Key messages are often viewed by associations as the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ go-to tactic when in crisis communications mode or prepping for an unsavoury announcement. Not true! Key messages are the essential building blocks for all communications including annual strategic marketing communications (marcom) plans, campaign-specific plans, etc. The goal of key messages is to maintain consistency, lead to resonance among targeted audiences, and guide all the association’s internal and external communications.  

They are not just a tactic when in crisis. Key messages serve to ensure all year-round communications are in line with the association’s vision and mission.  

What is a Key Message?  

Key messages are bite-sized, main points of information an association wants their audience to hear, understand, and most importantly, remember. They serve to break through the communications clutter to help the association stand-above others and resonate with key audiences in terms of what they do, how they do it, what makes them different and its overall value proposition.  

Key messages also enable associations to control their own narrative throughout the year through good and challenging times. In my 25+ years in communications I have led more than 25 media and key message training sessions with several associations and their Board of Directors. The main point I always stress is key messages need to be short and sweet, easy to understand and free of industry jargon to be impactful and meaningful to the audiences being targeted.  

Key Message Delivery: The 30-Second Elevator Pitch  

A tried-and-true key message training tactic is to have spokespeople image they are in an elevator with a targeted audience member who knows nothing about the association. As the elevator moves from top to bottom floor, the spokesperson needs to deliver their key message or ’30-second elevator pitch’ within that time and ensure it resonates with that person. Sounds simple, right? No, it is not! Delivering impactful yet easy to digest messaging within a short time frame is hard.  

Key messages need to be comprised of no more than three-to-four messages. Any more will dilute the message and potentially confuse audiences.  

Here is a sample of a key message:  

“Our association focuses on providing networking and educational opportunities for our members to elevate their business game and to grow their network.”  

It is simple and to the point. And illuminates how the association helps members to improve their business game, build strong connections, and grow their networks.  

A key message is supported by a supporting point that further illuminates and reinforces the key message. For example:  

Key message:Our association focuses on providing networking and educational opportunities for our members to elevate their business game and to grow their network.” 

Supporting point: “Our annual national convention in September brings together more than 2,000 industry professionals to connect, share experiences and knowledge, and do business in a short time frame and in one central location to grow their business and networks.”  

This example of a key message and supporting point tells key audiences the association is ‘walking the walk’ in terms of bringing members together to grow their business and networks. This is what the audience member hears, understands, and remembers!  

By incorporating this key message and supporting point into the association’s communications it will ensure consistent delivery of this message to support the association’s membership value proposition.  

How to Develop Key Messages 

Key message development (and delivery!) can be an art form. It is taking a large amount of information and breaking it down to bite-size communications that will resonate with key audiences.  

Below are some tips for developing key messages:  

  1. Review last year’s key messages to see how they served the association and if there were inconsistencies or lost opportunities.  
  2. Scan other associations to ensure you don’t have a ‘copycat’ message or out-dated approach to ensure a unique value proposition that stands-out.  
  3. Do a reality check to ensure any key messages are still serving the association both internally and externally well. Key messages do have an expiry date so be sure to review and update regularly.  
  4. Associations evolve and so should its communications including key messages. Ensure the language and positioning with key messages is reflective of the current industry climate, trends, and language.  
  5. Remember messaging is key to creating impact on targeted audiences and for developing meaningful communications plans and materials that resonate with audiences and help to elevate the association. They are not taglines! They are not to be memorized to be read robotically by designated spokespeople. They are guidelines to serve in all communications both internally and externally for the association to ensure consistency, relevancy, and impact.  

Key messages are the foundation of effective communications for an association. Overall they serve to create focus, control, and influence key audiences. And should be included in all annual communications.  

Read more about the Marketing and Communication aspect of Associations:

How to Build an Association Crisis Communications Checklist

How to Elevate and Streamline your Association’s Strategic Planning Sessions

Five Ways Associations Can Improve Their Social Media Game