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Author: Jamie Brougham

What is Your Association’s Competitive Advantage?

I joined the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) as a supplier member because I’m interested in community development and associations represent special interest communities.  So, beyond my business services, what insights might this small business owner and long-time association member have that might be of value and contribute to stronger associations?  

The most basic role associations have played historically was to facilitate interaction amongst its members.  Then, rather suddenly, technology strolled onto the scene and dramatically undermined that role.  Now, communicating is a matter of choice and membership is no longer needed for an individual to find and connect with industry colleagues. In this different world, those who want to perpetuate your association for a reason other than to “maintain staff jobs” might want to read on.  

How does your community benefit from its association?  In its most basic form, any community benefits from interaction among its members.  Personal interaction is a great benefit - it gives the best opportunity for ‘relationship-building’.  It does not necessarily give an advantage to the process of communicating for business purposes.  Your conferences and trade shows are only one option for that.  And you have competition.  It’s time to think like a business is supposed to: innovate and adapt to changing market conditions, or die.  

Associations need to sell the heck out of the ‘opportunity to develop relationships’.  If members can’t afford (or are unwilling) to pay for that benefit, you have a problem.  

The luckiest associations are those where members are regulated: to maintain professional qualification, education is required that is offered by the association.  Education (learning) is the primary reason members attend or participate in association events.  I’m a member of a trade association as a distributor for companies that make branded products (we do clothing, conference bags, awards with organization logos and messages).  Our member businesses should aim to work with the best members and challenge them.  How can our supplier businesses challenge me, the distributor, to be better at what I do in order to better support them?  I want to adapt.  I want to get better.  How can my association help?  By providing guidance.  Bring the sides together, facilitate expression, and define a common mission and goals we all need to accomplish to be better.  The more effectively we can run our businesses and care for customers, the more likely we'll both survive the changes resulting from new technology and globalization!  

Our association has competition – others offer education to our members.  In our association we need to remain committed to excellence in our field, and not allow generalists to dilute the specialized value of our education programming.  We need to facilitate member communication in meetings and forums so that we constantly challenge one another to be better.  An association’s job is to fuel and facilitate such dialogue and to encourage the industry or profession to develop the best road forward through association.  Make that happen!  

Another way my association is becoming a greater asset for our members is through the creation of tools that help them do their job.  Not only are our members benefiting from the tools but their addition has resulted in another revenue stream.  Having alternate income streams is important - if our program and education strategies are to focus on quality rather than quantity, at least in the short term, membership numbers could take a hit.  We need to be prepared.

Traditional trade shows and conferences need to adapt.  Facilitate personal contact so that suppliers get to know their customers better.  Members need their best human resources in attendance to lead in the evolution process - that includes senior management.  Just sending the troops can be alienating and may be viewed by some as a cop out.

Associations bring people together.  While the biggest companies and institutions are gaining control of a wider range of resources, they can become less personal.  Personal relationships developed and established through face-to-face communication must still be the primary goal!  A good place for leaders to lead is a place where the troops meet - at your conference.  Companies and institutions who register owners, presidents and industry stars will have an advantage.  They will build and benefit from strong relationships.  Not just with friendly smiles, that’s important too, but by challenging each other!  

If you want other examples of what you can do to improve your association for members, ask them.  Your members have ideas.  Exercise some principles of democracy with a questionnaire asking questions like:

  • Why are you a member?
  • What are the best benefits of being a member?
  • Who’s our community’s biggest competitor and why?
  • What is your biggest business worry?

Get those engagement percentages up.  If you don’t, there may well come a day when you are perpetuating your association for the sake of your job.  If that’s the case, brush up your résumé, because in this day and age, if your association does not provide tangible benefits, it is every man or woman for themselves!