From the Corner Office

John Graham on Mobile, Agility and Association Pay

By Association Adviser staff • September 8, 2014

By Association Adviser staff

John Graham
John Graham, President, ASAE

Association Adviser spent a few minutes with John Graham, president of ASAE The Center for Association Leadership. ASAE, which supports the interests of more than 21,000 association executives and industry partners representing 10,000 organizations worldwide, proved at its heavily attended annual meeting last week in Nashville that face-to-face interaction is alive and well even in this digital age.

  • Data shows that associations pay is surprisingly competitive with the for-profit sector.
  • Associations that are agile, with strong value propositions, will continue to be successful. Those that aren’t will never get back the members they lost during the recession.
  • Associations must understand that all messaging and communication is not equally important. High performing organizations have an information traffic cop.


Association Adviser: John, when we spoke at the ASAE annual meeting in Atlanta last year, you said that mobile was the biggest game changer at the time. What’s next on the horizon?

John Graham: Mobile [laughing]. Mobile’s still THE game changer. Now it’s all about how you leverage mobile. Everyone’s got one, two, even three mobile devices. How do you best distribute content over all mobile devices? Why is mobile a game changer for associations? It allows members to create their own unique experience with the association. They can get the content [news, resources, information] they want whenever they want it on whatever device they want.

AA: So, are we getting to the point at which increasingly younger and tech savvy members of the profession prefer to attend meetings like this virtually rather than in person?

JG: Technology, video, virtual. All that is additive—not a replacement for the power of face to face. We have nearly 6,000 total participants here in Nashville. It’s our highest number of association execs since 2007 in Chicago. That was pre-recession and in a city with many associations headquartered there. So a larger than normal number of attendees could attend without traveling.

AA: So, have associations have bounced back from the depths of 2007-08? 

JG: We’re not all the way back, but we’ve bounced back to where we’re going to be—that’s the new normal. Some association have bounced all the way back [and more], some have not. Today, the economic climate is such that if you have a strong value proposition, you’re going to be successful. But, if you don’t have a strong value proposition then you’re not. The [less engaged] members you had before the [financial] crisis, just aren’t coming back.

AA: If a small association suddenly found an extra $100,000 in its operating budget, (or a larger association found an extra $500,000), how do you think they would spend it?

JG: They’d be investing in their technology platform (not staff). Tech is such a driver of the future.

AA: Our annual communication benchmarking study found similar priorities. We expected most respondents to say “add staff,” but instead the majority said they’d invest in upgrading their technology, processes and systems.

JG: Actually most associations ARE staffed at about the right level, but most don’t have the headcount to nail down the tech piece. They need to use consultants, outsourcing and the cloud.

AA: How about the dues versus non-dues-revenue balance?

JG: Dues is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the membership model, especially for professional societies. As I said earlier, members want to create their own experience with the association. The dues model has to reflect that [flexibility]. We need to take a much more customized, a la carte approach to our membership offerings and NDR is critically needed to support that model.

AA: Speaking of revenue, futurist/blogger Seth Godin had a great postabout two common pricing mistakes that organizations make. They create average, commodity products and ask people to pay extra for them, or they create extraordinary products and lose their nerve to charge enough.

JG: That’s so true. Members don’t pay their dues casually anymore and they expect a lot in return. Variable membership schemes will be more prevalent. Associations must educate themselves about pricing. We’re bringing in outside consultants to help us. They’re an objective third party that can help us determine what’s being over-priced and what’s being underpriced. By the way, associations of all sizes can find good, affordable consultants that fit their budgets.

AA: Our research found that communication clutter was once again the top communication challenge faced by associations. Why hasn’t there been more improvement in this critical area of member interaction?

JG: Information overload. Associations have done a poor job of prioritizing their messages. Everything can’t be equally important at the same time. Someone at your organization has to be the information traffic cop. It’s about priority, focus and segmentation. Also, we tend to over-communicate when the additional communication isn’t likely to yield results. For instance, we tend to promote our meetings too much. If someone hasn’t responded to your [repeated] earlier emails about an upcoming meeting, then sending them another 10 emails about the same thing meeting isn’t going to help attendance and could backfire on you.

AA: For bright people considering a job change, what can an association career offer that they might be overlooking?

JG: In addition to what you already know about good work/life balance, collaborative work environment and the opportunity to wear multiple job hats, the best secret of association work is the pay. Turns out association pay is pretty competitive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, associations actually pay $7,000 a year more than a comparable job in the for-profit world.

AA: For bright people who’ve spent most of their careers in associations, what special skills and attributes have they gained that would make them attractive to the for-profit sector?

JG: If you have skills in operational areas such as finance, communications, technology, your skills are very transferrable to the for-profit world and you’ve probably gained a wide variety of experience [working in associations]. But, if you’re a people person in an association-specific job, like volunteer coordinator, than it’s tougher to make the transition.

AA: When it comes to advocacy, what can associations do to engage the “silent majority” or inactive audience within their industries?

JG: Show how you’re representing their interests with lawmakers and constituents. You have to have a compelling issue—never let a serious crisis go to waste as [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emmanuel likes to say. But, don’t manufacture a crisis just to create attention. It’s got to be genuine. And you’ve got to show results. You’ve got to show casual members and prospective members that you’re successfully educating lawmakers and policy influencers about the issues that matter most to your industry or profession.

AA: How about association-wide issues that lawmakers need to be better educated about?

JG: Congress needs to be better educated about the negative impact of cutting back government employee travel to conferences and professional education meetings. They over-reacted [to the General Services Administration scandal]. That just hurts our ability to have well trained, globally competitive government employees. Congress also needs to be better educated about the negative impact of taxing “tax exempt” organizations on their trade show and sponsorship revenue. Associations employ about 10 percent of the workforce and are the leading providers of adult education programs. Reducing income on NDR programs will make it tougher for associations to continue making the positive contributions they make to the world.

AA: Any final thoughts for our readers?

JG: If you’ve seen one association, then you’ve seen one association [chuckling]. No two associations are the same. What I can tell you is that the confluence of three critical factors—demographics, technology and communication—is having a profound impact on all associations. In terms of demographics, the Boomer generation is retiring and we’re drawing from a much smaller pool of potential members to replace them. In terms of technology, associations have a great opportunity now to leverage mass customization. In terms of communication, we’re still communicating face-to-face, but also virtually and online. It’s not a matter of either/or. It’s all of the above.