by Jeffrey E. Barnhart |
If you’ve been in the meetings business for a few decades, you might recall the days when executives out on the road would stand in line at an airport payphone for a chance to check in with their executive assistants to get messages. Work would actually have to wait until they returned to the office. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I long for those days. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops have made our lives easier and have even contributed to a cultural lifestyle where we can gain instant access to almost anything and everything. With our society’s increased connectivity today, business leaders have an unprecedented number of resources within their grasp.

The increasingly fast pace of business allows for less and less “spare time.” Actually setting aside the time to better our own careers and increase our knowledge is forgone in favor of closing a sale, managing our email, serving clients, or whatever our main career objective might be. 

With all of these societal changes, business leaders of today might ask themselves, “Why do I really need to be part of an association to get ahead?” 

The answer lies in the evergreen benefit of creating lasting relationships that, in turn, provide firsthand education based on shared best practices. The two main reasons to join an association are education and networking. 

With those benefits still in place, there remain many environmental forces affecting association members every day. I can think of several forces that often influence the availability of a member’s time and desire to participate in a professional association. In much the same way that marketers analyze how these forces play a role in the success of a given service or product, it is important to consider any potential changes that may impact an association’s member base and their respective industry. 

• Technology:  Is the industry being disrupted by any emerging technology? 
• Socioeconomic conditions: What is the current unemployment rate or business climate in the industry? 
• Politics: Do your members favor a particular type of political climate? 
• Competition: To what degree are member companies competing against each other? Legal or regulatory considerations are also a factor here; is any new legislation causing seismic shifts in their industry?

Obviously, the effects of these forces vary depending on the industry and geographic location but, chances are, association leaders have faced difficult questions like this over the past two to three years, especially if conference attendance numbers or membership dues have taken a dive. 

Although the recession has caused great uncertainty among executives that continues today, there are steps an association can take to stay relevant in today’s environment.

Put yourself in your members’ shoes. If the association’s industry has been hit hard by the recession, there may still be a silver lining in that new innovations and business models have cropped up in place of old ones. A survey of members’ needs might be in order to accurately assess the things that are most important to them this year. What are their big-picture concerns or challenges? Association benefit programs may be created to address these needs. Reaching out to members makes them feel they are a valued part of the decision-making process and in tune with the association’s board and leadership. If cost is a concern, try web-based survey tools like SurveyMonkey to speed the process along in an efficient manner. 

Strategize for future growth. Sometimes it’s tough to see beyond even the next few months, but the hard reality is that associations cannot survive today’s competitive landscape without both a good marketing plan and a strategy for growth. Working with an experienced association management partner can help provide you with a roadmap for the next five years and the tools to achieve growth. Is the association’s mission and vision still in line with its actions? Is a rebrand in order? Does the association name still capture who they are? You might define and identify new targets for growth through this process. These marketing initiatives are worth the investment to instill new life into the organization and to raise awareness among new audiences. 

Make your association’s certification program essential. Accreditation, certification, and even awards programs serve as important revenue streams for associations and also firmly establish the organization in the industry. Use cost-effective marketing tactics such as public relations, social media, and garnering member testimonials to ensure these programs flourish and reach the all-important “can’t live without it” status in the industry. After launching several accreditation programs for our association clients, we’ve found that the right positioning and publicity can lead to important industry recognition in as little as one year. After all, when times are tough in business, members are looking for positive news to share with their clients.

Make events worth the time. In today’s economic climate, members have trouble getting approval for travel to educational events, as they are often seen as “non-essential.” In our experience, budgets somehow magically open up when new and exciting features are offered, making the travel expenses worth the investment. Add a new aspect to the usual annual conference agenda, such as a keynote speaker (great speakers can be found even if you are on a limited budget), more interactive programming concepts, or a speed networking session to drive more traffic to your exhibitors. Smaller regional events might also help make travel more affordable for members who are unable to make the annual conference or convention. 

Remain on the cutting edge. If revenues are picking up, now might be the time to invest in new technology that makes it easy for members to register for events, renew membership, and stay connected to the organization in general. Association management companies have various web-based systems available to ease the process of monetary exchange, paperwork processing, and other time-consuming administrative tasks. These systems are often integrated directly into the association’s website as a password-protected “members only” section. Members have reacted positively to technological upgrades because it gives them greater access to and control over their membership information and benefits — responding to that cultural need to have information instantaneously. 

The health of the association industry affects us all. If associations can’t stay relevant, they can’t support the multi-billion-dollar meetings industry ready to serve them. Ultimately, by staying in tune with member needs, associations can adapt to changing environments and firmly implant themselves as essential career development partners.

Jeffrey E. Barnhart is president and CEO of CMA Association Management, based in Princeton Junction, NJ, one of only 68 association management companies worldwide accredited by the AMC Institute. For more information about CMA, visit www.thinkcma.com or contact Barnhart at [email protected].