We know the value of trade associations – they play a vital role in social and economic dialogue. They bring competing organizations together to protect and promote entire industries, products, services, and workforces.
But like other organizations, trade associations are going through a transition period. Their role in society is becoming muddied and complicated as new competitors emerge, industries contract and expand, and technology reshapes how the world does business. As the world changes, so do the demands of members.
This brings new challenges to the trade association of today, but also provides an opportunity to make it stronger, more efficient, and more effective. Technology and engagement techniques like online communities can help.
Here are four key challenges trade associations face today and community tactics you can use to overcome them.
Technology is changing the way many industries work, globalization is changing the workforce and economy, and competitors are forcing established organizations to find new, agile ways of doing business.
Your association is likely dealing with all these changes at the same time, many of which have already reshaped your industry and altered member dynamics. Those changes will only continue. Just think about AI and blockchain– both could turn entire industries on their heads.
The best approach for dealing with new technology or industry shifts is to get out in front of them. Don’t look at new technology and trends with the expectation that they’ll go away. Research new technology and use your expertise in the industry to identify what could have a significant impact and what will not. Make a plan on how to deal with significant changes quickly.
Then, turn your research into resources for your members. Create a dedicated resource hub in your private member community with educational documents, webinars, and videos to help members understand how new technology and industry trends impact them. Do this well, and your association will become the go-to source of information. Your resources may even become one of your top member benefits, because industry changes affect your members just as much as your association, and most members will pay for help dealing with them.
We’re all familiar with the generation gap, and for good reason. There's a difference in the preferences and habits of each generation. Understanding and adapting to these preferences is an opportunity for your association to better serve members.
For trade associations, this often means different expectations for different members. Gen Y and Z staff members will be more technologically reliant and eager for change, while older generations want to maintain institutional knowledge and a foundation for what already works. It’s your job to balance each of those needs and use the best from each generation to lead your industry forward.
The fastest way to deal with this challenge is to start a conversation with your new and prospective members. What do they like about your association now and what would they change? Use their responses to create policies and member benefits that meet needs across generations. That may mean implementing tiered member benefits and a variety of platforms to provide those benefits, so each generation can engage in the way that best suits them.
A more long-term solution to managing the generation gap is to get new organizations or prominent young professionals involved in association leadership. Form a council or committee of forward-thinking members of multiple generations to bring in new ideas and strategies. Give them a private space in your online community where they can have discussions, share documents, and schedule meetings. They’ll bring a new perspective to the table and help your association learn what the next generation needs.
One association that has had success in bringing young leaders into the association is the Marine Retailers Association of America (MRAA). They formed a Young Leaders Advisory Council and brought in new association leadership to help increase their openness to new ideas. The changes have helped provide value and grow membership. Have a multi-generational membership also benefits MRAA’s industry by keeping its workforce strong and active.
Connections are always formed by people, which is why it’s difficult for trade associations to get their members to connect – they’re dealing with entire organizations, not just individuals.
For example, one of our clients helps companies adhere to federal hiring guidelines. Like many trade associations, their member companies do not often connect with each other. Instead, it’s the people within those companies who look for advice from individual departments and roles. Human resources staff within each company connect to ask questions about the work they all did. They discuss hiring regulations, audits, and give one another advice. Those staff members then advocate to their companies, explaining how membership benefits them.
Without those connections, it’s far more difficult for individuals to seek out career and industry advice. The value of a membership stems from the resources and interactions gleaned from the trade association – whether that’s peer to peer, organization to organization, or association to organization.
Use a combination of awareness and engagement tactics to get people involved. Begin by researching your member organizations and their employees, using industry personas to identify which individuals would benefit from getting more involved and making peer connections.
Once you have your target audience, give them a place to connect. Events, such as annual or regional conferences, and online communities are good places to start. They bring individuals together and help them start discussions about their questions, challenges, and successes so they can form lasting connections.
When individuals and organizations start getting more involved, deepen your relationship by enlisting champions. Champions already see the value in your association and can help bring others into the fold. Ask your champions to spread the word about your association among their colleagues and friends, start conversations in your online community, answer questions, or share links to your articles over social media. Referrals from your champions is one of the best ways to increase engagement.
Privacy concerns are an offshoot of any organization navigating changes in technology, the economy, and the political landscape. Specifically when it comes to issues associated with anti-trust regulations, trade associations have a particularly unique set of challenges and concerns.
For instance, your member organizations may be dealing with regulatory changes and need to ensure that they’re compliant before being audited. Compliance and audits are stressful, and members often have questions about the process. Being able to discuss the problem with peers who have been through the same procedure can help, but only if members aren’t concerned about potential auditors listening in and using their questions against them.
Alleviate your members’ fears about oversight by moving substantive conversations and interactions off public sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Instead, put them in a private platform where your association has tighter security controls and content ownership. Assure your members that you vet the people and the topics allowed onto your new platform, so they don’t need to worry about attracting unwanted attention or violating anti-trust regulations.
For example, online community software allows you to create multiple communities for different member needs. Each community can have its own privacy settings, so your association can decide who is allowed into the community and who can post. Members can also tweak their own personal privacy settings so they’re sharing only the personal information they feel comfortable with.
All these challenges may seem daunting but can be an opportunity for your association to improve and provide a better solution than anyone else in the market. You could become the go-to source of information for your members, even a lifeline in increasingly complicated industries.
All you need to do is keep an eye out for challenges and changes. Stay ahead of the curve by reacting quickly to new developments by creating a plan and executing it. If you do, your association will gain a competitive advantage by providing solutions your audience can’t yet find elsewhere. What better way is there to increase trust and loyalty?