Benchmarking Digital Marketing: Where Associations are Spending, Hitting and Missing


The world continues to move digital. This trend is supported by the fact that, for the first time ever, digital ad spending in the United States will exceed traditional ad spending in 2019. Associations and membership organizations are playing a role in this shift. According to MultiView’s 2019 Association Digital Marketing Trends Report, six in 10 organizations currently spend more on digital marketing efforts than traditional print, with 19% claiming they spend “considerably more” on digital. Furthermore, one-fifth of associations said they plan to increase the amount they spend on digital marketing activities.

Unsurprisingly, 60% of organizations placed member recruitment as their primary goal for marketing, followed by member retention (18%) and brand awareness (11%). Lagging in the priority queue were increasing trade show attendance, increase web traffic and promotion of continuing education.
So how are membership organizations leveraging digital marketing to reach these objectives? The Association Digital Marketing Trends Report waded into the pool of data to uncover some benchmarks for preferred vehicles and tactics specific to membership organizations, providing insight into common industry practices and potentially uncovering opportunities to improve communications efforts.

Digital Channels: Where Associations are Investing

survey1It probably goes without saying that the primary digital channel for association marketing is the organization’s website. Just shy of 100% of associations said they currently use a website, with 83% saying they planned to continue investing in it.

Demonstrating its continued influence, social media ranked second among responses, with 91% of organizations using social platforms and seven in 10 indicating they’ll continue investing in social channels. Closely behind social was the trusty email marketing, with 84% identifying it as a used channel.

There was a notable gap in those top three channels compared to the remaining vehicles associations are using to market. Content marketing and paid social both earned 30%, while SEO (search engine optimization) and programmatic lagged at 22% and 11%, respectively. Barely on the radar at just 1% was pay-per-click SEM (search engine marketing).

When compared to how effective associations consider these tactics, it largely lines up with their investing strategy. Website, social and email marketing again ranked as the top three, followed by content marketing. However, deeper analysis of the effectiveness responses reveals a pair of tactics that may not be getting the attention they deserve.


Only one in three respondents said they use content marketing, but it rated as highly effective overall, with 61% labeling it quite, very or extremely effective. Given its relative success for organizations, these results indicate more associations should investigate content marketing as a tactic.

Meanwhile, only 11% of associations said they use programmatic marketing, yet a quarter rate it extremely or very effective. Limiting the use of programmatic appears to be a lack of understanding. Only 4% of respondents claimed to have high confidence in their understanding of programmatic advertising. At the other end of the spectrum, 73% admitted to low or no confidence in understanding it. This also probably helps explain why 22% said they have no plans to implement programmatic while another 36% said they didn’t know if they would. This suggests that a better understanding of how programmatic works could help associations take advantage of it.

Roadblocks to Digital Marketing Success

You’ve surely heard the old saying that nothing worth doing is easy. And while digital aspects of our lives have indeed simplified some things, marketing doesn’t necessarily become easier because it’s digital. Associations face multiple challenges when it comes to digital marketing, the most notable being lack of budget. Only 12% of associations said budget was “not very” or “not at all” a limiting factor to success in the organization’s digital marketing efforts. Conversely, lack of budget was the most cited factor as being “extremely” limiting to digital marketing success (46%), followed closely by “lack of time/resources.”

It makes sense that lack of time and resources would play a role in limiting marketing efforts when you consider that 92% of associations said they have three or fewer employees focused on these efforts. Just under half of organizations had only a single person focused on digital marketing. Some of this is likely directly linked to budget, of course. Three-quarters of the organizations surveyed indicated their digital marketing budget in 2018 was $10,000 or less. Only 10% had a budget exceeding $25,000.

A quarter of associations have begun outsourcing at least a portion of their digital marketing, while 73% keep the duties in-house. Only a small fraction outsource all digital marketing efforts. Outsourcing at least a portion of digital marketing should probably be considered by more associations, based on the data that 64% of organizations said “lack of knowledge” was quite, very or extremely limiting to the success of digital marketing.

Digital marketing does represent some changes to the old way of doing things, and for the uninitiated it can be a confusing and overwhelming exploration. But given the trend that marketing is increasingly moving toward digital, a lack of institutional knowledge about the field will hamper those associations unwilling to dedicate more resources, be those in-house or outsourced, to making digital marketing work for them.

For full results from MultiView’s 2019 Association Digital Marketing Trends, download the report here.

MultiView Executive Colby Horton

Colby Horton

Executive Vice President of Marketing/Publishing

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