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In-House, Freelance, or Agency? Find the Right Choice for Your Organization’s Design Needs

As you plan for the future of your marketing department, design expertise is always near the top of your list. But design expertise comes at a cost, and your organization’s budget is always under pressure. What is the best way to decide how to resource the right talent for the marketing efforts in your plan?

Ultimately, the answer comes down to your organization’s needs—and the most effective choice for addressing them.

3 Options for Meeting Your Organization’s Design Needs

Your organization will always have design needs. When deciding how to meet them you have the following options:

1. Hiring an In-House Designer to Support Marketing Initiatives

In terms of providing dedicated expertise, hiring a new full-time designer has a number of clear advantages. An in-house designer will be primarily focused on what you assign them, and you have the most control over how their work is prioritized.

Hiring a new team member is the best option when you’re facing a consistent volume of marketing projects that will justify this role and its expenses. A dedicated full-time designer offers the additional advantage of bringing on an individual who will grow to fully understand the needs of your organization and how it functions. 

Disadvantages of Hiring a Full-time Designer

Hiring a full-time designer may be a fixed expense but isn’t cheap. Along with accounting for salary, benefits, equipment, and ongoing training and education, you also need to factor in the inherent challenges of the job market for designers.

Top-tier design talent typically gravitates to design agencies that offer a wide variety of clients and projects, plus a team of other creatives to learn from and collaborate with. Because of this, designers will often take a lower salary to work in an agency environment rather than an in-house position at an association. As a result, if you want to hire a skilled designer, they won’t come cheap.

Another challenge of in-house talent is that they rarely get the opportunity to develop deep skillsets. In-house designers often get bogged down with endless small to mid-sized tasks and lose the capacity for bigger projects. Without a creative director to push a designer’s creativity, their work can easily plateau. An in-house designer must be very self-motivated to push themselves to perform at a high level consistently. 

As an in-house designer grows immersed in your organization’s internal politics and motivations, they gain deep knowledge about your organization but can lose the perspective to think big. You need to ensure the talent that supports your marketing is in a position to consistently deliver standout creative solutions that will keep your organization moving forward.

2. Hiring a Freelance Designer

Bringing on an individual freelance designer constitutes the middle ground of your three options. A freelancer avoids the additional overhead of bringing on a full-time employee, and it allows your organization to temporarily add valuable skillsets.

A freelancer is ideal when your marketing team has multiple projects in the works but not enough consistent design work to justify a full-time employee. They can be a quick, flexible, cost-effective option.

Drawbacks to Working with Freelance Designers

The freelance market is full of experienced designers who can take on your organization’s next project. However, you get what you pay for in terms of skill level, availability, and responsiveness. The most talented designers are not only expensive but are also in demand and often hard to reach.

A less-experienced designer may be cheaper, but they may lack the skill set your organization needs. Freelancers don’t have project managers or other support staff so you’re often at the mercy of their schedule, workflow, and other priorities.

A freelancer offers you the flexibility to complete your marketing projects, but that flexibility goes both ways. If you need a project delivered by a specific date, a freelancer may be tied up with a full-time job or other clients when you need them most.

3. Contracting With a Dedicated Design Agency

Even if your in-house design team can support your organization’s day-to-day marketing priorities, some projects require additional expertise. Higher stakes and time-intensive projects such as big events or transformative initiatives such as branding and website redesigns strain any organization’s resources and push the limits of their skill sets. That’s where an outside agency offers crucial advantages.

Agencies offer an outside perspective that no in-house designer is equipped to deliver. They don’t have pre-existing relationships with stakeholders, and they aren’t tied to internal politics, history, or biases that inhibit new ideas. They have decades of experience helping clients like you. With access to multi-disciplinary teams, they can create and manage everything your project needs and deliver these items on time.

When you hire a specialist agency they have solved your problem many times, in many different ways. They have built a creative team full of individuals who bring different talents and experiences to the table. You didn’t have to hire them, train them, or manage these unconventional employees. You get to hire them to drop in and solve your problem.

Downsides to Partnering With an Outside Agency

Agencies are nimble and scalable. They have access to a broad rolodex of talent to serve your needs, including designers, strategists, writers, and developers. But all that expertise and reliability costs money. 

One-off smaller design jobs aren’t cost-effective for an agency to produce and are often beyond the scope of the services they provide. If your organization has a limited budget, you should work with an agency for only your biggest, most important projects. 

It can also be challenging to identify the right agency to work with. Especially if you’ve had a bad relationship in the past. When selecting an agency we suggest a QBS process over the older RFP model.

The Ideal Mix: Partnering With an Agency for a Hybrid Approach

Combining an in-house designer with an outside agency offers the best of both worlds. When you use a staff designer, these individuals can handle the day-to-day demands of your marketing department. Then, for larger projects, you can turn to an agency to provide the outside perspective combined with the advanced skills and experience you need.

An outside agency offers a boost of creative horsepower. To stay competitive, they have to remain informed of the latest design trends and technologies. Plus, they offer a critical perspective that will challenge “the way we’ve always done it” and find real solutions to your marketing needs.If this sounds like a relationship that will benefit your member-driven organization, we should talk. We’ll make sure your next project has the right talent on hand to create the results you need.

The Psychology of Color and What It Communicates to Your Members

When your organization needs to connect with new and prospective members, your brand is the most powerful resource at your disposal. A strong and cohesive brand provides more than a useful framework to streamline the development of your organization’s marketing and its collateral. It codifies the details of your organization’s story and the value it provides to a critical audience — your current and future members.

Though you need a highly flexible and specific visual language to develop a strong brand, one of its most important components is also its fastest communicator: Color.

The colors associated with your organization are much more than aesthetic preferences. They’re a strategic decision that impacts how current and future members perceive your organization. As you work to ensure your brand delivers the clearest picture of who you are, you need to consider the impact of the colors you choose and what they say to your audience.

Your Brand’s Color Choices Communicate Beyond Words

The core building blocks of your brand are derived from a long list of visual and messaging components that extend well beyond a logo and a tagline. One of these building blocks is your color palette, which can greatly influence how your members perceive your organization.

According to one recent study, color influences up to 90% of our initial impressions of the environment while impacting our behavior, mood, and stress. For example, red evokes passion, aggression, and urgency. Blue inspires feelings of reliability and tranquility.

In marketing and advertising, brands tap into these unconscious responses to demonstrate who they are. For example, healthcare and security brands frequently use blue to communicate stability and trust. Or, the food industry often uses yellow to stimulate appetite and create positive associations with the brand.

Color Enhances Organizational Identity and Improves Retention

For your organization, the right color choices draw a deeper connection with members and demonstrate your organization’s personality. Is your brand associated with innovation? Approachable and collegial? Or more professional and academic? The colors you choose underscore those values and add to your brand narrative

Plus, a unique and memorable color palette sets you apart from competitors, which adds to your presence in the marketplace. When implemented strategically, your organization’s color choices improve brand recognition while nurturing a close connection with your members. Consistently using select colors can be a strong cue for invoking loyalty and pride in your organization. If I say red, white, and blue, what do you immediately associate with that color combination? Next, think of sports fans. You’ll never see them wearing the wrong colors on game day. Color is a very powerful tool in building loyalty and defining your identity.

Color choices carry great power but they also require great responsibility. A department may be tempted to adopt new colors to energize a special project, add flair to a landing page, or provide a fresh look to an upcoming event. But you have to ensure every color you choose is consistent with your brand or risk diluting your impact and undermining the brand equity you’ve built up.

Your brand should work with a variety of colors, but your visual presentation has to remain cohesive. A consistent use of color provides another way to build trust and loyalty among your membership. With these attributes in place, your organization gains improved member retention.

Colors Impact Website Usability

Your organization may have a long history with its current color palette, but you have to ensure those choices work effectively across your digital channels. For example, colors on your website can be used to establish a visual hierarchy. A bold, contrasting color draws attention to call-to-action buttons, guiding your website users to the right next steps. A well-considered color palette enhances usability by incorporating specific colors to highlight navigation menus and other links to get around your website.

However, not every user will view your website’s color choices the same way. When used together, some colors lack contrast and violate ADA Guidelines, which can expose your organization to legal risk. When you’re working with the right agency partner, you can ensure your website offers an inclusive experience for all users.

How to Choose a Memorable, Flexible Color Palette

Your brand is too important to rely on personal tastes to inform its color choices. By collaborating with a design partner, your organization gains a robust set of options through the following steps:

  • Focus on the primary palette: These central colors should reflect your brand’s personality. Choosing a recognizable primary color palette plays a crucial role in how well your brand is remembered.
  • Develop a secondary palette: These colors should complement the primary colors but provide your brand with more range. Establishing the right tones, tints, and neutrals to pair with these secondary colors will further ground your brand’s overall color palette.
  • Ensure your palette has a balanced tonal range: Your creatives should have enough color options to add emphasis and guide focus. At Position, we often convert palettes to grayscale to ensure a wide tonal variety.
  • Consider ADA compliance: Test color pairings for appropriate contrast or optical strain. Your color choices should not compromise readability or usability.
  • Strike a balance between too few and too many options: Sophisticated member-driven organizations should have a palette consisting of 12 to 16 colors, including neutrals and tones. More limited palettes are distinct and bold, but larger palettes are more flexible.

If your organization hasn’t considered the impact of its color choices, we should talk. We’ll ensure your brand has the right palette in place to serve your members and their needs.

7 Website Features That Empower Associations to Serve Members at a Higher Level

Member-driven associations like yours play a vital role in bringing together businesses, professionals, and stakeholders within your industry. A well-crafted website is not only a digital hub for your members. It’s also a powerful tool for demonstrating the value of membership. As the next generation takes over the workforce, you need to rethink your website to serve a new audience of digital natives.

We’ve found that every member-driven website thrives with the support of several core features. While the use cases for the following elements may vary depending on the size of your organization or its focus, each offers a crucial opportunity to empower members and make a positive impact on your industry.

Core Elements of Every Website Experience

Your website often gives the first impressions of your organization. Given its importance, every element of your website must look, feel, and function in a way that attracts and engages your members. For associations, that effort begins with ensuring your brand draws a strong connection between your organization and its audience

Once your brand and messaging are aligned, every association website begins with the following foundational elements:

  • A clear and compelling design: A design that’s appealing and user-friendly is essential to ensuring your site’s visitors have a positive experience.
  • Intuitive navigation: A logically structured and easy-to-understand menu is necessary to ensure your site visitors can find what they need.
  • Responsive and ADA accessible: A responsive design that’s optimized for all devices and accounts for the differing needs of your audience ensures your website offers an inclusive experience.
  • Seamless integrations with external systems: Real-time integrations with outside data sources are essential to providing streamlined functionality that builds user trust.
  • Flexible and functional CMS: Your site editors need an easy way to create, edit, and update your website.

7 Must-Have Features for Every Association Website

When your website is built on a platform that’s tailor-made for associations, you can access a suite of features to serve your current generation of members — and the next one

With effective design and seamless integrations, your site can operate at a higher level by utilizing the following seven features.

1. Member Login and Member-only Content

Your login page should be easy to find and enable access to member-specific features with single-sign-on (SSO) capabilities that keep them logged in across your site, AMS, and any other resources.

Create a custom user experience by determining the sections of your website that should be accessible to the public as well as vital information that is exclusive to your members. By incorporating single-sign-on (SSO) capabilities between your website and your AMS, your members will be able to log in once and have access to managing their membership, signing up for events, as well as member-only content across your site based on their level of membership (member, associate, committee, board, etc.)

2. Events

Events are the heartbeat of most associations. They’re often the primary way for members to connect with each other and the organization. Every conference, seminar, and convention should be branded in a way that elevates the attendee experience and draws a positive connection to your organization. Incorporating a dynamic and easy-to-use event section into your website allows members to find and engage with these events, purchase tickets utilizing the AMS, and streamline the registration process. Plus, it builds excitement for what’s ahead.

3. Member Directory

Nurture the bond between members by offering a full directory of members. Users should be able to browse membership by whatever category suits their needs (region, role, etc.) By syncing your website member directory with your existing member database, you can ensure information about your organization’s most important audience is current and accurate.

4. Resource Library

Tap into your website’s potential as an educational resource by offering a library of articles, white papers, toolkits, webinars, and other content vital to your members and their industry. It’s critical to organize the resources by categories and implement robust filters that allow users to find what they need quickly and easily.

5. Automated Job Board

Manually managing job board submissions is both tedious and inefficient for your members and staff. A modern website enables members to submit and pay for job postings on their own. An approval process allows your staff to review and approve each posting with ease before it’s published, and the posting will automatically expire at the end of its contracted time. This process will not only empower your members to more easily and readily use this important resource, but you’re also saving your team’s time from having to manually manage all these details.

6. Testimonials and Success Stories

Your membership is a community. Strengthen those bonds by publishing stories and updates from your members that highlight the positive impact of your association. Real-life examples and testimonials inspire current members and encourage new members to join.

7. Committee and Working Group Pages

Volunteering is critical to most associations. Highlight the various groups and committees within your organization on their own pages. Your website should include details about these groups as well as their leadership and objectives to encourage member involvement. When integrated with the single-sign-on(SSO) functionality, you can give board and committee members tiered access to protected documents.

Strong Websites Are Essential to Member-Driven Organizations

Association websites are much more than digital brochures or informational archives. They’re the lifeblood of the industries they serve. Implementing these features empowers your organization to connect with its audience and deliver education and advocacy for your overall mission. If these sound like features that will enable your organization to function at a higher level, we should talk.

How Cohesive Brand Messaging Creates a Powerful Platform for Your Organization

When organizations consider a rebrand, visual elements like the logo, color palette, and typography are all clear areas of focus. But to ensure all that work makes the greatest impact on your organization and its connection to members, you can’t neglect your brand messaging.

Your messaging system is the backbone of your brand. It constitutes the suite of words, statements and attributes chosen to reflect and support your organization’s identity. Your website copy, how you greet members at events, and every social media caption are all products of a messaging system. 

When your messaging is in alignment, it’s a powerful tool for your organization. However, if your messaging isn’t cohesive, your current and prospective members and internal teams will lose trust in your organization because there’s no clarity or consistency in how you express who you are.

I recently had a discussion with one of our messaging experts, Catherine Warmerdam, on the most important way you can communicate the value of your brand. Here is an edited version of that conversation. 

Phil Tretheway: I was preparing for a branding presentation with a group of outside partners for a client, and was surprised to find that the heart of what I really wanted to present was the messaging. 

Being a classically trained designer, it’s not natural for me to skip over the visual part. Do you feel much pressure with your work building the core of an organization’s brand?

Catherine Warmerdam: Yes! That initial attempt to distill a company or an organization into just a few memorable words or sentences is deceivingly difficult. For me, balancing brevity and complexity is the hardest part. That’s when it becomes so important to be precise with one’s words, because those words have to support an entire brand. 

I’m curious how the strength of the messaging affects your visual approach. Is it hard to design around a weak or uninspiring message?

PT: The worst thing is to work on a visual identity with no messaging, because that’s just decorating and making things pretty. To do our best work, the design needs to solve a problem and achieve a goal. It needs to say something. Hence the need for messaging. 

When we develop a brand for a client it starts with three things: who they are, who they serve, and their message platform. Nobody should start on a project without a clear understanding of the organization, the demographics of the audience they’re trying to serve, and a message to communicate. 

I love building a brand that has a well-defined character, tone, style, and core messaging (what, why, purpose). When do you start defining an organization’s messaging system? 

CW: Pretty much immediately. But first I want to build a really thorough understanding of what they have in place already — and I want to know the ‘why’ behind everything. So there are lots of questions in the beginning. 

That initial dialogue also yields other useful information. For example, if a client is clinging to a ‘we’ve-always-done-it-that-way’ approach — even if it’s not working for them — that’s sometimes a signal that they’re looking for an easy fix. Or it could mean that the person who brought you in is looking to make a change, but maybe their boss isn’t convinced it’s necessary. 

Have you encountered that before? How did you handle it?

PT: I was recently reading “The Global Identity of Cities” by Brookings, which was a fascinating report on best practices for branding a city or region. Spoiler alert: the report’s findings and process are highly applicable to branding organizations. One of the early points they make is that for a project to be successful, your stakeholders must embrace the need for change. I think this is critical. 

Most executives I’ve worked with have been on board with the branding projects, though as we work through the process, they gain an even deeper appreciation for what we’re doing. Once we get into the discovery questions and past talking points, and really dive into their goals and vision, they realize that we’re not just making a logo and color palette. We’re here to understand at a deep level who they are, what they do, and where they’re going. Then, we translate that into words and visuals. 

Once they start to feel heard, they see the potential for how much we can help them with their job. I really love this phase of the project. What questions do you like to ask as part of your discovery?

CW: For messaging, I like to first ask about the audience, because it all begins and ends with who you’re trying to reach. I want to know as much as I can about them. From there, I ask the client, ‘What do you want that audience to know? And what do you want them to do?’ Just those couple of questions can yield a lot of helpful information from which I can begin to build some messaging elements. 

What questions do you ask to kick off a project?

PT:  I ask very similar, basic core questions. At least that’s where I start. After those beginning questions it’s a conversation, and asking the right questions to pull out deeper truths is an art form we have become good at over the years. 

These initial conversations are one of my favorite parts of a project. Sometimes I feel like an annoying 4-year-old who is asking why again and again. Other times I feel like a therapist, guiding the client through a progressively deeper conversation about why they do what they do and who they do it for. 

CW: In the end, I feel it’s all about getting clarity on who you are, what you offer, and who you serve and translating that into the language of your audience. 

Your messaging is like the invisible glue that holds your brand together. If it’s not strong and durable, the brand doesn’t hold together like it should. 

Why Your Branding Project Begins With Messaging

Messaging isn’t just a component of your branding initiative. It’s the foundation of every element that expresses your organization’s value to its most important audience. 

But beyond messaging, you need to ensure your organization gains a complete brand system to support its goals. With these tools in place, you don’t just provide your organization with a clearer means of forming a connection with current and future members. You create a greater sense of belonging and ownership within your internal teams that builds confidence for the future.

If your brand is falling short of communicating all your organization does for members, let’s talk. We can help your organization get where it needs to be.

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.

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