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Going beyond marketing, media and communications

SmartBrief’s Kelly Bragg and Sara Brigagliano detail four takeaways from the recent ASAE’s Marketing Membership and Communications Conference: creativity, experimentation, inclusivity and grace.

7 min read

Marketing Strategy

Going beyond marketing, media and communications


The “new normal” has become a cliche. It is natural, after the turbulent year of 2020, for people and businesses to want to be able to finally classify the new state we are in. And while it is a fine phrase to use in casual conversation, it doesn’t adequately define a vision for your staff or your members.

ASAE’s Marketing Membership and Communications Conference took a measured approach to aiding association leaders in developing a plan and clearer vision for what their “new normal” may look like. The thoughtfully crafted virtual experience walked leaders through a variety of sessions, which, despite their topic matter, culminated in a call to action around how to adapt your organization in the right ways at the right time. We highlight below four key terms and takeaways we found pertinent for the road ahead: creativity, experimentation, inclusivity and grace.

Celebrate creativity

If you’ve ever wondered why you have some of your best ideas while you’re driving or taking a walk or watching television, wonder no more. According to keynote speaker and entrepreneur Allen Gannett, that’s just how the majority of our brains work. If you let your mind wander, the good ideas will follow. The second part of his theory is that, in order for your brain to make those connections, you need to consume content aggressively.

In John Baldoni’s article, “Inspiration: One song title at a time,” he confirms this theory through the analysis of two songwriters. Baldoni writes, “Counting on inspiration to strike, however, is not a good strategy. You need to put yourself in the path of ideas so that you will be ready when an actionable thought occurs.”

The best thinkers and creative problem-solvers study their fields and topics of study constantly, and when their minds are allowed to wander, their brains make creative connections. Besides serving as a quick way to stay informed, we at SmartBrief value the role we are able to serve in the front of the content funnel to fuel creativity.

Creative solutions were a key factor in surviving, and even thriving, in such a chaotic year. Creative thinking led to a number of valuable discoveries for association advocacy, in particular, virtual efforts that proved to be efficient and effective, with advocates being able to dial in and connect with the right people without having to fly in from all over the country. And as the panel for the Learning Lab “Issue Advocacy After COVID-19: The Future of Advocacy for Associations” emphasized, we would be remiss if we went back to the way things were before, now that so many creative solutions are in place.

Encourage experimentation

Developing creative ideas and solutions are tasks within their own right, but creativity does nothing without being acted on and iterated. Experimentation and ultimately iteration are not new to leaders in marketing, tech or other constantly evolving spaces. In a Think with Google piece, “The Power of Business Experimentation,” Roberto Croci points out that “leading marketers in the US are more than 2X likely than their mainstream counterparts to use site experimentation and strategic experiments.” Despite this well-known business strategy, numerous roadblocks prevented many organizations from being willing to experiment on core deliverables until the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything on its head.

In the Learning Lab, “Creating Member Value: Give a Little to Get a Lot,” a panel of association leaders shared examples of testing new tactics around free offerings during a time of intense economic strain for many companies. Kinsey Fabrizio, vice president of membership for the Consumer Technology Association, discussed how CTA experimented by doing free virtual networking events and webinars for members and nonmembers during the beginning of the pandemic. CTA also created a digital health directory that allowed member and nonmember companies to be listed. After evaluation and analysis, Fabrizio noted that the directory was resource-heavy for CTA to produce and didn’t garner a wide response. On the flip side, extending the invitation to smaller virtual events was a relatively light lift and something the organization will continue to do. Many of our other partners at SmartBrief regularly incorporate such changes to increase engagement, such as experimenting with changing section headers to see how their audience engages with and reacts to new focus areas.

Invest in inclusivity

A willingness to try new things is not simply a mindset for member strategy — it remains pertinent for executives, particularly regarding inclusion. In the Learning Lab, “When Members Call for Truth and Reconciliation: Being an Inclusive Organization,” the first call to action was for executives to prioritize inclusion. The speaker, Dr. Sheri Sesay-Tuffour, CEO of Pediatric Nursing Certification Board, noted that executives are now expected to create tangible positive effects on issues such as systemic racism. Given the expansive resources ASAE and other association partners have developed in the diversity, equity and inclusion space, this is one area where you don’t have to be creative to make an impact.

If your organization is at the beginning of this road or at a plateau, then a good place to start is ASAE’s Association Inclusion Index. This online diagnostic tool was developed to help member organizations measure and improve their diversity and inclusion policies, philosophies and practices.

Along with taking proactive steps to embed an emphasis on DEI in an organization’s strategy, executives must also address existing issues that prevent their organizations from being inclusive. In the Learning Lab, “Missteps with Microaggressions in Membership Development,” Mariama Boney walked participants through damaging forms of microaggressions and explored how creativity and connection can create a more productive space for everyone. Boney also encouraged executives to take charge in the push toward inclusion by quoting Dr. Brene Brown: “Daring leaders live their values and are never silent about hard things.”

Give grace

Working at home for over a year has gone a long way to humanize everyone and offered an opportunity to show grace to each other. We have had the opportunity to know our partners, coworkers, prospects and association members on a personal level. We have laughed when pets interrupted meetings and greeted kids who popped into the frame, and we have been patient and kind when there were technical difficulties. Those interruptions happen to everyone, even bosses, CEOs and lawmakers. Grace and understanding are crucial for all of us, including those in charge of association membership. The Learning Lab “Converting Members from a ‘One-and-Done’ Mindset to Long-Term Allegiance,” emphasized the importance of understanding the people who make up the membership of all associations, large and small. In a year when people craved stability and belonging more than ever before, it was vital for associations to maintain personal connections to old and new members, and provide resources that genuinely helped membership.

The panel argued that associations need to understand the reason a person joined the organization before they can make a strategic plan to keep them engaged. Then, in “Missteps with Microaggressions,” Mariama Boney encouraged association member development staff to keep socioeconomic factors in mind when setting dues and fees for members and to show grace toward those who may not be able to afford the full amount, especially amid a pandemic.

The MM&C conference did not provide attendees with the answer for all of industries’ “what ifs,” but it offered the tools and tactics to apply to the ever-changing “new normal.” With Learning Labs focused on diversity in the workplace, the future of advocacy, membership challenges and crisis communications, the virtual conference served as an excellent refresher for tried-and-true strategies and an introduction to strategies organizations had to develop on the fly because of the pandemic. SmartBrief, meanwhile, has valued the opportunity to serve as a constant that can continue to aid the evolution of associations.


To learn more about how a SmartBrief publication can fit your association’s communications strategy, check out our Strategic Partnerships Media Kit.

Kelly Bragg and Sara Brigagliano are members of the Partner Development team and manage SmartBrief’s publishing partnerships with leading associations. Connect with Kelly or Sara on LinkedIn.