How Your Organization Can Remain Relevant to its Audience
Most associations operate under a constant concern of losing membership, but how much of this can they attribute to the need to remain relevant? Have associations become too complacent in their reliance on the shared purpose and agendas of their target audience without keeping an eye open to critical changes that affect their membership?
It used to be that the shared industry, interests, and the like that defined a given association's membership was enough to create a clearly defined market for an organization's membership pool. Are you in a particular trade? Then the association that covers such tradespeople is for you. It was simple, but times have changed. The not-for-profit sector is now, more than ever, in direct competition with the business sector for the money that used to be earmarked for membership dues.
The agendas of collective benefits on social good that drive associations are now a common cornerstone of corporate marketing and public relations. Rather than focusing on products directly, corporations push their brands as tools of positive social change. By doing so, these corporations portray their products as a means to help them support their social responsibility. In effect, businesses are now presenting themselves and their brand as the product and their actual products as a means for their customers to become a part of the good they are doing.
Sound familiar? It should because it is the framework within which associations operate. Additionally, the ease and speed of digital mediums make it easier for individual and business consultancies to approach an association's membership to provide the same or similar services and benefits.So how can not-for-profit organizations remain relevant to their membership in the face of such change and competition? What are just some of the challenges impeding an organization's continuing relevance?
How Associations Compete with Business for Members and Sponsorship
Associations now find themselves contending with corporations for money. Despite its purpose and varied agendas, overall cause sponsorship is a growing aspect of doing business in modern markets where the audience increasingly becomes more socially aware. As an association, you may think cause sponsorship increasingly sliding towards business markets is a concern for charities, but you would be wrong.
Look at it this way: as corporations increasingly want to tie their brands to worthwhile causes, less money remains in their budgets for sponsorship deals with associations. The risk of shrinking sponsorship opportunities for associations increases the more focused the organization's audience and membership is, reducing the sponsor's exposure accordingly compared to the exposure they get from promoting their own cause-brand relationship. This means the more involved with direct cause sponsorship a corporation becomes, the less need they have for association sponsorship deals. Similarly, corporations that pay associations membership dues as a means of networking rely on that mechanism less as cause sponsorship helps them build such relationships themselves through cause engagement.
Rise of the Consultants and the Internet
Associations were once the go-to resource for most people operating within the related field, but this is no longer the case in many respects. Now, paying highly specialized consultants to obtain the immediate benefits association members receive as just a part of their organization membership benefits is a cost-effective option. Why pay annual membership fees for a broad spectrum of options one probably won't make full use of when you can pay a consultant a lower rate for a more focused, "as needed" approach?
Of course, as generations of young professionals mature and begin taking over key positions in not-for-profit sectors, they bring with them a life experience rooted in accessing the Internet to find the answers for any and all problems. With access to readily available information and pools of specialists ready to provide their expertise, yet again we see associations become less relevant as a resource for answers. Direct calls from CSAE members seeking assistance with something their organization needs, for example, often begin along the lines of "I've looked all over online but can't find what I need. Can you help me out?" The Internet is making associations the last resort for answers rather than the first stop.
So what does this mean for associations looking to remain relevant?
Remaining Relevant to Enlightened, Digital Markets
Remaining relevant requires associations find new and innovative ways to build relationships with their audience, membership, and potential sponsors. Given how digital channels and businesses are taking away opportunities from associations, replacements and responses must be identified and explored.
Is your association experiencing fewer calls and in-person queries for aid from your membership market because of available online resources? Well then, make sure it is your association that has the best, most thorough online archive of that sort of information if it hopes to remain relevant. Transform your organization into the "go to" source for what your audience needs. But how do you translate that into membership or other monetization channels?
Gate some of your content. Put up a barrier between your audience and some of the resources you offer. Provide enough openly and without restriction to enable it to easily get found, but put the rest behind a gateway. This gateway can be as simple as requiring signing up for your newsletter or other communications, through which you can push membership, or for "members only." There's nothing wrong with making your audience give something in return for something of value you offer, so long as you do it strategically and have enough trust from your audience to warrant the requirement.
As for what you can do to retain and attract sponsors, look into ways to increase their exposure. Letting them put up a banner at your events, in your communications, and on your website is rapidly becoming an inadequate trade-off. You need to offer more and newer ways to increase a sponsor's exposure to your audience. This can include something as simple as using your analytics to give your sponsors better location exposure on your website, or be as involved as working with sponsors to create unique videos that present them to your membership in a more apt, focused manner.
Just don't be complacent if your association hopes to remain relevant.
In their book, Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations,
Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE address many of the issues this article brings up. They strip away the nonsense and lay bare the facts of the struggle associations face in remaining relevant. If you are looking for a starting point to help your organization begin addressing the relevancy problems it faces, this is the book for you.