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Monday, August 04, 2008

How to work with associations for marketing

Which association should you join? On's forum, one member asked this question. He received only one answer, but it is a worthy response. "I sell to property management companies and we joined a association called CAI (Community Associations Institute.) I believe it is nationwide. This is the best group to join for your type of work. I found that in my area there are really only 6-8 major players that control most of the condo's in my area so it was easy to write some nice business.There are also companies that control the commercial and shopping centers out there also. Look around on the net about associations. Good luck."

About 80 per cent of our cash marketing budget is for association membership dues and events. Yet we at present spend not a penny on periodical publishers' associations, even though that is our own industry. There is solid marketing reasoning behind this decision and it might be useful for you to consider the implications for your own business, as well.

If you join associations of your peers (such as relevant construction and speciality trade associations) you gain several advantages, including inside industry knowledge, lobbying support on political issues and, where your association offers plans rooms, you gain access to data and business leads. If you get involved deeply, on a provincial/state or national level, as well, you gain from really powerful networking and non-competitive relationships. As well, you achieve some credibility and market recognition advantages, either through specific association programs or the use of the association's logo and references in your marketing materials. This is why I encourage you to join relevant associations within your own trade/industry.

But, from a marketing perspective, you'll gain the most value by joining and participating in the associations where your clients and potential clients are members. So, if you build schools, you want to belong to school building officials' groups; if you build hospitals, you want to belong to hospital associations, and the like.

The reason for this priority should be obvious -- if you can gain affinity and connection among your potential clients, you are a whole lot more likely to be successful than if you chase leads from public information sources.

Note that joining an association is only the first stage; success requires strategic commitments of time, money and energy. You need to find ways to give value to the members without worrying about immediate return; and you need to appreciate that plastic and phony 'networking' will put peoples' guards at high level -- and you will make little progress if you force yourself into spaces where you are not welcome.

Equally, you can pour money into marketing opportunities provided by associations that is of little value. In our publishing sector, several commercial organizations connect with the associations, offering them free publications and revenue sharing support in exchange for the right to solicit members' advertising. Although these ads are sometimes of good value, the money often flows more to the publisher than the association -- and the publisher makes it easy to buy by having highly trained salespeople approach you. (Yes, that indeed is a major part of our own business --but we go beyond selling the advertising, and actively work with our advertisers to deliver value and real marketing opportunities. That is what this blog is all about!)
To gain the highest value from your association membership, you need to invert this process, look at the association, and suggest ways to it that you can spend your sponsorship dollars on things you control.

One of the best examples of this process is where an insurance broker offered to sponsor a general contractors' ethics award event. The general contractors' association hadn't even thought of seeking out the sponsorships, so the money is 'found' and of course the association is happy to reciprocate with recognition and respect -- and the insurance broker has of course now gained access to the association's leadership and board of directors, often the most influential and largest contractors in the community. Conversely, when an association invites you (and dozens of others) to sponsor a general event, are you going to get much for your few hundred dollars, when "Platinum" sponsors are spending thousands? (And, yes, they are spending thousands because it makes good business sense for them to use the money this way -- in our home town, the daily newspaper one of our local home builders' associations largest sponsors; and the cost is returned multi-fold in the paper's advertising revenues.)

In practice, you can do things less expensively through networking at association events and within committees, but the greatest value you can provide to the association is practical leadership and resources in areas you are most able to contribute. We are publishers, so naturally, we offer the associations we join support in publishing newsletters -- creating a business opportunity for us -- but we don't stop there. We'll help out with surveys, press-release writing, and outside media coverage, even though these don't directly bring us business. These services are valuable to the associations, however, so they are valuable over time.

Finally, sometimes you can discover a highly relevant association nationally that doesn't serve your own community. This gives you an incredible opportunity to take a leadership role in chapter formation and marketing. The Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), for example, serves the marketing interests of architectural, engineering and construction businesses throughout the U.S. It is a relatively obvious association for anyone concerned with marketing in the AEC sector (thus many readers of this blog) to join. Work is under way to establish the first properly-organized SMPS Chapter in Canada, and of course we're actively supporting the initiative.) Meanwhile, I write for the SMPS Marketer, and am looking forward to attending my first SMPS national convention in Denver, Colorado, later this week.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. As a Toronto life insurance broker I am trying to search for cooperation in all possible sectors of financial (not only) business and sponsoring is still working very well. But as you said - you have to have a good timing and the right "victim" to create a brand new relationship. If you are spending just some small amounts for traditional sponsoring, it's good for maintaining your name, but plays no role in seeking new connections...

Construction Marketing Ideas said...

Agreed ... though I would also argue there is a need for more depth than breadth here -- if you define your community closely enough then you can focus your membership particpation appropriately, considering always the needs of the association first. I believe the key to effective and economical sponsorship is to be creative rather than 'reactive' -- in other words, suggest a new venue, event, or category and take the leadership there, rather than just buying a "bronze" sponsorship in some long established event where leadership is held by others.
In our case, while we pay cash for the association memberships, we usually trade in kind services for sponsorship, but that of course won't work for everyone.
As well, you can consider association groupings -- members belong to more thn relevant association and the networking power of course increases when you keep bumping into the 'right people' at different, but relevant places.