchak, 2011, n.p.). Moran and Gossieaux (2010) say that it should appear to everyone–including both members and nonmembers–that the organization “sponsoring the community is there to help the tribe–not be helped” (238).
Assemble and empower a team to manage all social interaction for the organization
The third theme that emerged from the literature was nearly unanimous: organizations should assign the responsibility of social media outreach to one person or a small team of people. Reporting on a study of 33 marketers engaged in maintaining brand-related online communities, Farb (2011) says that “extremely healthy communities” had “at least one dedicated community manager” (12). Maddie Grant says that “regardless of whether an individual is hired to [manage an organization’s online interactions] full time or the efforts are shared by a team of people internally, there’s a lot of administration involved” (Stanchak, 2011, n.p.). Once such a team of social media managers has been identified, the Association Forum of Chicagoland (2012) says that this team should “define and manage a social media policy consistent with the guidance of the governing body and the mission, goals, audiences and strategies of the association” (n.p.) Other organizations with functions similar to ALCTS, such as the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), have created effective social media policies.