In 2008, MCI completed a research project for the government of Abu Dhabi. A critical outcome from this effort was capturing how US-based and EU-based associations reflected on the challenges and opportunities to enter and grow a specific regional market. Most notably, we found that both cohorts found the following to be significant barriers to international growth:
- Lack of experience and knowledge of a region
- Lack of a commercial business license and bank account to collect revenues in local currency
- Weak local volunteer leadership support to develop local activities, products, or promotions
- Inability to gain local government endorsements and promotion support through sustained contact
- Distribution of marketing, communication, social media and business development tactics that are not adapted to local customs
This data simply confirmed what we knew previously through our client work over 25 years. Associations are under resourcing their business activities at the point of sale in the regions they target for growth.
How an Association Overcame Challenges to Expand in MENA
Here is an excellent illustration of how a US-based professional society serving mid to senior level business professionals reassessed their approach and ultimately deployed a new “integrated and locally relevant” marketing, business development, and member/customer care strategy that optimized resources for dramatically improving market penetration.
The results they achieved in their Middle East region showed significant improvement within 12 months of implementing their new strategy in 2011:
- Growth in certification candidates of over 90%
- 40% increase in membership over the 3 year period and addition of almost 2,000 members through promotions
- Nearly doubling the number of training provider partners for expanding access to test preparation courses
- Added corporate partners in the region as well as cooperative relationships with local associations in the region
- Significant increase in programs from four local chapters while adding two new chapters and another 4 under development
- Handling over 300 member and customer requests per month while building a new prospect database of 1500
Critical to the success of this association’s success was : building a more robust membership engagement model and internal system that could address the needs of local members and customers, fundamentally rethinking their approach to serving members and developing local offerings, and using customer intelligence to design successful membership recruitment, retention and engagement campaigns.
Challenges to Growth
A few years earlier the association embarked on a strategic plan to establish its certification as the global standard for its profession and determined that the Middle East could be a significant growth market. Success in this market helped make it the #1 region outside the US, but many challenges similar to those expressed by the associations in the survey above helped to slow this growth:
- Sizable number of members were not completing test preparation courses or were not passing the exam (lowest pass rate in world).
- Organizing chapter activities were problematic and chapter attendance was low.
- Volunteer leadership system was not strong enough to support good programs, promotion, and chapter administration
- Member retention was higher than desired as many were losing interest.
- Language barriers reduced the ability to drive home the association’s value proposition in a locally relevant manner.
- A lack of local business development placed too much responsibility on weak volunteer system.
- Need for more government contact and partnerships with 3rd parties were not being driven.
Part of the problem was at the time there wasn’t sufficient resources to address these challenges inside the region. The situation called for stronger local support but besides some training provider partners who didnt have the capacity or inclination to address these issues, the association had only one staff member on the ground. So they chose to consider bring in a new partner with a better aligned set of core competencies and who could work seamlessly with their existing training partners.
Rethinking How to Serve Members & Customers
MCI Middle East worked very closely with this association to develop an integrated solution to address the needs in the region:
- Provide a dedicated member service team with local language speakers to proactively answer member and customer queries as well as exam related questions to speed their completion of the exam process
- Provide a toll free number to encourage customers and members to reach out
- Execute targeted new member campaigns to call members one month and six months after they joined to ensure that they were maximizing their member benefits and to offer them support.
- Target a member retention campaign for members to reach every member in the region to reduce overall attrition
- Conduct on-going calling campaigns to update contact details of the members and customers to ensure integrity of the Middle East database
- Maintain regular reports to HQ capturing the frequently asked question as well as identifying any challenges within specific areas
- Developed a robust social media engagement plan to engage members and attract non members
In addition, the association also needed to tap the huge potential of customers in the Middle East that they knew existed but didn’t have the resources to develop the kind of local customer engagement necessary to turn this supply of prospects into paying customers and members.
So a multichannel marketing approach was developed that included:
- Measuring the growth of social media and website
- Creating lead nurturing programs based on prospect profiling
- Conducting statistical analysis of marketing interactions
- Conducting market research to develop messaging
The Middle East customer support team worked closely with the HQ Marketing team to identify members and credential holders who were passionate and would be interested in being interviewed or would provide testimonials for the regional websites and social media communications channels.
MCI Middle East conducted search engine optimization (SEO) to optimize the locally hosted website around high-value search terms and worked to expand the number of inbound links to improve search rankings. Virtual online job fairs were used to drive traffic to the regional association website from UAE, KSA, Egypt, Kuwait, and Qatar where visitors could be registered and offered of some study material to help prepare for the association’s certification program. Visitors who filled in the registration form were considered a potential lead for follow up directly by local business developers.
Leads received special communications introducing the benefits of membership. They are also included in all future outbound promotions for such things as free webinars, etc. Benefits communication were sent to almost 1,000 leads and nearly 50% opened the communication.
The integration of the regional website and the social media helped to create an additional channel of contact with prospects and members to be managed actively.
Face to face opportunities were also pursued. Promotion of the association’s global brand via customer engagement at strategically important conferences were identified and attended.
Working with the association’s course providers, joint branding and awareness initiatives were also pursued.
Over 1300 new leads were realized in just two months. Website traffic increased over 60%. Outbound marketing will become even more effective as marketing will be working off a qualified list of prospects.
Local Relevance & Muscle Prevails
In 2011, through the partnership between the association and MCI Middle East :
- Over 6,500 customers are served via calls and email inquiries.
- Over 3,000 new members were acquired.
- Membership retention rate increased by 53%.