Association Communication Evolution

15 Feb

Association communication has evolved over time as new technologies have become available. I call these eras – Meet, Mail, Magazine and Moderation.


A History of Associations identifies the earliest formal associations as medieval craft guilds and merchant trading groups. They communicated face to face because there were few other options.. The first scientific society the Academia Secretorum of Naples, was established in 1560 and the members met at Giambattista della Porta’s home. The Academy of the Mysteries of Nature was required by the Pope to close eighteen years later under suspicion of sorcery but the Royal Society of London which first met in 1660 has lasted a little longer. In 1662 it was first permitted to publish and it is still doing so.


Publishing technology allowed mass printing of documents. The availability of mail service enabled distribution. Members of associations no longer had to meet face to face to communicate. They could stay informed of association news and be part of the association without the need for travel. That in turn allowed associations to expand in size and geographical scope. Charles I of Great Britain established The Royal Mail in 1635 but it took a while to catch on. For the first two hundred years until 1840 it was considered expensive, confusing and corrupt. However, once established, it did allow most associations the capability of mass communication.  Many associations still use mass mail for raising funds and attracting members.


The next step in association communication evolution was the magazine. Magazines were really a further development of printing technology but the reason I am calling it a milestone in the evolution of communications was the ability to advertize. Glossy, with pictures; magazines were a revenue producing mass media for larger associations. You did need a sufficiently large association and/or enough advertisers to be able to justify the editorial staff, pay writers and put out a magazine, but now there was a way to communicate that members considered a benefit of membership and magazines generated revenue.


My fondness for alliteration leads me to name the new era of association communication “Moderation”. By moderation I mean moderation of online conversations. The term does capture the essence of the switch from top-down, one to many mass communication technologies such as publishing a magazine or newsletter, to the anyone can communicate, many to many communication possible with forums, wikis, blogs and online communities.

This is a fundamental switch but it is not an immediate switch. Just as mail and other communication technologies took time to be adopted so to it has taken time for people to have and use online access.

It is also not a complete switch. People will still meet face to face and some will meet virtually. People will still read their monthly newsletter or magazine and some will do so online. It is an additional channel of communication.

The bigger switch is in the culture of participation. We, of a certain age such as me, are used to being informed, not informing. That is why there is initially some reluctance to putting oneself out there by posting a comment or asking a question online. Many were initially a little reticent with Facebook, even when simply sharing vacation pictures or making some social comment on a favourite team or news item.

Making a comment about something important may take a little more courage. Private association communities where the comments are to colleagues feel a little safer but that will be the topic for another posting. Most important is that associations now have the tools to harness the power of the association’s biggest asset, its members and their knowledge. The new association communication credo may be “We know more than any of us.”

What is Next?

Associations are adopting the new communication technologies. For example, the Royal Society has adapted to the times. The 44 fellows (members) that are elected per year can be proposed for fellowship online via e-Lect.  Fellows no longer have to meet face to face; they can meet in the eFellow’s room. The Royal Society has also embraced other social media; anyone can respond to a Royal Society blog after logging in with Facebook or Google.

The challenge is to figure out what software tools to use to communicate and how to use them. Should you use public communities such as Facebook or have your own private community or both? That too will be the topic of a future blog.

This blog is available as a .pdf for download here.


2 Responses to “Association Communication Evolution”

  1. Annie Gallagher March 5, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    When I look at what is really being discussed here, it is communication methods – US mail, magazines, social media. These are all tools, and whenever you are talking about communication tools, you have to recognize how much these tools have evolved. But the real core of communication is having a strong emotional message, and our emotions have not evolved. We have the same emotions that we had from the beginning of time: the need for community, ego, love, hate, fear – all those things have not changed since the beginning of time. So, while our tools have evolved, we have to remember that the most important thing that any association can do is to that powerful emotional messages no matter which tool is used.

    • Bob MacKie March 6, 2012 at 10:37 pm #

      There is no question that the message is important; but as Marshall McLuhan said “The medium is the message”. The medium has a huge effect on the audience. The game changer now is the ability to engage in bi-directional communication rather than the one way association to member messaging. Enabling member participation in the association opens the door to greater member engagement as they identify with their association.

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