The Correlation of Social Media Usage and Membership Growth

As I dive into the data from our 2010 Membership Benchmarking Survey, I am discovering some very interesting outcomes. I will be sharing some of them on this blog, but of course the full report will go to the 405 associations who participated in the research.

The power of any survey data is not in the answers themselves, but in the cross tabulations. Looking at one answer compared to another. Today I took a look at official usage of social media by associations cross tabulated with associations reporting either membership growth or decline.

The crosstabs highlight patterns or correlations that can aide an organization in making decisions. However, please remember that a correlation is not a prediction. Because organizations doing one activity display higher growth rates than those that do another does not mean that replicating that one behavior will result in growth.

There is a lot to discuss in today’s data. Here are a few comments.  First of all, there has been an explosion of the use of social media in associations. Only 8% of associations participating in the survey said that they do not officially use any social media tools.

The most popular social media application used by associations is Facebook with over 75% of associations reporting that they officially use it as an organization.

On the other hand, only 17% of associations reported that they have a “private association social network”. And those organizations who have a private social network are 28% more likely to report growth in membership compared to the average association. While groups that use LinkedIn are 13% more likely to report a decline in membership numbers.

Here is a chart that takes a look at the top responses from the survey.

I would appreciate your theories on what this data may be saying about social media and how it can impact an association. Feel free to post your thoughts.


Slade said...

Most memberships and associations are based around community. Good social networks are all about connecting with community.

So if an association uses a community tool to better connect with members then the strong positive correlation is no surprise.

Slade Sherman

Deirdre Reid said...

The critical factor here is how these associations are using social media. Having a LinkedIn group (or Facebook page or Twitter account) that is moderated daily, fed with fresh content with efforts made to nurture conversation and community is very different than just throwing it up and walking away, which is what many associations do. The level of engagement matters and it would be interesting to see how that affects these membership rates.

Carrie McIntyre said...

Deirdre makes a very good point. I'd also like to better understand how you correlated membership growth or decline to one particular platform and whether respondents could choose multiple social media outlets in their response. I'm an English major, so forgive me if this is a silly question... but, for example, if an association uses Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and a blog, what would the correlating membership growth look like?

Tony Rossell said...

Thanks everyone for your insights and comments. I think that the use of social media in associations is one of the most talked about and important topics in association management.

Just to be sure that there is no misunderstanding for other readers of this blog, I want to emphasize that in any survey results in the benchmarking study, I am not claiming that any one behavior in and of itself causes membership growth or decline or better or worse renewal rates. There are literally thousands of variables that impact these outcomes.

However, if as a marketer I see that organizations with certain behaviors or practices tend to be doing better, I at least want to explore the issue and see if there is something that I can apply to my organization.

Please keep this in mind when you look at the data that I will be presenting.

Later today, I will add some additional thoughts on some of my hypotheses on what we may see reflected in some of these numbers related to membership and social media.

Tony Rossell said...

I wanted to follow up my post and the subsequent comments with a theory that I have related to social media and associations. Your comments are welcome.

As you will note from the chart on this post, associations that officially have an association LinkedIn site also are less likely to have a growing membership than groups on average.

Here is what I am wondering, ASAE’s in depth research published as The Decision to Join reported that the number one reason members join an association is for networking. Now if a prospective member can join an open LinkedIn group with its exceptionally intuitive and useful tools, will they choose this as their avenue to network instead of the association?

On the other hand, the data shows that associations who provided a private network were more likely to experience a growing membership. In many cases, this private network would require membership or at least registration with the association.

My theory is that groups who freely supply the services like content and networking that members desire through third party social networks and do not build their own database and knowledge of members may be at risk of prospects using the free services, but not seeing the need to pay for membership.

Am I missing something or does this make sense?

Maggie McGary said...

I definitely think there's a correlation between offering members a way to connect online in easy, meaningful ways and an increase in membership. I could see how having an open group on Linkedin might satisfy some people's need to connect and may keep them from joining--if their primary membership need would be connecting online. I think, though, that the answer isn't necessarily going to a white label social network and steering clear of public social networks.

Like Deirdre said, having outposts like Twitter and Facebook and populating them daily with great content that leads people back to your website is a great way to draw people to your site who haven't been before and to foster new members and even steer students towards careers in the field your association represents. Facebook has become one of the top traffic sources to our website.

Having a Linkedin group that's limited to members actually can attract new members--or at the very least give you a list of prospects who expressed interest in joining the Linkedin group so they're obviously interested in connecting online with other members.

Especially now that Facebook is creeping into (potentially) every website out there, I think that steering clear of it in lieu of a white label network isn't a great idea. I think even if you have a white label network, Facebook offers a great way to foster awareness of your association to non-members, thereby potentially increasing membership over time. It also offers unique opportunities such as targeting ads to fans (or I guess we have to call them likers now?) so there's an opportunity to market to non-members who may be interested in your association's products and/or services even if they're not candidates for membership.

Tony Rossell said...

Maggie -- I really appreciate your comments. They have a lot of merit. I do believe that Facebook could function as a channel to draw potential members into a relationship with an association if it is properly managed. Any tool can be used in a productive way or in a non-productive way. So I think that a key piece here is moving people into an opt-in relationship with the association and then cultivating the relationship. The balancing act is how much you give away before the opt-in or actual membership is confirmed. Tony

HarryT said...

I am not at all surprised at the facebook and twitter #'s but what blew me away was the double digit drop off in LinkedIn? I do not understand that. My experience is showing that LinkedIn is just starting to take off for many associations so i am curious why the big drop?

Also was surprised in the growth of Private social Networks. Not something I've ever really explored but will have to look at more closely from now on.

Tony Rossell said...

Harry -- I took another look at the data now that I have final results. Associations that officially use a LinkedIn site still are more likely to have a decline in membership than the average association. But please remember, no one can say that this relationship caused the decline. However, for my association clients that use LinkedIn, I do caution them to be sure that this "free" service is not replacing the important functions provided by the organization. Tony

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting post. Here's my question: do any case studies exist about associations using social media to gain or retain members? I've found a few general studies and stats, but no specific examples. It would be great to read a successful case study. Thanks in advance for any help.

Tony Rossell said...

I think that you have asked one of the fundemental questions that has asked by membership marketers. I am not aware of a study connecting the two, but if one of the blog readers can comment that would be great. The leading associations that I talk to are really still in the experimental stages of social media and using it as a source for new members. You may want to take at my July 12th post on establishing a social media strategy and our benchmarking report has a couple of findings related to social media and membership. Hope this helps. Tony

Waco said...

I'd be curious to see a comparison of the social networking investment (both in hard dollar terms and man hours) between the white label and the Linkedin groups.

I'm wondering if it might be a level of prioritization and investment in social networking rather than the choice of channel that accounts for the difference?

As you note, the correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation, and it may simply be that the "good" organizations that are growing membership are more likely to have white label networks, but that having the network in and of itself doesn't necessarily provide significant lift...

Either way, interesting stats. Thanks!

Tony Rossell said...

Waco -- I appreciate your hypothesis. It is an interesting way to look at the data. There is a proverb that says "where your treasure is there your heart will be also." So, yes it is possible that people have invested time and money in their private network and because of that they think it is the best. Tony

Waco said...

Hi Tony. I guess I wasn't very clear in my first comment. I didn't mean that those that have invested in white label think it's best (though presumably they would otherwise they wouldn't invest in it).

The thing that I was wondering was is the effect tied to channel or level of investment?

If you assume that a white label network is a larger investment than a Linkedin group and that those making larger social media investments are more likely to see growth, then it follows that those with white label networks (larger investments) are more likely to see growth.

If you ignore the social network type (white label vs. Linkedin) and instead look at just the effort and dollars invested, would the high investment be more likely to yield growth regardless of channel?

Is the effect based on channel choice or the size and effectiveness of the social media campaigns? Or both?

There may not be an answer in the data, but it is the question that popped into my head when I read this.

Thanks! I've enjoyed you blog and reports.

Tony Rossell said...

Thanks for the clarification. You are asking very good questions. I cannot argue with your logic. However, I continue to express concern to my clients that have open LinkedIn sites on whether or not they are sharing for free the important networking function that the association has traditionally made available to paid members. My preferences would be to either have a program in place that would follow up with prospective members who join the LinkedIn site and encourage them to join or to only allow members to participate in the association's LinkedIn site. I base the recommendation more on experience than on the survey data because I agree that we cannot prove any causality from the survey. Tony