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Why Do Trade Associations Even Exist Anymore?

Posted on December 12th, 2013 by

Why Do Trade Associations Even Exist Anymore?People like to hang out with people like themselves. 

This is true from Samoa, to suburban high schools, to retirement communities in Boca Raton. 

While the shape and form of that hangout has changed over time (around a campfire on the savanna, at the Masonic Lodge in Vienna, in a Facebook Group), that fundamental need for community is part of the wiring of homo sapiens. 

We all crave community.

Trade associations have filled that need for community among professionals for some time. Traditionally, they have existed as a clearinghouse for their members–distributing knowledge and contacts. 

They did that by having annual national meetings, more informal local meetings, a magazine of some kind, and often group buying benefits. The AARP turned into a lead generation arm for the insurance business a long time ago.

But it's becoming increasingly true that the basics just aren’t enough. And associations today are continually running the risk of irrelevancy for three reasons:

  • Demographics: The Baby Boom generation is big on joining organizations. Generation X, less so. And Millennials? Don’t even ask.

  • Distinctiveness: Member benefits tend to lose value over time. The same old same old doesn’t get anyone excited, and trade organizations tend to get repetitive. While offering insurance to members once counted as a nice surprise, 5 years later, it’s expected.

  • Disintermediation: Most of what an association does can be easily replicated by search engines and social networks.

But since we're asking the question of why trade associations even exist anymore, how can an association adapt to this new world? It's easy: they need to address each risk factor head-on.

  • Demographics: Your legacy customers are not looking for the same experience as your new customers. They both are looking for value–but they want it delivered on their own terms. Make your trade association relevant on the platforms that the new generation of customers wants. They don’t want to go to cocktail hour–they want to consume as much as you have to give in a manner that they want. 

  • Distinctiveness: Take an outside-in assessment of yourself. What does your association really offer to the next generation? Where else can they get it? What arguments, other than history and cultural legacy, do you have for someone joining? The question you always need to ask is, “Why would someone really good want to join our organization?”

  • Disintermediation: You have a huge head start here–you already have most of the members, a huge storehouse of knowledge, and the power of the convener. But head starts can go away. Associations need to attack the opportunity they have. Codify your knowledge, and put it online in the forms that people want to consume. Convene the most useful industry groups online, and do it now, before a competitor does. Hire professionals to help if you need it.

To help you get started, here are a few useful projects:

It may not be the most delicate way of going about the issue, but asking why trade associations even exist anymore is our form of a wake-up call: these associations, which are deeply rooted in tradition and which are often slow to adapt new technology, need to get in touch with new methods of communication if they want to continue to be relevant.

Someone is going to convene the best people in your industry, and it might as well be you. Don’t give up your head start.

Adrian Blake doesn’t go to trade shows much anymore. He is CEO of SMC—Outsource to Omaha.

Photo credit: SMC

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Adrian began his career in the television industry, leading the international growth of Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central. Adrian has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an A.B. from Harvard.

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