When my family played Monopoly, whoever got those two blue properties (Park Place and Boardwalk) usually won. They dominated the real estate in the most powerful area of the board, so it was hard for anyone to take over their lead.
Associations used to have similar monopolies in their industries. They were the centers of their fields and didn't compete with other organizations. That made association life pretty comfortable.
As much as we may have enjoyed them, those days are gone for good. Associations no longer have the advantage of a relative lack of competition. Instead they're going head-to-head with other nonprofit and for-profit organizations, websites, and media companies.
With the emergence of new competition, associations have to find a fresh foothold in today's marketplace, creating offers and value propositions that set them apart. But that's almost impossible to do if you aren't aware of who your association's new competitors are and how they're stealing your members.
To carve out a space for your association in this new, more digital, marketplace, it's important to map out who and what you're up against. When you do, your association can use its already solid foundation of experience, access, and loyal members to provide superior offers that win over today's consumers.
Getting to Know Your New Competitors
Your association's specific competitors (i.e. the names of the organizations you're fighting with for relevancy) will depend on your industry. In general, however, associations across the board are facing competition in three main areas.
Online communities have been springing up since before the world learned just how exciting Myspace could be. And since that popularity has proven to be sustainable in the long-term, there's also been a rise in community-based membership organizations that compete directly with associations.
Community-based membership organizations can be professional or personal, but their uniting characteristic is that they turn traditional membership-benefit models on their head. Instead of focusing on programs and conferences with high costs to run as associations typically do, these organizations' main offer is a community.
What makes these community-based membership organizations successful is the fact that they solve their members' problems through networking, without the overhead that burdens traditional associations.
Make the right connections in the community, and your new expert colleagues will answer your personal or professional concerns. Therapydia is a membership organization that provides exactly that service for physical therapists. Vertical Collective, another example, does the same for media professionals with the added goal of improving each of their members' companies. Vertical Collective is even considering holding a conference in the future.
Local and National Events
Meeting and events are big business. Well-funded companies, like UBM and Penton, host hundreds of industry-specific conferences each year that are competing for members' same professional development dollars as your organization.
Even community-based membership organizations, like Vertical Collective, are starting to host local and national events that compete with your association's conferences. Nonprofit organizations are also throwing their hats into the event ring.
That means that, regardless of your specific industry, your association is no longer the only provider of conferences and events. Other organizations are also providing meetings that help people network, learn new skills, and advance their careers.
To give you an idea of just how significant the event competition is, take a look at HubSpot's Inbound conference. HubSpot, a for-profit marketing and sales automation software company, hosts Inbound every year and goes to great lengths to help marketing and sales professionals develop career skills and expert contacts. This year's November Inbound conference is expected to have over 18,000 attendees.
Similar to online communities, many organizations are creating membership sites. Businesses, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and professional development organizations are all included.
You might see these membership sites advertised with terms like "subscription services" or "course subscriptions" if the site is offering skills development programs. If your association is in the same industry as any of these membership sites, then your members likely have more alternative choices when it comes to benefits and price.
International Living is one example of a membership site that offers many of the same benefits that travel associations provide. They regularly publish helpful content on vacation destinations, give members travel discounts, and sell physical and virtual products through their online store.
6 Ways Associations Can Compete
Using online communities, membership sites, and events, other organizations are gaining the attention of an audience that your association once owned. You need to steal that attention back.
Here are six ways you can get started.
Tactic #1) Build and Nurture Strong Communities
Your association can use the same tactic as its new competitors by building and nurturing your own online community. A private member community is a networking and branding tool that will help differentiate your association. The community will get you eyeballs and also leads to increased stickiness for your association.
In your online community, your association can foster relationships while also providing members with the tools to build their own brand and make peer-to-peer connections. Members can engage in conversations with experts, ask questions, and publish their own content to showcase their expertise. The user-generated content from your online community is also a great tool for SEO and will help keep members invested in your association. How can they leave when they have such an active, popular blog in your community?
Often, those types of publication and personal brand-building tools are benefits that other organizations can't match.
Tactic #2) Double-Down on Brand Positioning
Since being the center of your industry is no longer a guarantee, your association needs to apply new resources to its branding. Don't just assume people know that your association is the go-to place for industry news and resources, tell them. Make that information part of your brand.
To effectively double-down on your branding and ensure that members and prospects know just how essential your association is, you need all the tools. A website, online community, and communication engine are all included. Without the connectivity and content distribution from these assets, as well as a dedicated membership, you can't walk the walk where branding is concerned.
Tactic #3) Leverage Expertise
Just because there are now many other sources of information and networking doesn't mean there isn't still opportunity for associations. Associations have the ability to not only provide information ahead of their competitors, but also provide higher quality information and networking tools.
One way to do this is to take advantage of industry connections. Your association has expert members, board members, and staff who can help with both networking and industry updates. These experts have years of experience in the field and can provide cutting-edge information that you can develop into content and updates. Further leverage your expert members and staff as valuable connections for other members interested in networking.
Take full advantage of everyone involved in your association. The more active your expert members and staff are, the better you'll be able to compete in the marketplace.
Tactic #4) Lead with Exclusive Research
Just like you have access to industry experts, your association may also have access to a larger amount of valuable industry data than your competitors. That data can come from member surveys, specific research projects, or your partners. Use your data to set your association apart from the competition and showcase value.
Try turning your data into exclusive reports and industry benchmarking studies that are available only to members. Benchmarking studies provide information that professionals need to understand their field and advance in their careers. Your association can also consider increasing non-dues revenue by offering benchmarking studies to non-members for an additional fee.
Tactic #5) Bridge the Education Gap
According to a whitepaper by Spark Consulting, 32% of employers reported struggling to find qualified workers in 2015. Employers also rated the readiness of students to enter the workforce as lower than the ratings provided by students and educational professionals.
That means there's a clear skills gap between education and real-world jobs which associations are well positioned to fill. To bridge the gap, create courses and development workshops that teach professionals the practical skills they need to succeed, not just the theoretical knowledge many students learn in school.
By providing skills development and job opportunities, your association could also help attract millennial members. Associations Now recently reported that job opportunities was the number one benefit that younger members were looking for, so promote your professional development courses and job boards to better reach millennials.
Tactic #6) Provide Predictive Benefits
Associations have been in the game longer than many of the organizations they're now competing against, which means they have the benefit of experience. Use that experience and your long-term data to identify industry trends and make predictions about future changes. Transform those predictions into content that gives your members a head start on their own competition.
Benefits such as courses, mentoring programs, and information on how to prepare for future changes, as well as detailed analyses of industry cycles, could help with this. The idea is to get your members ready for the future so they're not blindsided when something new comes along. These types of predictive member benefits will help members be successful, which will typically lead to increased loyalty and value recognition for your association.
Modern Association Relevancy Takeaway
Today's technology and increasingly crowded marketplace have made it essential that associations learn to live with a new reality: steeper competition from easily accessible alternatives. To remain relevant your association must provide better offers than new organizations as well as take advantage of expertise to provide more value to members.
To make this easier and more effective, stay in touch with what your members want, including younger generations like millennials. The offers you develop should match your members' needs, even if that means changing your offers more frequently or developing different benefits for each generation.
There's still plenty of opportunity, however, and associations are nowhere near past their prime. With the right forward-thinking methodology, associations can carve out a space in today's marketplace, remaining both relevant and competitive.