What's the Answer to Associations' Cash Flow Struggle?

"Associations once performed the important tasks of advocating on behalf of their members with regulators, providing technical training and certification, aggregating content, and creating opportunities for members to network while they scarfed down bacon-wrapped scallops," says Elizabeth Williams, Director of Brand & Communications for ADP Canada.

"But those days are rapidly drawing to a close. Association membership has been in steep decline for years and it seems likely that soon we’ll have only a handful of truly national organizations with more than a few hundred members."

Associations, once high and mighty, are confronting membership decline by cutting expenses and, with them, member benefits.

In that regard, their descent into irrelevance is reminiscent of the gradual decline of newsstand magazines, as described by renowned editor Terry McDonnell in his new memoir The Accidental Life.

Editors were a complacent and arrogant lot in the 1960s, "70s and '80s, says McDonnell, when magazine publishing was enjoying a golden age. But the rise of the web in the late '90s forced editors to convert their magazines into "stores," according to McDonnell.

"Many editors were already working on turning their magazines into stores," he writes. "That was fine with me: let them become stores, righteous stores in service of readers and users, stores that were not for sale. I said I would shop at those stores."

But the world wasn't having it. The "information superhighway" was disrupting a 200-year-old business model.

"It was like the cautionary allegory of being in the railroad business instead of the shipping business when public works projects were laying down the national highway system, " McDonnell writes. "To stretch the metaphor: if you were in the news business, you needed to jump off the traditional tracks. What we did instead was cut costs."

McDonnell watched magazines' editorial and printing quality reduced and good staff people throughout his industry laid off or forced into early retirement. "Every firing reflected the lack of business leadership," he writes. "It felt like a great library was burning down."

As with magazines, associations have watched for-profit organizations scoop up market share by providing home-grown professional certifications, online training courses, e-books, newsletters, research reports, white papers, and proprietary trade shows.

Some associations are reacting by re-branding. The Consumer Electronics Association is now the Consumer Technology Association; the Snack Food Association is now SNAC International; the PCIA–The Wireless Infrastructure Association–is now the Wireless Infrastructure Association; and the American Society of Training & Development is now the Association for Talent Development.

But rebranding may in most cases represent "a little too little, a little too late," says branding consultant Denise Lee Yohn.

Rebranding "misses an important opportunity for associations to rethink their roles as well as their names, and consider how a new name might help advance a different purpose and achieve a different impact," she says. Associations could "unleash the full potential of a rebrand" and use it to "present a bold vision for the future of their industries and position themselves as instrumental to getting to that future."

That vision might recast associations as values-centered communities, advocacy groups, or lobbyists; or even as providers of new technology.

But even the unveiling of a new vision won't bring much-need cash in, cash needed to operate and fund member programs. That requires a return to basic best practices, or what we like to call "the lost art of marketing."

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