Wednesday, September 11, 2013

BIG’s Blog: Are Professional Associations Relevant in the Age of the Internet?

What are professional Associations for?

I know . . . I know . . . every individual, every organization, and every corporate member organization that belongs to an Association has their own agenda and calculus for belonging to an Association.  Everyone understands that and we will come back to this point later in the blog post.

But when you peel the onion back to its core, isn't the mission of professional Associations really about advancing the industry, or, in the case of some faith-based Associations, helping their niche advance within a larger industry sector? Of course the ongoing concern is keeping the Association about their constituency and not just the largest members, or their corporate members who disproportionately support the Association, or worse, the Association organization itself.

It’s a tough line to walk especially as the Association ages. And, like any industry, how do you keep it relevant to the smallest members as well as the largest members?

And then comes the Internet; disruption writ large.

Do you think Associations are immune to the digital disruption that is roiling literally every sector of the economy? By now most organizations (fundraisers included) have figured out that the Internet will change the way they do business, but it is also putting huge pressure on their Associations as well.

In a time of great change driven by digital disruption, isn't the advancement of the industry about "the latest information... the newest information... the newest techniques or tactics" disseminated in the widest possible way to reach potentially every organization, no matter the size, to advance the industry?

So, back to my question: are professional Associations relevant in the age of the Internet? My sense is the answer should be a resounding "Yes," . . . but are they? Tech conferences are booming. There are conferences just on social networks, others just on big data, and still others focused narrowly around online content. These are topics that every marketing (and fundraising) organization needs to learn. How can any one Association compete with that?

So, then, how can a niche association remain relevant? Obviously, the greatest relevance comes from their greatest strength and asset, which is their trusted partner status. Then acting as a trusted curator and intermediary of all the new that affects their membership . . . a trusted expert partner . . . they deliver what their members need to succeed. That is what individuals and their organizations are desperately looking for. With so much changing, a key concern must be to have the expertise to shift through the new and actively position the future for their members. For the Association, this means taking a hard look at every aspect of their organization starting with their current staff.

This also means that the Association must lead with the new. It must embody the new by casting off the old ways of doing things and fully embracing the new Internet-based tools and techniques.

When a niche professional Association does this, they will reap the advantages of enhanced productivity, enhanced communications and, most of all a surge in new technology-based corporate members. But what about their old line corporate members, the old friends that have supported the association for many, many years? Well, these old friends need to figure out how they compete and remain relevant in the new digital world as well.

But failing to change and adapt . . . or, worse, merely playing around the edges is the beginning of the slide into irrelevance that leads eventually to bankruptcy.

So we return to the individual agendas of individual members, their organizations, and corporate members. As I said above, each has its own unique agenda and calculus for being a part of an Association. At the end of the day, however, all those individuals’ circles of interests intersect around the number of member organizations and more particularly, the numbers of people at an Association’s annual conference. And, insofar as Association conference numbers continue to climb . . . because, let's be very clear, cost is only a function of relevance . . . the issue of relevance is moot . . . but when the numbers fall and continue to fall the word "irrelevant" gets bandied about.

THAT is the time to wake up, because the slide to oblivion has begun.

Join us.
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