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Jan 19, 2024 BY Nicole Araujo Marketing

Cultivating Unwavering Loyalty: Lessons for Associations from the NFL

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For many associations, creating lasting loyalty is a challenge. Unlike the sports world, where the fervor of fandom can endure generations, associations often grapple with the transient nature of member commitment. The kind of loyalty that compels individuals to proudly wave flags in their yards, don team colors from head to toe, and even feature their allegiance in obituaries is the pinnacle of brand devotion. The National Football League (NFL) is a prime example of an entity that’s mastered the art of fostering such unwavering loyalty. In a modern society sometimes characterized by fleeting connections, the question for associations then becomes, how can we replicate this emotional connection with our members?

The NFL Blueprint: Excitement and Value

I’m an Eagles fan. Not just because I grew up an hour and a half south of Philly but because my dad was an Eagles fan, too. I have his old Eagles sweatshirt—it was “borrowed” back in 1994 and has been one of my prized possessions ever since. It’s a piece of him that represents part of his story. His affinity. His identity. Parts of him that I’ve adopted by association through the ritual of family and community. It’s brought me many smiles to see my daughter, over the years, steal the sweatshirt out of my closet. She loves to wear his old sweatshirt, always a reminder of her mom and her “Pop-Pop.” She also shouts her love of the Eagles, though I don’t think she’s seen more than a handful of games.

When dissecting the NFL’s success in building affinity, the key lies in the potent combination of excitement and perceived value. A game, whether in your home or the stadium, is a moment in time with cheering loudly for or against your team—it’s an emotional and adrenaline-pumping experience. People willingly pay a premium for game tickets, not merely for the sport itself—it’s for that experience. What truly excites your members? What experiences do they need to feel connected to your organization and other members? What would they be willing to pay a premium for?

How can associations go beyond offering basic services and delve into creating experiences that resonate deeply with their members? Sure, it may make it much easier for you if Taylor Swift showed up to your annual conference, but in reality, the responsibility is on you. The more an association can align with the passions and aspirations of its members, the more likely it is to cultivate a sense of loyalty.

Showcasing Value and Generating Loyalty

The NFL doesn’t just sell football games—it sells passion. They never stop trying to attract new fans. They’re constantly learning about their audiences and using that information to improve the fan experience. From any game, they create more content. They show replays, articles, clips, and interviews. They make time for the fans to get to know their players and coaches, and they’re meeting the fans where they are—on streaming and social media (as opposed to the era of cable and magazines only years ago).

Associations could take a play from their playbook to identify and showcase the benefits they bring to the table. Show them often, especially the intangible ones—the benefits that keep members coming back. You may need some research to really understand your members’ motives and needs.

Whether it’s access to cutting-edge industry knowledge, exclusive networking events, or opportunities for professional growth, associations can always communicate their unique value proposition more effectively.

Are your members excited to be ambassadors for your organization? Of course, you probably don’t want them painting your logo on their torsos (or maybe you do!)—but are they excited to spread the word about your association’s value just based on their own experience? When a member meets someone new to the industry, will they say “you haven’t joined xyz association yet? You better get on that!”?

The more an association can align with the passions and aspirations of its members, the more likely it is to cultivate a sense of loyalty.

It’s also important to note that loyalty isn’t a one-way street. Associations must actively seek member feedback and engage in two-way communication to understand evolving needs and expectations. This dynamic interaction helps foster a sense of belonging and investment in the association’s mission. It keeps you speaking to and addressing your audience’s needs.

So, what are some of the ways an association can emulate and cultivate that unwavering loyalty? By creating a genuine community where members feel connected—even beyond professional interests. That connection can be developed through a number of vehicles, from mentorship programs to peer collaboration initiatives or even social events that build relationships outside the confines of formal association activities.

You can also leverage your technology to identify low-engaged members. For example, we worked with an association client to create an engagement score within their CRM, Hubspot, that weighted member activities (like attending a webinar, opening an email, etc.). We used this engagement score to segment their members by low engagement, mid-, and high engagement. We then set goals for improving engagement with low-engaged members. Associations can use engagement scores to learn more about the types of members who respond to their content and to develop new ideas to re-engage lapsed members.

Flags on the Play

Of course, the NFL deals with plenty of their own issues. Sexual harassment, discrimination, and player safety concerns (like concussion protocols) pose real threats to the league. How an organization handles these instances is critical and can directly impact the loyalty you’re working to generate. Are you being transparent? Is an apology needed? Structural change? Something else? These issues must always be addressed in a timely manner, and not swept under the rug. Not every day is a great one, but your association’s future and the loyalty of your members depend on your reaction (and proaction), so put thought into how you would handle these kinds of situations before you’re faced with them. It’s always better to have a plan to follow instead of having to react in real time.

Where’s Your Loyalty?

Associations should aim to become more than just a professional resource. They’re a support system—and more than that—a community where members feel understood and valued. This sense of belonging is a powerful driver of loyalty. Associations should regularly ask, “What are we?” Are we just a logo to add to someone’s LinkedIn/resume, or are we a community of members that would proudly launch our flag in their front yard? What do you evoke in your members—a sense of duty, camaraderie, or shared purpose?

Yes, I’m disappointed that the Eagles didn’t win their playoff game, but that won’t stop me from cheering them on next season. And just like the sports fan who pledges allegiance to a team through thick and thin, associations can create an environment where members say, “Come hell or high water, this is my association!” That level of loyalty isn’t just reserved for sports teams; it can be achieved by any organization that understands its audience, delivers consistent value, and fosters a genuine sense of community.

So, what do you feel this loyalty or affinity for? As you reflect on your own allegiances, consider what makes you fly the flag, don the colors, and proudly declare your association. Associations that can tap into and nurture a deep sense of loyalty are the ones that will stand the test of time.

Mighty Citizen Can Help

We’re research fanatics. If you need to understand your members better to turn them into super fans, we’ll help you dig deep. Our researchers conduct stakeholder interviews, develop user personas, craft and execute large-scale surveys, and perform qualitative brand audits of your competitors. Then they translate all of the hard data into actionable insights for your association. Interested in working with us? Reach out—we’d love to chat!

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