Connecting to and with associations: The OGCA’s Associate Partner Program

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symposium sponsor
At the sponsor's reception before the OGCA Symposium

We’ve just returned from the two-day Ontario General Contractors’ Association (OGCA) Symposium; an event which I’ve attended five times in the past decade (the program operates every other year).

The program combines entertainment, education and marketing, fuelled by supplier sponsorships. In exchange for their cash, sponsors receive exhibit space and in some cases speaking opportunities to the symposium’s attendees. OGCA members, including owners and key staff members, receive an inexpensive mini-break (as attendee fees are set at a pure hard-cost recovery level, if that) and qualification-based educational credentials.

The event has grown year by year, and this year attracted more than 700 guests. ¬†Along with the greater attendance, the association has systematized its marketing relationship with vendors and consultants, by developing the Associate Partner Program, which provides (for the first time) the supplier group a place on the association’s board of directors, along with other discounts and preferred marketing opportunities.

It’s a good idea, of course, and helps to manage the supplier/user challenge with the association. The variation on “pay to play” sets clear fees and rewards — and of course helps to fund the association’s operations in a responsible manner.

However, if there’s ever a complaint that I hear among people representing suppliers at association gatherings it is this: The event/room is full of sales reps all trying to find the elusive end-user/client, but instead discovers other vendors — even competitors — are virtually the only people in the room.

Some associations solve this problem by regulating membership. For example, the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) sets a 50/50 rule — suppliers and vendors cannot comprise more than 50 per cent of a chapter’s membership. Others put a price-tag on full participation and recognition.

There are different ways of viewing this situation if you are a vendor/marketer. On one level, there can be fewer more cost-effective approaches to reaching truly committed potential clients than through relevant associations. So, if you are uncertain where to allocate scarce marketing dollars, association partner programs could be a worthy investment.

There is a strong argument, however, to resist the temptation (or pressure) to support these marketing/sponsorship programs if your budget is more limited. You may find you achieve most of the association-membership opportunities through active and committed engagement and support, by participating on relevant committees, volunteering to help in set up and manage events and (where appropriate) suggesting programs and initiatives that serve the associations’ interests.

The general networking success rules are multiplied with association participation. That is, your focus should not be on what you can win or take, but how much you can contribute. The somewhat counterintuitive result of true selfless contributions can be that you achieve the marketing success you were seeking and would otherwise need to purchase with expensive sponsorships.

Yet I also agree that if you have the cash for the sponsorships and association program participation, the combination of cash and genuine contributions will propel you to the top of member awareness and business opportunities. So if you have the cash, these programs are worth every penny.

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