From Relevance to Revenue

By Alex DeBarr • April 16, 2013

Alex DeBarr headshot
Alex DeBarr

As with their for-profit brethren, many associations must face up to the fact that they are either on the brink of failure or are on the brink of success. Both positions are dangerous, yet brimming with opportunity—and both positions require fast recognition.

Associations now face more competition, more financial pressure and more market volatility than ever before. Meanwhile, member loyalty is harder to win and even harder to maintain. While relevance and effective leadership have always been the keys to making associations successful, those attributes are hard to achieve and harder to maintain in this highly competitive and hyper-connected information age.

  • Some associations and their boards are still too inwardly focused and miss great opportunities to serve membership and generate non-dues revenue.
  • Relevance is what ultimately drives both dues and non-dues revenue.
  • Associations can claim—or reclaim—leadership in their markets today as many for-profit media companies are reorganizing and struggling for relevance that can be earned profitably.
  • Successful associations are honest with themselves about what they know and what they don’t know.

Associations on the brink of either failure or success must also realize that understanding the challenges facing their members is tantamount to their survival and success. Some associations and their boards are still too inwardly focused. They’re missing opportunities to serve their membership better and increase dues and non-dues revenue while doing so.

Some of that inward focus is understandable given the financial pressures they face. But, too often we see associations with agendas that are focused on the short-term desires of their boards or executives—desires that may not be in alignment with what those associations’ members need or want.

Signs of optimism

The good news is that association leaders are recognizing that understanding and serving their members and supplier members’ needs better, communicating more effectively with members and running an efficient operation contribute greatly to their relevance and survival. And relevance is what ultimately drives more dues and non-dues revenue as my colleagues explain elsewhere in today’s issue.

More good news: An association that figures out how to be more relevant and develops a plan to execute that strategy successfully can become stronger than ever. Here’s just one reason why: Most for-profit media companies that compete with associations for their audience are struggling with some of the same challenges facing associations—including how to achieve relevance profitably.

This is an ideal time for associations to claim their leadership because many for-profit media companies and sites can’t match their longstanding trust and credibility with members in the marketplace.

Relationship between relevance and revenue

We see it time and time again. Associations that recognize the fact that relevance has to be earned every day are more successful in maintaining and growing their memberships than associations that take their relevance for granted.

I’m not just talking about relevance to direct members. It’s about relevance to your supplier and associate members and your vertical market in full. Supplier members who advertise, exhibit and sponsor your media, communications and events also are faced with far more choices than before. A relevant association that has active participation from key member groups and companies provides far better advertising, sponsorship and exhibit opportunities for the suppliers than associations that aren’t deemed relevant.

The key to earning relevance is really understanding your members’ needs. You need to be a leading source of information in your market and communicate effectively with all your member and supplier segments about the key trends facing the industry from within the industry. You also need to understand and explain to members how key trends in general business, the economy and political/governmental activities affect their activities.

Another key to relevance that associations often overlook is helping supplier members connect with key members. Associations that do this successfully generate more advertising, sponsorship and exhibit revenue—and are recognized as more fully functioning—than associations that don’t.

There is a new generation of middle and upper managers at companies in every vertical market you serve. They take their information and guidance from multiple sources, not just from you. Associations that take the time to understand how their members get and consume information—and then put the right kinds of resources into communicating the way that members truly want to be communicated to are far more successful than those who take the one-size-fits-all approach.


Most successful associations we work with have one trait in common: They recognize what they know and what they don’t know. In other words, communicating effectively and measuring needs effectively is often not a core operating strength of theirs. Using vendors including Naylor to help plan and execute communications and non-dues revenue strategies improves results and allows association staff to focus on other key aspects of their mission.

Alex DeBarr is president & CEO of Naylor, LLC.