Professional and trade associations always wrestle with a balance between their traditional objectives and operations and leading change on behalf of the industries they serve. In 2024, an election year fraught with economic and political uncertainties, it is more important than ever for organizations to be clear and unified in their vision, strategic planning and messaging.
For industries that are doing well in the current economy, their corresponding associations may have more breathing room when it comes to budgeting and cost management. Associations representing fields beset with obstacles will have greater challenges: Their focus will be on doing more with less. For example, the mortgage and real estate industries are currently coping with inflation and higher interest rate obstacles that have put intense pressure on associations and their staff which serve these sectors of the economy.
Associations need to face the disruptions affecting their members head-on and prepare as well as possible for changing scenarios. As a guiding principle, they need to make sure they are clear with their members, staff and the wider world about who they are and what they stand for. They need to keep advancing initiatives that serve a two-fold purpose: to address member success in their day-to-day business while advocating effectively on behalf of legislation and policies that keep their industry strong and future focused.
Competition from the public domain
Professional and trade associations with a business-oriented focus can no longer assume that their members will rely solely on them for educational, training and networking opportunities, with increasing competition from providers in the public domain whether for-profit enterprises or free-of-charge groups spawned by social media sites like LinkedIn or Facebook. Members have more options than ever to go outside their associations to obtain information about how to perform their jobs better or grow their businesses. It is incumbent on associations now to make a compelling case for why they are the go-to place for needed business information and services.
But if stakeholders are not in alignment, it will be near impossible for them to achieve the goals needed to survive, let alone stand out in their field. Associations seeking to retain their stature as the leading voice for their industry will benefit from tackling several key priorities in the year ahead:
1. Prioritize new revenue centers
Membership dues and events have long generated the most revenue for associations. Association executives should be seeking new ways to distinguish themselves, attract new members and grow and diversify their non-dues revenue streams. In other words, to remain viable, association executives need to search for products and services that enhance the value of their members. As education is a hot growth area, the ability to launch and monetize new training and certification programs in topical areas will help associations weather other financial challenges.
Supporting members with opportunities to hone skills and earn new professional credentials will help increase their authority in their marketplace while the association benefits from identifying and developing courses as important, fresh revenue sources. Having learning options that members want not only increases engagement by giving them a reason to be active in your association, it also strengthens engagement among members embarking on the same learning journey.
2. Do more with less to invest
If membership declines and slowing business trends are creating budget pressures, associations will need to work smarter, faster and more efficiently, especially if adding to their workforce is off the table. AI and other technology tools may be taking up a bigger role, but they must be incorporated with caution. Chatbots cannot replace human service reps, as members have high expectations of personal service. But, they may prove to be a useful feature to guide users through websites or ask basic informational questions.
3. Go beyond your traditional borders
Digital technology has made it easier to connect and collaborate globally. National associations that don’t consider opportunities to expand memberships or partnership outreach internationally are missing out on potentially lucrative growth opportunities. Associations can offer courses to people around the world or other services that help people in their industry anywhere in the world.
And while creating events in other countries may be a smart move both for enlarging international membership opportunities and giving U.S. members chances to learn and network overseas, be sure you have the technical infrastructure and technology to operate globally, whether it’s in terms of payment collection and financial accounting practices or addressing language barriers.
4. Win the battle for truth
As associations have long been seen as the most credible knowledge sources in their respective industries, the mounting risks posed by cybercriminals need to be front and center. Quality data is often central to an organization’s entire value proposition, but most are not taking adequate measures to protect it.
This often means pursuing third-party sources for their specialized cybersecurity skills. Meanwhile, the emergence of AI as an alternate source of information poses another kind of threat to their standing. Smart associations recognize that AI will be a major component of the search and collection of knowledge going forward, so it behooves them to embrace it and act as a needed verifier and validator of information. Safeguarding sensitive member and organizational data and ensuring data integrity not only bolsters public trust, it helps associations confidently shape and reinforce their core messages.
5. Develop your workforce of the future
Association employees traditionally had a reputation for loyalty and workplace longevity. The newer generations of the labor force are less likely to be willing to stay for the long term unless career mobility and flexibility are association priorities.
Staying on top of training needs and developing retention plans are paramount as the competition for staff stays high. Organizations that focus on succession planning and team development throughout their departments will be best positioned for a strong future. They need a pipeline of people ready to take on new roles to thrive in the years ahead.
How Wipfli can help
Are you prepared to adapt to trends affecting associations? Wipfli can help. From strategy and digital transformation to organizational performance and talent optimization, we help associations adapt to the competitive and changing landscape. Learn more.
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