I’ve been thinking a lot lately about specifically strategies that impact association growth. In future articles I’ll go in depth into each of the six strategies I’ve identified. Apply them and you’ll transform your professional society or trade association with insights that impact your growth and drive value to your bottom line.

Association Growth-5But first, consider what it will take to ready your association for real transformation in growth and value. Growing an association takes a great deal of intestinal fortitude. If it were easy, more associations would be on a growth path. Instead, far too many continue to stagnate, perhaps resting a little too contentedly on the successes of the past, or stuck in what they perceive to be the inherent limits of association structure. One look at the corporate world—think Nokia or Blackberry—reveals the result of staying entrenched in outdated practices and thinking.

No industry or organization is exempt from the call to grow:

  • In the corporate A/V world, companies are challenged to make all the different parts of the value chain work together to create a successful end result.
  • In architectural design, technology is evolving the business model in a hugely disruptive way.
  • In the rental housing industry, the intersection of trends, including the financial crisis of 2008, the poor job market that followed, and increasing urbanization have generated huge growth opportunities as former mortgage-holders have become apartment dwellers.

Will changing the status quo be disruptive? Yes, because any meaningful change affects how people do their work and view their contributions. However, if your organization is to reach the next stage of its evolution, it must get out of its own way. As a leader, you must take practical steps to impact growth, recognizing that your action will generate some friction. Your attempt to expand your thinking, increases your membership, and grows your volunteer or staff base will force others to change.

What strategy will you pursue to impact association growth? When it comes time to do strategy, most associations executives make a critical mistake by only asking the board what the business should focus on to succeed in the market. The board doesn’t have all the information required, so, “They’ll come up with suggestions like, ‘We should give our members more of what they want,’ or, ‘We should become a world-class premier organization.’ In truth, they don’t even know if that’s achievable. It’s just what they want.” It is critical that associations consult thought leaders, industry analysts, and market experts as part of strategy development.

In the decades I’ve worked with corporations, consulting on how to make business relationships yield strategic results, I’ve seen that one of the core principles of a growth strategy for associations is that members are customers, and customers always have a choice. Association leaders must align business goals with highly specific knowledge of:

  • Who you are trying to engage;
  • What your value proposition is to that market niche; and
  • How to engage them at a deep level.

No one can be everything to everybody; not even the dominant trade association in an industry sector. Some customers will never be happy simply because they are the type who wake up on the wrong side of the bed every single morning. At some point, an association must have the vision and will to focus on the middle of the bell curve—the members it most wants to engage—and move forward with what takes to engage that profitable segment. The outliers simply cannot be served as efficiently or effectively; the attempt to do so will dilute scarce resources. It takes visionary leadership to unequivocally put members at the center of everything the association does and to allow that focus to guide decisions about marketing communications, talent management, and organizational evolution.

In my experience, six strategies drawn from corporate best practices can impact the growth of member relationships for associations, each of which I’ll cover in future posts:

  1. Uncover the real needs of members;
  2. Reengineer revenue models and relationships;
  3. Scorecard and topgrade the organization;
  4. Invest resources to become an object of interest;
  5. Clean up your infrastructure;
  6. Balance performing with learning.

By applying these strategies you can elevate the business acumen of your association, with transformative impact on your growth. The six strategies will show you the way. It’s up to you to find the will.

Nour Takeaways

  1. Whether you are fighting a challenge or maximizing an opportunity to grow an association, there is no substitute for guts. Accept disruption to accompany action.
  2. Don’t ask your board to decide strategy: They don’t have the information required. Seek the insights of thought leaders and market experts outside your organization.
  3. Let corporate best practices reveal ways to grow association member relationships.



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