The association paradox: Giving, receiving and the balance

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Norm Lecuyr, chair of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association renovators’ council with Jamie Winter, project development co-ordinator for Amsted Design-Build.

Undoubtedly, as we’ve discovered in previous surveys, association participation/involvement ranks as the most effective business development resource behind repeat and referral business. It isn’t universally effective, that is for sure, however.

In our own business, the number of associations we tried, and then let memberships lapse, has grown every year. And, within the associations where we participate intensively, we can see the refrains that tell the story about association participation challenges.

For example, yesterday, I served as a volunteer at the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association (GOHBA) Renovators’ Council booth at a local renovation show. I’m certainly not a renovator, and one of the people behind the booth for much of the afternoon was also not a renovator — he is the association’s membership committee chair, and he is an insurance broker.

There is some logic about why non-renovators were behind the booth. Friday afternoon at the show informally is considered “trades day” — with relatively light consumer attendance. So this is a perfect time to do business with other booth holders — potential members and, in our case, potential advertisers in Ottawa Renovates magazine. (And I scored a quick hit when the booth holder from across the aisle, recognizing me from previous community activities, suggested he would be interested in advertising in the magazine.)

The membership guy, obviously, didn’t plan on selling insurance at the show, of course.  But he knows the value of relationships and community connections, and these lead to leads, and sales, and long-term relationships, and more sales. And the best way to achieve these objectives: Put his own business interests aside and help the association find new members (so, indirectly, he can build new relationships and find new clients.)

Towards the end of our shift, real renovators showed up for the next block of time — when more consumers attend, and accordingly, the renovators can build relationships with homeowners who might purchase their services. They gain access to the consumer audience without paying several thousand dollars for a booth, plus they can truly represent and speak for the association.

The membership representative and the renovator at the booth described the problems in attracting new association members. “The problem is the builders don’t ever attend the meetings, so the only people there are the trades and suppliers trying to sell to the builders,” the renovator said. “I know, and we are working on initiatives to change this,” said the membership guy. (These quotes are not literal, I wasn’t carrying my tape recorder here.)

Ah yes . . . people join relevant associations to gain access to potential clients, and then, gulp, find they are in a room of competitors and sales representatives. Ugh. Or, maybe they join, and discover the existing relationships between members and suppliers has become so close that it is virtually impossible to break into the old-boy’s network.

I wish I had a scientific approach to the association challenge. I know some associations practice the credo of working with other members more closely than others, and you can really only discover this fact by joining the relevant association and sticking around long enough to see where the winds are blowing. (In my opinion, this requires a minimum of two years, and possibly three.)

During that time, you need to absolutely put aside self-interested objectives and focus on helping and contributing the association, by volunteering and supporting the association’s activities. (Though I wouldn’t rush to spend cash dollars on sponsorships or advertising at this stage.) If you find the doors are closed, or you are only communicating with people who want to sell rather than buy, you may then need to pull up stakes and move on.

If you break through, of course, the results can be incredibly rewarding. About three years after I joined the GOHBA in 1989-90, I received (during a major recession) an invitation to publish the association’s internal newsletter. We still publish it today. Then, six years ago, I received another invitation — to bid on publishing a renovation magazine. I initially balked at the idea — it was out of our business scope — then realized this was a “wired bid,” ours for the losing rather than winning. We won the project, and have successfully published the magazine twice a year — and generated solid revenue for our business and reputation-building value for the association.  Naturally, of course, we are always happy to volunteer and help out with more association activities.

See this link for a reference to my SMPS Marketer article on association participation.

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