By Association Adviser staff
Imagine a place where the economy is booming, where elected official pass legislation consistently, where almost everyone who wants a job has one and where there’s not enough housing and labor to meet demand. A tropical island paradise you say? A dream world you guess?
Actually it’s the resource-rich western provinces of Canada where the oil boom, along with surging demand for the region’s potash, crops, gold, silver, crops and lumber have us “firing on all eight cylinders” related Gary Hamilton, president of the Western Retail Lumber Association. “We never really got dragged into the economic downturn that’s been so tough on the U.S. and many other parts of the world,” he said.
Buoyed by a strong economy and favorable political climate, western Canada has lots of government infrastructure projects in the works, which Hamilton said is a boon to WRLA’s 1,200 members, half of whom are retailers and half of whom are suppliers. What most have in common is that they’re independents, not Home Depot or Lowe’s, added Hamilton, who spent much of his career as a buyer for Sears Canada and True Value hardware before coming to the WRLA.
Highly engaged members need more compelling content
WRLA serves what Hamilton terms “a highly engaged membership that really wants us to succeed” (48 percent responded to a recent online member survey). So, the natural inclination for many association leaders in that situation would be to become complacent.
Not likely on Hamilton’s watch.
“Members told us that they were suffering from information overload and that our communications were becoming lost in the clutter,” noted Hamilton. “We had to do something about it.” A recent WRLA strategic planning session found that members wanted more compelling content and more relevant information about their industry.
For starters, WRLA revamped its website to make it cleaner, more relevant and more specific to members’ needs. On the home page, key benefits now appear much higher on the screen, the education programs easier to find and there is much more emphasis on the “circle of connectivity” between the member magazine (Yardstick), the Prairie Showcase annual trade show, the WRLA TV show, WRLA blogs, the calendar and member benefits.
WRLA also turned to online video to help fill that void. “The video medium is the way to go in the future,” said Hamilton, “but it has to be done well and it can’t be intrusive.” The first episode of WRLA TV is part informational and part educational.
Online video isn’t just a gimmick for WRLA—it’s the focal point of its new website. The goal of WRLA’s new website is to create an informational hub where members can not only learn, but can have a conversation with each other, whether it’s member-to-member or member-to-association.
WRLA developed a Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn presence, plus several blogs and mobile applications for its member communications channels. In the future, there will be more two-way communication between the association and its members, said Hamilton, and better integration of all of the WRLA social media assets. WRLA recently hired a full time social media “champion,” which is a noteworthy investment for an organization of only four full-time staff members. “Plain vanilla doesn’t cut it anymore,” said Hamilton. “You have to know how to ask the right questions so [members] will want to get involved in the discussion.”
Gen Y initiatives
Hamilton said WRLA is doing more to reach younger members of the profession—its next big audience as Boomers start to retire. “We’re offering more online education programs than we used to so members under the age of 35 can attend. Too many have been telling us that at this stage of their careers, they can’t afford to take time out of their jobs to travel far to get their continuing education. We’ve also started a Gen Y committee for young leaders in the industry. They’ll have their own forum at the annual Prairie Showcase, and we’ll let them decide what to call the group, we’re not going to tell them what to call it.”
Catering to two distinct audiences: Boomers and Gen Y
WRLA found that Boomers and other longstanding members of the association tend to be pretty traditional. They like the print magazine and the directory. They also like face-to-face networking and the golf tournaments. “Believe it or not, we still get great response from our fax campaigns,” said Hamilton. The Gen Y’s are much more into social media, and they really gravitate to video and mobile,” said Hamilton, adding that you can’t force-feed one group the other group’s media preferences if you want to stay relevant with them.
Then there’s the mammoth Prairie Showcase held every January—300,000 square feet, more than 3,000 attendees, 650 exhibit booths with a waiting list of two dozen companies. It’s the largest regularly held trade show in Canada and one of the five largest in North America,” according to Hamilton.
“It’s clearly one of our signature member benefits. Now in its 20th year, there’s just no better way to network, meet with business associates and peers to talk business, check out new products and take advantage of show specials that are only offered by exhibitors. So many of our industry’s new products are launched in January, and the Showcase is the place to debut them to the industry.”
What’s keeping you up at night?
The world is becoming more of a global community, observed Hamilton. “We still have a lot of members used to operating in their own narrowly defined areas, such as rural retailers. They can’t continue to isolate themselves from what’s happening in other parts of the world. Economic and political issues in Europe, for instance, can have a big impact on their local businesses, even in rural Western Canada—we call that ‘glocalization’ of the economy,” said Hamilton.
WRLA is also stepping up efforts to train members to deal with increasingly sophisticated buyers who, thanks to technology and the web, are often better informed about the products they want than the retailers on the floor. Since so many Boomers are reaching retiring age, WRLA is helping them manage succession planning issues. “Should you sell your business to a family member or turn it over to outside interests?” asked Hamilton. “It’s not always an easy decision. You’ve got to keep adapting to the times. Hopefully, our members feel the organization and our communication vehicles are keeping pace.”
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