Budgets are tight. Travel’s a hassle. Can’t justify the time out of the office, we tell ourselves. But again and again we return to our favorite annual conferences and events. Even in this hyper-connected, social, mobile, digital age—or maybe because of it—associations and their members still like to meet, network and learn face-to-face. Not convinced?
For the third year in a row, live events received the highest overall rating (4.68 out of 5) among nearly two dozen member communication vehicles we examined in our annual Association Communications Benchmarking Report. No other member communication channel came close. In fact, nearly 88 percent of the 1,031 association executives who took part in our study considered their live events “very” or “extremely” valuable. What’s more, nearly one in five association leaders (18 percent) told us in last month’s unscientific reader poll that live events (including conferences) were their fastest-growing source of NDR (see Did You Know).
Fastest-growing sources of NDR
For Matthew Gambill, executive director of the Georgia Association for Career & Technical Education (GACTE), the fastest-growing NDR sources are sponsorship of the annual conference, plus advertising and ancillary services. “I attribute this growth to the rising interest in the constituency of our association and the students they teach,” he said.
Joseph Ricci, CAE, president and CEO of textile and rental services association TRSA, said his fastest-growing source of non-dues revenue is industry certification programs that help members market themselves by authenticating their sustainability (Clean Green) and cleanliness (Hygienically Clean) efforts.
Professional education is also a fast-growing NDR driver for the nursing professional society Sigma Theta Tau International, Inc. (STTI). According to STTI Director of Administration Thomas Popcheff, his organization is offering more programs and events for members to supplement their online education.
NDR wish list
If he had more resources, GACTE’s Gambill said his organization would like to focus more on social media advertising. For STTI’s Popcheff, his organization’s focus would be on providing more affinity programs and web advertising. They’d also like to offer members sponsored professional academies and institutes. “They’re popular with members, but also resource intensive,” said Popcheff. We can’t do these programs without grants from corporations or the government.” And those kinds of grants are getting harder and harder to obtain, as Peter Cuthbert, head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police explains in this Corner Office profile.
For TRSA’s Ricci, additional resources would enable his organization to develop more sponsorships and vendor conferences. “We are a mature industry that continues to consolidate—that directly impacts the number of decision-makers,” he said. “While advertising has remained very strong and actually increased, we believe there is an opportunity to increase revenue through sponsorships of current conferences and events.”
Joint conferences and speed-dating
The Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineers (SAMPE) recently rebranded its largest annual trade show and conference and took on a new partner, The American Composites Manufacturers Association (AMCA) to co-host it. AMCA was once viewed competitively, but as SAMPE CEO Greg Balko explained, “They were covering a lot of the same ground and people that we were, so we decided not to have each other’s lunch. We had the same mission to accomplish.” The show, now known as CAMX—The Composites and Advanced Materials Expo, now attracts 8,500 attendees and 500 exhibitors.”That’s a case where one plus one now equals three,” related Balko.
As Bill Anderson, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Georgia (ABC GA) explained, “You’ve got to put your ego aside. If associations think they can do it all alone in this day and age, they’re going to be very disappointed. You have to reach out to other groups.
Another takeaway from this discussion is that you’ve got to start thinking vertically as well as horizontally. For instance, which aspects of your events offer the most value for members and suppliers? And can those elements be leveraged into niche events and sub-groups of your market? Based on the growth of Naylor’s Global Exchange Events division, the answer to that question is, “Yes.” Also known as exchange events or “B2B speed dating,” appointment-based events bring pre-qualified purchasers and vendors together for one-on-one dialogues at a pre-set time and location. A typical setup is two-dozen appointment desks in the same room, with each vendor having eight to 10 meaningful dialogues with highly qualified buyers.
TRSA’s Ricci agreed. “Our members dominate the market (nearly 95 percent market share) and based on their size and number of decision-makers, we believe there is an opportunity to create a speed-dating style program to directly connect associates (vendors) with industry leaders.”
Avoiding common NDR mistakes
While opportunities abound, our experts warned that NDR dollars don’t just fall out of the budget tree. STTI’s Popcheff said many associations overestimate how much revenue a new NDR program will generate, especially early on, and they underestimate how much time and resources the programs require. More importantly, associations tend to underestimate how much member dissatisfaction results from an ill-conceived NDR program.
According to Ricci, another common misstep is not understanding what your members, vendors and partners really want from you and underestimating the potential brand fallout the results from pursuing too many non-dues revenue sources. “I agree,” said Gambill. There’s often a “failure to research the programs and opportunities adequately.”
Print still valued, but must evolve
While the demise of “dead tree media” has been predicted for years, our annual benchmarking study finds that among 1,031 association leaders surveyed, print media still has an average value rating of 4.01 on a scale of 5, including print magazines which weighed in at a healthy 4.20.
“Our direct revenue for print advertising has reached a 10-year high,” reported TRSA’s Ricci. “But while the publications are valued, there is definitely a push toward alternative advertising and communications such as e-newsletters, social media and other web-based opportunities,” he added.
STTI’s Popcheff said his organization’s two long-standing journals (Journal of Nursing Scholarship and Worldviews on Evidence Based Practice) remain highly valued by members, but they’re gradually moving from a print/digital hybrid model to a digital only offering. “Not only will this save us money, but it will be more appealing to younger members,” he said. “It’s got to be readable on the go, on a mobile device and tablet.”
Using advertiser and sponsor feedback
According to Association Adviser’s annual Association Communications Benchmarking Report, only about half (53.4 percent) of organizations ask their advertisers and sponsors if they’re getting their money’s worth and when they get that feedback, only about three in five associations (61 percent) incorporate that feedback into their pricing strategies. Ouch!
Ricci said TRSA compares its ad rates and cost-per-impression ratio to what’s offered by trade publications and other associations in its market. GACTE uses an electronic conference evaluation system for feedback and STTI adjusts its pricing as needed, based on competitive intelligence and feedback it gets from past sponsors and donors.
Jim Anderson, executive director of the California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE), said that after the economic downturn, he and his team called 20 different suppliers to ask them about their goals, their budgets and how CalSAE could improve its partnership with them.
TRSA’s ad sales reps manage only eight to 12 accounts, explained Ricci, so they are able to understand each advertiser’s needs more deeply. “We also use electronic ‘bingo cards’ that enable readers to request more information from each of our advertisers.” Ricci said TRSA advertisers get anywhere from 10 to 25 leads a month based on their offer and ad, and they also generate leads from their e-newsletter opens and click-throughs.
“Email surveys are a start, but you’ve really got to reach out and touch members at your face-to-face meetings and focus groups,” explained Georgia ABC’s Bill Anderson. “You’ve got to pick up the phone and talk to members—a lot of people have forgotten how to use the phone. We tell members, we want you to help us determine where ABC needs to go over the next two to three years and most actually want to take the time to help out.”
Need for advertising and sponsorship customization
Source: Association Adviser and Naylor, LLC 2014
According to our annual benchmarking research, just 10 percent of associations fully customize their advertising and sponsorships for each partner and only about one-third (32.7 percent) offer some customization, primarily to their best clients and partners. Ricci said TRSA addresses customization from several perspectives: (a) special product supplements that target valued audiences and that include “case study” advertorial, (b) editorial calendar development that also focuses on specific markets, including product showcases, and (c) targeted content in its monthly magazine and weekly e-newsletters that incorporates company profiles for specific machinery or products.
As CalSAE’s Jim Anderson related, “Companies told us they wanted a more customized approach for their sponsorship dollars. So we created more exclusive and intimate opportunities, for example, our quarterly CEO Lunch Series. It’s free for CEOs of small associations so they can discuss challenges and issues with their peers.” A vendor sponsors the event, which covers the lunches and staff time involved. It’s been a very popular member benefit, said Anderson, “but it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had those conversations with our suppliers.”
Can NDR go too far?
GACTE’s Gambill said you need to be careful about getting “over saturated.” TRSA’s Ricci agreed. “If you stray too far from the brand and/or mission of the association, NDR programs can create confusion in the market and push members to become less engaged.” STTI’s Popcheff concurred that NDR can go too far if you’re investing too many resources in your revenue-producing programs and not offering members enough core benefits, such as professional networking opportunities.
So, when it comes to NDR, be careful watch you wish for. You just might get it. That’s why you should never stop asking your members, suppliers and stakeholders if you’re giving them what they really want.
Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.