It can seem to be a major drain. You pay your dues to the association, and then get invited to pay more for association events. Then you receive telemarketing, email and fax invitations to advertise in association publications and sponsor events. Soon, you tabulate the financial and time cost and ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?”
Sadly, these results will quite likely reflect your experience when you enter into the world of association/relationship marketing for the first time. And if you’ve been around business a while, you’ll know that even though you’ve achieved great results elsewhere, the same story will likely repeat when you join a new association — and the net result, (painfully) after years of effort, may be dismal.
There is another side to the story, of course. I’ve interviewed several other business leaders for articles for the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) Marketer magazine, and they generally report the same challenges — but they also share the rewards of successful association engagement. These include long-standing and highly profitable business relationships, early word on new opportunities, and plenty of informal “let’s do it” agreements without difficult negotiations or competition.
Certainly, association participation has the highest marketing value ranking in our own business. The relationships have generated hundreds of thousands (I think over the years even millions) of dollars in business, and the money keeps flowing.
But it takes time, patience, and there is some hit-and-miss here. In some cases, you simply don’t hit it off with the others in the group; in others, competitors have successfully entrenched themselves and built solid relationship walls to keep others out; and in many cases, key decision-makers stay away from association events and functions in part because most people attending these events have something to sell, rather than purchase.
Added to the challenge, you need to engage with the associations in a “give without expectation of return” philosophy. If you try the process and expect rewards, you won’t find them. So you need to be generous, forget the time budget and focus on how you can help. (You, in my opinion, however can and should decline the many sponsorship and paid recognition opportunities until you are well established and know the rewards are worth the cost.)
The highest rewards of association involvement occur when you reach the stage where you win appointment to boards of directors (often after serving on committees). Then you become a true insider, and your personal brand among other association leaders is incredible.
These powers are magnified when the associations are primarily populated by people who could purchase your products or services.
Strategically, I think the best way to start is to look at the associations (and community activities) supported by your best clients. You might see if the client can invite you as a guest to an association event or function. If the fit seems right, join, and get involved, ideally offering to serve on relevant committees where your interests and expertise coincide. (Not surprisingly, I tend to get involved with the association newsletter, marketing and communications committees.)
Prepare to spend at least three years without reward to gain value from association participation. I don’t suggest that you spend three years banging your head against the wall. You should enjoy your association participation and sense satisfaction that you are making worthy contributions and have a useful role in the organization. Rather, the long-term framework should be there to remove the pressure of quid-pro-quo or “give this/take that” attitudes, which will doom your association effectiveness.
If you have experiences with association-related marketing, I would love to hear from you, either through a comment or by emailing email@example.com. I can also send you a copy of the comprehensive article I wrote on the topic for the SMPS Marketer.