Competitors emerge every day. There is someone out there who claims to do it better, faster and cheaper. Associations see this today with for-profit competitors entering the marketplace and providing your members with free education, multimillion-dollar trade shows, guaranteed ROI, and subscription-based media communicating with your industry.
They’re stealing your husbands or wives, kissing your babies and making your association less and less relevant every day. OK, the stealing spouses and kissing babies part is far-fetched, but replace that with non-dues revenue: Your competitors are stealing your non-dues revenue by wooing your members to invest in their brand, their trade show, their publication and their hosted-buyer event – leaving you in the cold.
There is something your association can do about this though. Branding expert David Avrin, CSP, discussed why branding is essential in today’s marketplace at the Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress (MPI WEC) last month in Las Vegas. Here’s how a few of Avrin’s solutions can help associations strengthen their brand and increase non-dues revenue.
First, recognize associations are in a buyer’s marketplace.
In his session “Visibility Wins: How to Attract the Best Customers and Create an Army of Raving Fans,” Avrin explained that we’re in a buyer’s marketplace. That’s no secret. There are five different grocery stores within a mile radius of my house. It’s the same shopping scenario for prospective association members looking for education, professional connections and development. They can choose to become a member of your organization or not because, let’s be honest, there’s no shortage of for-profit competitors contacting them constantly.
It’s all about the brand. It’s one reason why I choose to shop at Publix – “where shopping is a pleasure” – verses the other stores that sometimes offer the products I buy at lower prices. What valuable experience are you offering to members who join your association? Regardless of which competitors rise up in the marketplace, associations have to be brand experts and convey their value. Promote the exclusive experience offered by being an active member of your association and the official, association-based benefits and resources, such as your education conference, local lunch and learns, online community, industry-specific publications, newsletters and networking events. Be humble but honest. You really are that awesome, and it’s OK to brag about it.
Second, scream your value from the rooftop.
Working with powerful professional and trade associations daily, I have been searching for the answer to keep our associations strong, relevant and moving forward. One thing that still shocks me daily is when an association doesn’t understand their own value. That’s a problem. Avrin said, “Doing business without promotion is like winking at someone in the dark. You know what you’re doing, but no one else does.” This is exactly what many associations do daily. Your association is fighting for your respective industry, lobbying for positive change on Capitol Hill, providing members with invaluable education offerings, and connecting buyers and suppliers through face-to-face networking opportunities year round. The problem is you’re not telling anyone (and everyone) about what you’re doing!
To recruit members and industry partners who will invest in your vision, you must be visible in the marketplace. After identifying your target audience for membership and industry partnerships, get where they are and scream from the rooftop how you are impacting your industry. Associations are powerful. They do collectively what one person, company or competitor can’t do on their own. But your association is only as strong as your membership recruitment and retention efforts. If prospective members don’t know what you’re doing, don’t count on them to be loyal to you or your cause. You are only as strong as your belief in your association and your ability to convey that belief.
Third, recognize your brand is not your own.
What is your brand? Avrin said, “It’s your reputation – what you’re known for in the marketplace.” Your reputation doesn’t belong to you because – put simply – you can’t control what others think of you. This is why it’s important to convey clearly to your members and prospective members who you are, what you stand for, what you’re fighting for, and what you’re the absolute best at. Otherwise, count on your for-profit competitors to fill in the information gap.
“You have to be known as the best choice in the marketplace for one thing,” Avrin said. Is it your event experience reaching key decision makers in your industry? Education? Legislative influence? Customized member experience? What do we think when we hear your association’s name? Carefully craft your messaging and make sure all departments involved with your association’s brand convey the same message in all forms of communication. Avrin reiterated, “Marketing is not a department,” it’s everyone’s job and responsibility.
This leads to the next point, your existing members, staff and stakeholders need to have a clear view of your brand. This ensures a consistent message of value is conveyed. If you’re promoting a customized member experience, then get testimonials from members who have experienced that within your association. The worst thing you can do is promote your brand and then not deliver on it.
Finally, storm the castle.
It’s time to take your membership and their support back. In my job as a member communications partner for associations, we ask your association members for support through advertising and sponsorship in your publications, newsletters, online buyers’ guides, trade shows, hosted-buyer exchanges and more to drive non-dues revenue for your association while helping your members build their brand in front of their target audience. But with the shift from a sellers’ to a buyer’s market, advertisers have more choices now than they ever have. They’re shopping around and they’re buying with your competitors. As Avrin said, “It’s nothing personal.” However, money talks and your members and prospective members think for-profit competitors can deliver more value than you can. That’s not the truth. No one can deliver more targeted connections than your association can by connecting your regular and affiliate members.
You have the power of your association and respective industry as your foundation, and it’s time for you to stand firm, rebuild your brand as the leading professional and trade associations fighting for your industry, and storm the castle your competitors have built with your members support. It’s time for you to pick up the phone and ask your members why they are advertising, sponsoring and supporting your competitors versus you. You might be surprised to find it’s because they don’t know what you do and they don’t know your brand. Rise up associations and build your brand. Your relevance depends on it.