The Vanguard View: Insight for Association Websites

Your Association IS a Business. And the Website is Your Store.

Posted by Ray van Hilst on Tue, Mar 01, 2011


When doing my web strategy work, I am constantly reminded of an association CEO who tells anyone listening that today’s association CEOs/Executive Directors need to think like for-profit business leaders.  That mantra was recently reinforced by a client commenting on the fact that their association sells just as many products to non-members as to members.

Where yesterday’s association model favored networking, governance and nurturing board members, today’s associations must take industry knowledge and turn that into promotable, profitable products.  The industry is seeing more organizations where the revenue model is flipped from being mainly dues driven to mainly products driven.

And yet, many association websites aren’t set-up for this shift.

The good news is that with modern web content management systems and rapid deployment tools, more and more associations are taking a fresh look at their web presence.  This presents a prime opportunity to do more than a redesign with a cosmetic facelift and to reexamine your association's online business model.

Here are some questions to ask and items to consider:

What are your association's most popular and profitable products?

You probably know which products/services bring in the most revenue (just look in your budget).  But do you know which ones are the most profitable?  Take a look at more than the cost of goods sold (typically your printing and production costs) but also the resources required to produce it.   These are the products that need more and better promotion.

Do you have a way to easily and prominently promote this product on your association website?

Many sites focus on pushing the most recent press release, report, study or content to the homepage. But does your site allow you to quickly promote a specific product/service offering?  Or the ability to swap it out as new ones become available?

Also, simply having a text link in among the myriad of other links on your home page doesn’t count as promotion.  Give it some promotional real estate and make sure it gets noticed.

Do you have a unique place for this product to live on your site?

The easy path is to add your new product into the e-Commerce system (typically part of the association management software) and hope shoppers will find it.  However if you have a unique, profitable product it is worth creating an individual web presence for it, just as many associations do for their annual conferences.

Add some copy describing your product.  Offer a free download of a chapter from a report. Just do something that makes the customer take a closer look and move further along in their purchase decision process.

Can Google find this great product?

While Google's new algorithms are the big buzz now, the reality is your hot product/service is probably competing with a for-profit version.  You can bet that the for-product company has built a search engine optimized page for their stuff and so should you.  Determine what keywords and search phrases potential customers would use to find your product (it’s OK to look at that for-profit site) and make sure that those words are in your copy.  Then as you are promoting it, make sure you are linking to that page you are just built using links that have those words in them.

How easy is it to buy through your association's e-Commerce system?

Here’s where the integration between front end and back-end comes into play.  Of course, you have different pricing for members and non-members.  But how many steps are you going to make each one go through?  For your members there should be a quick login and easy can check out.  For non-members, don’t make them fill out a long form that asks every question under the sun. Get just the information you need (but don’t forget to get an e-mail or contact information so you can follow up) and let them close the sale.

Too often, products such as reports and seminars are created without thinking about how to promote them.  Associations rely on knowledge experts to create the valuable content that keeps members and prospects involved, yet they don’t think through the marketing, promotion and sales process.

As business model shifts and associations leverage the power of their websites, this presents a perfect opportunity to rethink the process and make sure the web’s storefront is working as hard for the association as they thought leaders are who are creating great content and products.

Ray van Hilst is Director of Client Strategy and Marketing at Vanguard Technology. Connect with him @rvanhilst or rvanhilst at

Topics: web strategy, association management software, Ray van Hilst, association e-commerce, association website design, CMS, Websites

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