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How a Brand System Accelerates the Impact of Your Member-Driven Organization

To build a strong emotional connection with your audience, you need a comprehensive resource that enables you to create a meaningful and cohesive narrative over time. More than a recipe outlining color and text options, you need the support of a robust and sophisticated brand system.

With a brand system, you gain a toolbox that’s built to ensure your organization speaks to its audiences in a way that saves both time and money. Rather than starting from scratch with each new marketing project, a brand system gives your organization a head start.

Understanding the Benefits of a Brand System

The details that constitute how your brand looks are typically outlined in a logo guide or brand guidelines. These documents perform the vital work of ensuring the visual elements of your brand remain consistent across every platform.

By contrast, a brand system provides a more comprehensive framework. It encompasses who you are and how to verbally and visually communicate that to your audiences. This covers not only colors and typography, but also your brand’s tone of voice, messaging, values, and more. 

A strong brand system informs nearly every aspect of your organization. Plus, it ensures each department has the tools to deliver messaging that’s consistent, clear, and scalable in a way that resonates with your audience.

Core Elements of an Effective Brand System

When you work with the right agency, you gain a partner to help define and articulate your values, audience, and what you do for members. These elements form the building blocks of a strong brand system.

A brand system hinges on four elements:

  • Purpose: Your vision, values, and mission. Who are you? Why do you exist?
  • Audience: Who are you serving? What specific population are you appealing to?
  • Messaging: How do you communicate with your target audience?
  • Visuals: What are the visual tools to tell your story?

How Brand Systems Accelerate Marketing Initiatives

Once your brand system is established, your organization gains a vital resource to use over and over for any aspect of your marketing. Plus, you gain a valuable ally that resolves common problems plaguing organizations needing to connect with a new generation of members.

Fundamentally, a brand system’s greatest value is its ability to deliver a head start for your team, making your marketing faster and more effective. Imagine you’re a professional cyclist, but every time you prepare for a race, you have to rebuild your bicycle from scratch. Then, once you’ve assembled everything you need, you can jump on and start the race. If you have everything you need for your bicycle already in place, you start racing that much faster.

With a brand system, your team starts marketing projects with everyone working from a common truth. You know who you’re talking to and your organization’s role. By starting each project from that baseline, your marketing team doesn’t waste time rebuilding what defines your brand. Instead, you’re free to put your energy into creating more impact and value for members.

Core Benefits of a Brand System for Member-Driven Organizations

For member-driven organizations, a well-defined brand system provides the following benefits:

Unified Identity: Organizations are made up of members with diverse backgrounds and varying interests. A strong brand system helps unify your members with a shared identity, values, and messaging. With an established brand system, you create a common thread that binds members together. 

Credibility: A brand system that is well executed over time enhances your organization’s credibility to new and future members and prospective sponsors. A consistent presentation shows that your organization takes its mission seriously and is dedicated to effectively representing its members.

Advocacy, Influence, and Public Perception: A brand system enables your organization to shape how it is perceived by the public, including policymakers, industry leaders, and potential members. Your ability to create a positive impression to a general audience impacts your association’s effectiveness and reach. A unified visual and messaging identity establishes trust with stakeholders and enhances your ability to rally members around your cause.

Member Engagement: A well-developed brand that resonates with members gives them something to be loyal to and rally around. It can create a sense of belonging among the association’s members.

Partnerships and Sponsorships: Events and marketing materials presented from a strong brand system attract potential partners and sponsors that are aligned with your organization’s values. 

Event Promotion: Events, webinars, and conferences provide a valuable lifeline between your organization and its members. A brand system ensures all content associated with these events retains a consistent look and feel to reinforce your overall organization’s identity and message.

Strategic Foundation: As your organization evolves, a brand system provides a strategic foundation. For example, should your organization grow excited about a new idea like a video campaign on social media, you can bring every detail back to your brand’s core character, tone, and central messaging. Does the project reinforce these details? When you tie every initiative to the same strategic foundation, the results are much stronger.

The Bigger Picture of a Brand System

When comparing logo guidelines versus brand guidelines and brand systems, it’s easy to linger on the details. Ultimately, a brand system doesn’t need to document a specific number of elements to give your marketing an advantage. Your goal is to create a comprehensive resource that empowers your organization to connect with its audience in an impactful way.

At the same time, a brand system enables your teams to act from a place of complete understanding of your organization’s identity, as well as who it serves and why it exists. A brand system is a tangible resource. But it’s only powerful when consistently leveraged.

It’s important to ensure your team is aligned and understands how your brand system makes their lives easier and simplifies solutions to organizational challenges. With a brand system in place, your organization gains an ongoing checkpoint for everything it does.

Each element of your website needs to work hard to tell your story

Before any new, current, or prospective member connects with your association, their experience with your website provides a powerful first impression.

Everything on your website builds towards the perception of your organization. Along with delivering information about who you are and what you do, your website presents a standard for how you operate and engage with members.

A strong website simplifies your marketing by creating a compelling narrative. Alternatively, a weak, outdated, or cumbersome website delivers one of two messages. You either don’t care about your members, or you don’t have the resources to serve them. Both are damaging to your association.

Your website is typically the first point of contact for your members and sets the standard for every interaction with them going forward. When you want your relationship to start off right, you need to focus on your association’s messaging.

Messaging Tells the Story of Your Association

Everything your site says—and, just as importantly, what it doesn’t say—adds up to tell your brand’s story. Along with expressing the details of your association’s identity, messaging communicates your value to members.

However, you need a specific approach to write for digital channels like your website. Digital audiences are pressed for time and often prone to distraction. So you have to tell your association’s story in layers, starting with short digestible bits and working up to longer more robust content.

Initially, users will rely on the most prominent text to look for what they need. Headlines, subheads, pull quotes, captions, and small blurbs provide primary entry points into your brand’s story. If your messaging captures user interest, they will dig in and engage with deeper content and pages. 

3 Tools to Create Successful Messaging for Associations

Associations working to tell their brand’s story often apply a linear approach to website messaging. You start the story from the beginning with your homepage, and it then progresses through various landing pages and articles to create a narrative for members.

However, navigating a website is a  non-linear experience. Given the role search engines, social media, and email play in driving web traffic, we often see 60% or more of the website visitors enter via a page other than the homepage. Consequently, your messaging needs to be created in a way that can be consumed in smaller chunks that add up to a greater story as members engage across your site.

Effective messaging incorporates 3 tools:

Content: Each Element Must Confirm Your Brand Identity

The content your website prioritizes tells as much of a story as what’s written on the page. While your content needs to support your brand’s story, you need to be selective. Bringing too much content to the surface can overwhelm users and make your association appear unfocused.

Ensuring your site’s content is written to clearly communicate your brand’s story is obviously crucial. But just as important is how your content priorities support your association’s narrative.

Imagine your association’s mission is to provide advocacy, education, and networking for members. You can’t just say that your organization provides value in these areas, you need to prove it. For example, if your association promises a strong education program, your site should prioritize content like a  robust resource library. Those resources sould be teased in multiple instances throughout your website. You can take a similar approach to your networking value by emphasizing your job board or events. Prioritizing content that proves your value is far more impactful to users than marketing statements. 

Navigation: Express What’s Most Important to Your Brand

The topic areas highlighted on your website navigation do more than provide a set of links. They’re often the first words a user sees — the first impression of a first impression, if you like.

What you include in your site navigation (and in what order) tells current and prospective members what’s most important to your association. If “Resources” is your first navigation item, then users are meant to believe education and knowledge is your top priority. Conversely, “About” as the first item underscores that your organization itself is most important.

Navigation is another area of site messaging where less is more. A useful guideline is to limit your main navigation to between four and six items. That way, members can quickly identify what’s most important to your association and self-select where to dig deeper.

Your site’s navigation doesn’t just support your messaging to members; it also communicates with search engines. The topics you place in the navigation tell Google’s algorithm what’s important  and will impact your rankings. Your association must choose its navigation items wisely.

Design: Unify Your Association’s Messaging

Your website’s design is an essential tool for bringing every element of your association’s messaging together. A design that reinforces and extends your brand’s story builds trust and engagement among users. However, if your overall design is disconnected from your identity, it can undermine all your efforts in creating consistent messaging.

A well-designed website offers users the immediate impression that they’ve come to the right place. For example, the website design for the Project Management Institute (PMI)’s membership page brings relevant information to the surface in a way that’s clear, organized, and compelling to prospective members.

Your design enhances your association’s story in the following four ways:

1. Color

Color is a powerful tool to set a tone with users. Every color has meaning, and the way you combine and pair colors creates an impression with your users before they read a single word. If your brand has a long, storied history, a deep and subdued color palette will underscore that identity. Vibrant, energetic colors express a message of growth, innovation, and creativity. Color can also help you distinguish yourself from a competitor, draw focus to important elements, and much more. 

2. Imagery 

The choices of imagery (photos, illustrations and icons) to support your site are critical. Images and the messages they convey can enhance or detract from the story your design is working to tell. Does your organization tout diversity, but your event photos undermine that message with shots of a homogenous crowd? Are members central to your association’s success, but your photos are anonymous stock images? Your images must support the story of your brand. 

Set aside a separate budget for hiring a professional photographer to help you build a library of photos that represent your members and bring your story and value to life. High-quality, professional, strategic imagery is a total game changer for your website.

3. Fonts

The typefaces you use provide an underlying element to your brand story. Maybe it sounds esoteric, but what your text looks like is a seemingly simple decision that impacts every page on your website. Serif fonts carry a subconscious association with academic publications, research and clinical applications, which may align with your association’s identity. On the other hand, sans serif fonts offer a more progressive, technical, and modern look. 

Think of your font choice as a means of expressing the tone of each word on your website. You’re careful about how you speak to members, so take the time to select a font that communicates with website users in a way that reinforces your brand personality.

4. Visual Elements

Your association website can leverage patterns, textures, video, animation, and other graphic elements to further solidify your positioning and round out the story of your brand. Your association’s story is rich and the value it provides to members is deep — make sure your design team helps tell that story visually. The possibilities are endless, but each element on the page illustrates who you are and adds to the impression your organization leaves on members.

A note of caution: More is not always better. Good design is about choosing the right elements that strategically tell your unique story. One typeface, three colors and some really impactful website copy may be more appropriate to support your narrative than a more expansive solution. (And vice-versa.)

Get the Most Out of Your Investment

Bringing the content, navigation, and design elements of your website into alignment does the hard work of setting a tone and foundational story for your brand to build upon. Now you can do the work you really want to do and build deeper, nuanced and more meaningful stories and connections with your members.

4 Tips for a More Impactful, Modernized Association Event

Events are your most immediate tool for ensuring members remain connected, educated, and inspired. The future of your association depends on its ability to demonstrate value to members. 

Whether your association will host a gala, conference, or convention in the coming year, you ultimately stand at a crossroads. Do you apply the same, tried-and-true approaches to frame this vital connection with your audience? Or would your association and its members be better served by a more contemporary approach?

1. Ditch the Printed Program for Your Conference or Convention

Printed programs have their place. For example, black-tie galas and awards dinners that are more formal experiences benefit from the more upscale tactile experience of a printed program or menu. But how many times have you walked around the ballroom after the first day of your conference to find countless programs left behind?  

For a multi-day event, it’s more convenient to have a digital program. This option is easier for staff because last-minute changes can be made on the fly without the need to reprint anything. Plus, it’s convenient for the members because they can access the information at any time on their phone without having to carry around a printed program.

Today, smartphones are the most common source of information. Your members may forget your event program on a table — but they’ll never be without their phones.

Bonus idea: Place multiple phone charging stations around your conference. They’ll create “water cooler” moments amongst your members. 

Event Apps and Websites Offer Flexibility and Functionality

Annual conferences, summits, and conventions present ideal opportunities to replace printed programs with a digital app or website. Your stakeholders may worry about the missed opportunity to sell ads in your event’s program, but often these ads are grandfathered in as part of an antiquated sponsorship package with your association. By eliminating the printed program and therefore the printed ads, you gain alternative opportunities that often create more value for your sponsors and members. 

Even if your board remains set on a printed program, you can minimize its footprint by combining it with a digital companion piece, where members can read complete speaker bios, program descriptions, or schedule updates. At one time, cryptic QR code badges looked like a joke. Now, their increased adoption enables these codes to provide an efficient way to guide members to more information.

2. In-Person Events Take Priority Over Virtual Alternatives

The pandemic forced every association to rethink its events. Now, with virtual conferences no longer the only option, organizations and their members are understandably excited to meet again in person.

Virtual events still offer benefits. They provide your association with a broader reach and a more accessible experience that also eliminates travel costs. But they require a lot of production to be successful. 

If your organization is staging an in-person event, your team may struggle to present a virtual counterpart at the same time. Instead, consider the aspects of your program that you can offer virtually. For example, keynote addresses or high-profile presentations can be recorded and posted on your website for current and prospective members. Along with granting your event a second life, you build buzz for next year by teasing the value of your event.

3. Digital Signage Amplifies Your Event’s Message

At one time, foam core signs on easels provided the baseline for how your association greeted members at the event venue. Now, flatscreen monitors offer a cost-effective way to modernize your event with signage that’s colorful and flexible. Better still, they don’t wind up in the trash after your event closes.

Many event facilities offer a way for your association to rent large monitors, which you can place on stands around the venue. Through a Wi-Fi link, you can connect these TVs to a laptop and broadcast a branded PowerPoint deck that welcomes your attendees. As your event progresses, you can change what’s displayed on these monitors to reflect the latest updates.

Digital signage doesn’t just offer more flexibility to post schedule changes; they also allow you to draw a closer connection with members. For instance, if you have a mixer on night one, you can use these monitors to display photos from it on day two. Instead of seeing the same static logo, your members begin the next day with a vibrant display of upcoming programming and their fellow attendees having a good time. Plus, the monitors offer the possibility for an additional sponsorship opportunity by incorporating ads into your association’s visual content.

4. Mixing Things Up Is Crucial for Modernized Events

Part of the excitement that comes with staging your association’s event is the ability to change your approach. If you opt against printed programs, you free up your budget to make an impact elsewhere. Or, by rethinking your approach to a printed asset, you can create something different that makes an impression on current and future members. For example, money previously spent on programs could fund elegant, die-cut invitations that point to the caliber of your upcoming event. Or, you could rethink your program to incorporate a show-stopping asset that folds into a poster that elevates its value. After all, if you’re going to print something, you might as well leverage it into something special.

Emerge Summit program folds out to full-size poster
Custom scarves for event swag.
Welcome wall at the Los Angeles Outlook Forum
Branded banners in the Los Angeles Outlook Forum

Your event space is another area rich with opportunities. Working with the right creative team, you can create attention-grabbing activations like large-scale wall graphics that allow you to own the space. Dynamic activations encourage members to interact and engage with your event and join the conversation on social media. 

No matter your association’s industry, events offer a chance to connect with members in a way that’s inspiring and energizing. With a modernized approach, you can strengthen that connection in a way that reflects the past while looking toward the future.

Navigating the Minefield of Opinions to Get Effective Feedback

Whether your association needs a rebrand or a new website, your biggest challenge isn’t always finding the solution to the problem at hand. Instead, it’s clearing the hurdles of final approvals from your stakeholders.

Projects run more smoothly when every stakeholder is involved. That said, demanding schedules may prevent your leadership from attending every meeting. When presenting designs for their review, there’s no worse feeling than watching progress derailed by an ungrounded opinion.

Of course, website design is a mix of art and science. No one can predict with total certainty how users will respond to a site’s appearance or how it functions. However, for a successful project, any opinion guiding a design’s direction should be supported by strategy and facts rather than personal preferences. After circulating a project for feedback with your launch date on the line, it may be tempting to respond with “Take your left-field opinion and shove it.” Of course, you wouldn’t say that. Our goal today is to avoid experiencing that frustration.

But setting opinions aside doesn’t mean your organization can’t have a website you or your leadership team love. In fact, your preferences are essential — when the time is right. But to secure a design that works, you must put strategy first.

Opinions Lead Organizations Astray from Rebranding Goals

Taking a strategic approach to your project means the design is built on a foundation of research and proven data about your association and its members. Crafting a design based on your preferences or those of your board is a risky use of your budget. Personal opinions are not only subjective, they’re much more volatile.

Past experience or even someone’s mood that day can inform their preferences. For example, a client we worked with rejected a design option because the colors resembled the rival school where they went to college. These kinds of opinions have nothing to do with the problem you’re trying to solve for your brand.

No matter how much your CEO trusts their personal taste, you can’t allow those impulses to guide your project’s decisions. You’re working to create a tool that will strengthen your association’s bond with its current members while also appealing to the next generation. Designing to connect with those specific audiences requires more than opinions and gut feelings to be successful.

For example, even though your association is targeting Gen Z with a digital project, your stakeholder feedback comes from your board. Everyone on your leadership team is highly intelligent and well-intended, but their preferences may have little relevant connection with the experiences of a 30-something, digitally savvy, and diverse population. You must provide them with the right context for the project and its goals so they can deliver a thoughtful evaluation. Otherwise, they will naturally fall back on offering personal opinions.

Strategy Takes the Lead on Successful Redesign Projects

Every marketing and communications executive knows that most successful projects start by following a strategic framework. No matter whether you’re planning a single digital campaign or a full rebranding for your association, your project has to start with creating a strategy document. The key to success is ensuring this document is well-founded and utilized throughout the entire project, by your agency and your team.

A strategy document is a tool built during a project’s discovery process that creates a guide for every decision to follow. At the beginning, you and your agency partner should work together and define the challenges your project needs to solve and other key details. 

If success is solely defined as creating a design that pleases your boss, then your project is in danger of starting on the wrong foot. You have to prioritize fulfilling your association’s objectives over satisfying one individual’s opinion.

Research Forms the Foundation of Any Strategy Document

Depending on the size of your project, you can apply multiple forms of research to create a strategy document. For example, site analytics data such as visitor traffic, session lengths, and user information allow you and your agency to build a baseline of quantitative data. As discovery moves forward, interviews with your internal teams and user surveys are among the ways to get qualitative insights. 

In the end, your strategy document reveals at least three defining attributes of your project:

  • Audience: Your target users and their needs.
  • Messaging: How your association will communicate to its audience.
  • Goals: What the project must accomplish for your association.

At key milestones, you and your decision-makers should reference the approved strategy document to resolve design questions. A solid strategy gives you the confidence and authority to push back on unfounded opinions, even when they come from people that outrank you.

3 Tips to Avoid Common Pitfalls of Project Decision-Making

You and your stakeholders will be providing feedback to your digital agency as your project takes shape. Avoid costly changes to your timeline (and your budget) by applying these 3 rules:

1. Depend on a Single Source of Truth

Whether your strategy document remains accessible on your internal network or framed on your wall, it should always be available for everyone on your team. It is the guiding light for your organization’s project. Consult the strategy document before every design review, so your internal teams are in the right mindset.

2. Apply Context to Every Decision When Delivering Feedback

If you ask your stakeholders for their opinion, you’ll get their opinion. Instead, request an analysis of your design while giving the right tools to make a decision. Instead of asking, “Which logo appeals to you?” frame the question a different way. Try asking, “Which logo will appeal to our audience and best communicate our message?”

3. Lean Into Your Experts

When your project needs feedback from your leadership team, you don’t have to go into those conversations alone. You should gather your creative team with your organization’s decision-makers in the same room for milestone decisions. That way, your design experts can communicate the rationale behind each option, ensure the conversation stays on track, and address questions that may potentially derail the project.

When Opinions Are Welcome (and Essential) in a Design Project

Placing your organization’s strategic goals ahead of personal preferences may be challenging, but it’s not a constant requirement. Once you’ve established that your project’s needs can be fulfilled with multiple design concepts, you should leverage your preferences to make a final choice.

After all, the right design partner wants you to be proud of the final product. Once your new website or campaign launches, you should love it and be excited, especially if it involves a total rebranding or visual identity. 

Plus, when you have the assurance that every decision was made in service of solving the challenges at hand, your ability to act as your project’s champion grows much easier.

Follow These 4 Steps to Ensure Your Next Website Project Kicks Off Right

When your member-driven organization needs a new website, searching for a design and development partner feels like the hardest part. Finding an agency with the qualifications and capacity to meet your schedule takes time and research. However, once you’ve hired the right team, the rest is just a matter of sitting back and waiting for your new website to launch and work as it should.

Not so fast.

Successful websites can’t simply be ordered up and delivered like an Amazon package. Redesigns cost more than money. If you want a site that makes a real difference for your organization, you have to invest your time as well. Dedicating time to your project before it officially kicks off ensures your organization receives the full value of its investment. 

You’ll see the best results when both sides of a website project are active participants. Get your collaboration started right by following these steps:

1. Set Aside Expectations and Look Past Prior Website Project History

Website development should start by taking a holistic view of your website’s audience, your organization’s goals, and its messaging strategy. A collaborative examination of those details allows your agency to push past status quo solutions and discover the right approach for your website.

Coming into a website project with rigid, preconceived ideas about what your site requires limits how well your project addresses your organization’s needs. Similarly, if you’ve had a bad experience during a prior website design, you should discuss the details behind that project with your new agency.

What derailed your previous website’s success? Was it internal? Was it external? What was most painful about the process for your team? The right agency will help you identify those roadblocks and come up with tactics to prevent the same issues from occurring.

2. Build a Dream Team of Internal Stakeholders

As head of a marketing or communications team, the website may fall under your jurisdiction. But you can’t manage a website project alone. You need a small but mighty group of 3 to 5 people on your side who will support this project as a key priority from start to finish. 

However, you shouldn’t attempt to recruit every stakeholder in your organization. For example, your CEO may be invested in a new website, but a busy schedule may hamper their availability. But involving all stakeholders in your organization in the day-to-day of the project may shift focus toward concerns related to their roles instead of solving problems for your end users.

Instead, someone from your team can keep all your stakeholders informed as your website design progresses. Keeping everyone in the loop helps prevent the project from being derailed by last-minute changes by allowing key stakeholders to provide feedback throughout the process.

Ultimately, this dream team should have the ownership on approving deliverables and other milestone decisions to ensure the project moves forward. Therefore, thoughtfully curating this team is critical, and each should be experienced with your current website. 

The most important member of your team is the liaison between your organization and the agency. They will be responsible for coordinating meetings and collecting internal feedback. Ideally the liaison would have support on the team from a project coordinator. This person will oversee details such as collecting images, website copy, and other deliverables to satisfy content deadlines. 

3. Be Realistic About Timelines to Protect Your Project Launch Date

Every website project lives or dies based on how well it follows an established timeline. The agency you hire is obligated to deliver your website by a certain date. But your team is just as responsible for ensuring it will be available to attend meetings, provide deliverables, feedback, and approvals, so your project stays on track.

Given the value of your organization’s website, you may be in an understandable rush to relaunch with a new, more functional design. But you have to be realistic about your team’s availability as well as the impact of their other responsibilities.

Before your website project starts, you should carefully review the timeline and honestly share any concerns. Be sure to factor in the availability of your project team and internal stakeholders to ensure your new website remains on track.

For example, someone on your team may have a two-week vacation planned. Or, the deadline you set for all website content to be delivered coincides with your organization’s annual convention. Whatever big events, holidays, or busy periods lie ahead, those need to be factored into your timeline to protect your launch date.

As your organization’s point person, you are responsible for setting up the foundation to keep your team on schedule. For example, you can set up all internal review meetings at the onset of the project so you can ensure availability of your team for all review points throughout the project. The right agency partner will do their part stay on track, but they can only do so much without your help.

4. Do Your Homework Before Any Redesign Work Begins

As a marketer, you know your organization’s website needs improvement. But how well do you really understand the full breadth of its condition?

You don’t have to diagnose your site’s needs — your agency partner will help you with that. But you should take the time to inventory all of your content and understand its purpose, accuracy, and context.

Maybe your organization’s last redesign was five years ago, or it took place before you were hired. But in either case, large websites often have legacy features that no longer apply to the organization’s current goals. Or, worse yet, function in a way no one understands.

Before you and your agency start rebuilding your site, you should ensure all those mysteries are solved. For example, contact your IT team to explain third-party tools or software tied to your current site and understand how they’re utilized.

Plus, you should meet with stakeholders to discuss new features on your organization’s wish list. Websites are challenging enough to develop without your team overextending its timeline and budget to create unnecessary features. But be sure to set expectations ahead of time that all new features will need to be in service of the website goals.

Before any functionality is built or designed, you and your agency partner should understand its purpose and the need it will resolve. By thoroughly understanding your organization’s problems, you and your agency can work together to design the right solution.

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