By Charles Popper
A year ago, I was sharing a cup of coffee with the COO of a large, national association and having a casual conversation about how the “new normal” was affecting our respective organizations. Things got interesting when the topic turned to competition. What shocked me was the COO’s belief that his biggest competition was not another association, or the “belt-tightening” budgets of his members’ companies, but a business-to-business (B2B) publisher’s expansion into non-traditional revenue streams. In other words, he was concerned that areas traditionally owned by his association were now being encroached upon by this B2B publisher.
At that time of this conversation, print advertising dollars where rapidly contracting in this industry and the B2B publisher was looking to the association’s market as an avenue for continuing education, events and face-to-face networking to fill the void in its print advertising budget. These ancillary areas were long the strongholds of the association.
Sound familiar? It should, because I had this very same conversation a month ago with another national association that felt it was in a race for the informational supremacy of its industry, and there is no clear-cut winner in this battle yet. The participants of the battle had again been whittled down to the association and an industry trade publisher.
Over the holidays, an interesting and controversial blog (as judged by the number and type of comments posted) questioned the value of the writer’s membership to a professional association to which he belonged. This blogger felt as though the resources that the association offered were not relevant to him and did not provide him what he was looking for in terms of professional growth, networking and informational needs. What he found better filled his void were blogs, social networking and private user groups.
These examples should serve as a wake-up call to any association leader that traditional competition must be continually met head on. More importantly, non-traditional competition is no longer non-traditional. It is the new norm and coming at the association and at businesses not just from the front, but from all sides. The new definition of competition must include both for- and non-profits, B2B publishers, social media, blogs and private user groups and all other places where relevant conversation is occurring.
If nothing else, you need to ask yourself two important questions: First, when has your organization last analyzed its competition? Do you really know who your competition is and who is competing for your member and potential member’s dollars, not to mention their time and attention? Second, are you listening to feedback that your members are giving you? More importantly, are the channels open so that feedback can be received and second, acknowledged that it has been heard?
We recently launched the association community’s most comprehensive benchmarking survey and one question that we asked was: “How are you listening to members and gaining meaningful feedback?” I typically don’t like to draw conclusions from ongoing surveys, but it suffices to say that executive directors are not seeing the competitive landscape through the same lens as their communications directors, and communicators aren’t seeing the landscape the same way as membership directors are.
Listening and Learning
So, how am I addressing and staying ahead of my competition? I’m focusing on conversation, listening and listening. Particularly insightful conversations are those that I have with new clients. I try to make it a regular practice to find out how they learned about Naylor, who else they were considering as partners and most importantly, why they did (or dare I say, why they did not) select us as their communication partner. These questions can apply to all organizations whether they are associations, professional societies or suppliers to the association community.
For listening, I often turn to social media. We can all debate its merits, but one thing we can all agree on is that there is a wealth of information available via social networking channels. While I am not an active poster and contributor on Twitter and other popular social networking channels, I am an active listener to the conversations being had there. There is no better way to keep one’s finger on the trends, new products and association news than by using social media.
With steps one and two (listening and learning) complete, you need to move to steps three and four: test and apply. But, that is a topic for forthcoming columns.
Charles Popper is Naylor’s vice president of association relations. He has more than 15 years of business-to-business and consumer publishing experience.
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