What We Learned About Associations in 2011

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

As ASAE’s Reggie Henry quipped during a recent conversation with us, “associations have historically evolved to meet the demands of their members and a changing society.” Today, they’re working their magic again despite a host of economic, political, technological and demographic challenges on the horizon.


  • Now is an excellent time for associations to get a leg up on their for-profit competitors.
  • Innovation is most needed, and perhaps easy to make happen, when times are tough
  • Nearly half of associations have sustained their membership in this difficult economy.

At the onset of the recession, many associations told us they worried about being dis-intermediated by the web. They worried the web would make their key membership benefits—peer-to-peer networking, professional education and industry information—freely accessible to anyone with a mouse and an Internet connection. Yet, nearly half (44 percent) of association leaders we surveyed last month said they’ve been able to hold the membership base steady—if not grow it—since the recession began. Impressive.

READER NOTE: For more 2011 surprises, see the Did You Know column in today’s issue.

How are they doing it? As American Public Power Association vice president Jeanne Labella notes in today’s Corner Office round-up story, innovation is most needed, and perhaps easy to make happen, when times are tough. Kim Howard, editor-in-chief of ACC Docket, the flagship publication of the 26,000-member Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), agreed, saying, “You can’t wait for members to tell you what they want. You have to be proactive.”

As we talk with association leaders across North America, three macro trends keep bubbling to the surface: social networking, mobile media and non-dues revenue (NDR).

Naylor CEO and President Alex DeBarr said that now is an unusually ripe time for associations to experiment with new tools to get a leg up on their for-profit competitors. “Many trade publishers,” he said, “are in the grasp of painful reorganizations without an association’s cushion of dues revenue and professional education income.”

Social media

Social networking is fast, efficient and economical. Plus, it’s based on many of the same principles that fostered the creation of associations in the first place—bringing like-minded people together to share experiences, best practices and referrals. Association members, especially the younger ones, are very socially active online and very tech savvy, according to Chris Monek, head of business development and partnerships for the Associated General Contractors (AGC). “That’s how they communicate and network with each other, and they expect you to have core capabilities in the mobile and social arena,” he said.

While most associations have some type of social media offering now, fewer than one-third (31.9 percent) claim to have an actual strategy or policy in place.

How far along is your social media strategy?

Strategy and policy now in place 31.9%
Still experimenting and learning 24.2%
Plan to have strategy and policy within 12 months 20.9%
Social media not a high priority for us 19%

Source: Association Adviser and Naylor, LLC 2011 | N=87

The latest reader survey results are fairly consistent with our 2011 Association Communication Benchmarking Report. On the plus side, nearly two-thirds of the 700 responding associations said they have a dedicated employee or team responsible for their online presence. On the minus side, only 35 percent are actually measuring the success of their social media offerings.

Measuring social media is a conundrum right now, said Terrance Barkan, CAE, head of SocialStrat, an Alexandria, Virginia-based consulting firm. “Some CEOs want to see crystal clear, transparent numbers for everything they do,” he said. “Others just want some kind of evidence that members are talking and engaging.”

Larry Caniglia, executive director of the Northeast Spa & Pool Association (NESPA) said he feels pressure to provide “all the tools to all the members all the time, even if they don’t use them all the time.” While experimenting with all the commonly used social networking platforms, NESPA also teamed with the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals International to create MyAPSP, a pool and spa professionals industry stand-alone site and social networking hub with more than 2,500 members.

Our prediction is that by this time next year, the number of associations with a real social strategy in place will be double what it is today—and the number of social media offerings in which each association invests will be substantially less.


According to IDC Research, mobile devices out-shipped personal computers for the first time this year and 85 million mobile apps will be downloaded next year. What’s more, more than 200 mobile apps have been developed specifically for the meetings industry, according to Corbin Ball Associates.

“In 2010 we were a 1970 association. Now we’re a 2015 association that’s cool and cutting edge,” thanks to the iPad Square app, related Mike Hyland, APPA’s vice president of engineering. The Square debuted at APPA’s annual Lineworkers Rodeo event earlier this year and lets any merchant or organization take credit card or cash payments directly on their iPhones or iPads. The technology enables merchants to accept finger signatures on the touchscreen, generate email or SMS receipts to the customer’s iPhone or other mobile device, calculate sales tax and generate an online accounting dashboard to keep track of sales.

In addition to the revenue boost, APPA can eliminate carbon paper. It can process orders long before getting back to the office and now has better intelligence about future program content inventory needs. Talk about game-changing technology!

Members are increasingly working away from their desks

ACC’s Kim Howard said you have to be ready for “all the digital natives coming up in their careers.” They’re used to getting information “wherever they are, whenever they want and in the format they want since they always have their mobile devices with them.” When ACC interviews a subject for its magazine, it also records an audio file of the interview. Outtakes from the interview that don’t make it to the print magazine can be furnished as additional premium content for the e-zine, website, RSS feeds and mobile channels, she said.

APPA’s Mike Hyland said his organization is developing mobile apps for linemens’ safety manuals and procedures. Like APPA’s members, members of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) are frequently on the job site rather than at their desks. “They live on their smartphones and iPads,” said ASID’s Director of Research & Knowledge Michael Berens. The next iteration of ASID’s website is more mobile friendly, like the organization’s new portal ASID Icon, which, according to Berens, integrates “everything that’s happening at ASID” from its magazine and newsletters to its web-only content. This content includes interviews, articles, photos, case studies, blog posts and more.

Non-Dues Revenue (NDR)

Last month’s Association Adviser reader poll discovered that nearly half (45.5 percent) of respondents consider non-dues revenue to be an “increasingly important” component of their 2012 budgets. For instance, we found that 42 percent of associations now operate their member communication vehicles with the intention of turning a profit, not as break-even initiatives or loss leaders.

“NDR now accounts for 50 to 75 percent of overall revenue,” according to Ramona Jones, vice chair of IBAT services for the Independent Bankers Association of Texas. “Ten to 15 years ago, dues represented 50 to 75 percent of total revenue. So the ratio has just about flipped.”

In addition to education programs, Ken Cousineau, executive director of the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association (CGSA), said the other area of opportunity is advertising, “provided that you can be flexible and adjust to meet the ‘flavor of the day’ with respect to advertisers’ fickle needs.”

AGC’s Chris Monek noted that webinars have been a very successful source of non-dues revenue. In a tight job market, he said members really want to enhance their professional development. At the same time, their bosses want to keep travel costs down and keep time out of the office to a minimum. Webinars are a great solution. “We charge for many of our webinars, but we often get them sponsored and that allows us to make the webinars available free of charge, or at a reduced cost for our members,” he said.

Will NDR replace dues at most associations? Not so fast.

“I see this as a troubling scenario because it signals a lack of loyalty or regard for the value of the association as an institution and a focus more on ‘what is in it for me,'” argued CGSA’s Cousineau.”The value of the intangibles that an association offers to its members, and indeed to all members of the profession, erodes when the members don’t provide the support and resources that are required.”

On the flip side, AGC’s Monek said his organization has a “huge vision” to educate all general contractors and thus, a “big appetite for resources.” AGC is committed to holding the line on dues, so new sources of revenue are imperative to finance broad education needs.


Ken Ebeling, senior vice president of membership at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), said associations should not just focus on finding new streams of revenue but adapt to changes in legacy streams of revenue. Today you have to learn to operate in a last-minute, just-in-time environment.

“We used to know three or four months out how a conference was shaping up,” he said. “Now, even three or four weeks out, we still don’t have a handle on how many attendees and exhibitors are coming.”

But some core principles of the association’s role in an industry or profession aren’t likely to change. They’ll always have a responsibility to be the leaders in their respective industries. The difference is that with so much information available to members for free—and with so much coming at them from so many directions—associations need to use all the tools at their disposal to sustain their leadership brand to make their voices louder and stronger in a cluttered marketplace.

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser.