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Trust by Association

Every 10 years associations seem to go through an existential crisis.

The most recent: social media’s arrival, circa 2006-2008. We asked ourselves: if people can self-organize into groups and connect with anyone via a social network, do I really need my industry association? Can lobbying online democratize advocacy and remove my need to pay dues? Associations adapted, value propositions evolved, and the social threat was smartly turned into a social tool.

Fast forward to 2015-2017+: studies that decry dropping or soon-to-drop association membership are surfacing.  At least two horseman of the association apocalypse are well within sight.

The first is the Gig Economy, or the massive wave of freelancing sweeping the world. Estimates show about 30% of of the U.S. workforce are freelancing. Professionals ponder: if I don’t have the comfort, support, or mandate from a company to join an association, and I’m on my own, how can I justify the dues? What’s the value of association membership for someone working out of home, in a shared office space, or at a coffee shop? This feeling of fluidity and change in the workforce not only means that dues aren’t covered by a corporate entity, it means that people are a little less loyal to things that signify traditional employment in staid industries—like even paying attention to the association voice. Why sign up?

The second horseman cantering in the middle distance is more amorphous and symptomatic of society as a whole: trust is not what it used to be:

  • Echo chambers have calcified. We are who we listen to, and we listen to people like ourselves. We construct our own media bubbles and we are more likely to deploy motivated reasoning that supports our own views, rather than find a neutral source.
  • The most authoritative voices on the planet say there are no neutral sources anymore. #FakeNews is a real, insidious thing, setting us at peak skepticism, peak cynicism, and peak distrust—unless the news comes from within our own echo chambers. This is a challenging time for truth.

Both factors matter to associations because they reveal a need or gap in the marketplace that must be filled, or a hairline fracture that could eventually shatter.

So what’s an association to do?

Focus on Membership Trust

Strategy is, in part, about capitalizing on the best parts of your environment. If we live in a time of higher anxiety, media distrust, fake news exhaustion, and a general malaise of indifference or fear, the strategic counter is to be the voice of reason that truly stands for what’s important to membership. And by membership I mean people, not companies.

Put your members at the absolute centre of everything you do, and never the association itself. Avoid hints or boldness that reveal self-interest over service. If you come across at all as being in it for yourself, people tune out. People can smell it.

Focus on Advocacy

Associations debating whether or not they are advocacy associations are wasting their time having an introspective conversation in the mirror. Pick 100 of your industry’s most fervent, natural, advocates and develop an advocacy campaign for them; if you get it right, they will carry it forward, for free. Consider two things here:

  • Advocacy need not be political advocacy—in fact, most of the time it isn’t. Advocacy should be defined by your association as anything which stands for members that results in positive action for the industry, whether that be arming people to speak accurately around dinner tables, creating earned media, driving shared content, or creating conditions for effective future political advocacy (if that’s even a goal). Advocacy is any action that results in new support for a product, cause, or idea.
  • Advocacy for associations means data for associations, and data leads to insight. If you are relying on your membership organizations to spread the word and reach people, you are facing a huge problem. It is imperative to learn everything you can about people working in your industry, and to earn their data. Create advocacy activity that is valuable to people in the industry, that results in people self-identifying in a way that gives you insights and access. If you don’t build your database, your existential threat is real.

Focus on 1-to-1 Relationships and Digital

If for no other reason, associations facing the disruption of the Gig Economy need to cultivate 1-to-1 relationships that are of value to new and existing members. Perhaps this is best explained by a collection of tactics. Consider:

  • If people gravitate towards their own echo chambers, then build an echo chamber that people want to be in: create a great walled-garden of content for members and members-only. And make it great and for them, not you.
  • Email is not dead. Association newsletters that earn member data (from emails to open rates) should be fantastic and truly stand for what members are most interested in. Personalize wherever possible. Focus on the jobs-to-be-done of member companies, and do that really well.
  • Create loyal influencer communities that the association holds, nurtures, and maintains. Offer access as a service to member companies and/or members. This may or may not work in your context, depending on the sophistication and scale of member organizations (i.e. a fortune 500 company will probably have their own influencer relationships), but it is worth investigating. Perhaps your loyalist community are all policy-wonks.
  • Create the best industry customer profiles, and help members use these insights to reach and enthuse them. Canada’s Explorer Quotient service is a fantastic (and extreme) example of this, where personas and t the SEO keywords to reach them were created and licensed out to those who could afford to buy the data (in this case, mainly provinces). Any association can offer this kind of package to members with some planning, investment, and training.

Trust, advocacy, and relationships aren’t surprising as guiding principles. They are foundational concepts. But we can slip from these moorings when uncertainty is pervasive, cynicism is high, and the very nature of how people work within our contexts is changing.

Associations that start with these ideas—or recommit to them in planning and strategy sessions—will be better positioned to evolve and engage new and long-term members.

If this topic is of interest to you, I’ll be speaking at the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) National Conference in St. John’s and the Communications for Associations Conference in Ottawa (both in Fall 2017).

Sources of Inspiration and Reading List

Kevin McCann is a Partner with NATIONAL Public Relations, where he focuses on strategy, all things digital, data, engagement, and advocacy.