by Betsy Kominsky
“Associations want to be media companies. And media companies want to be Associations.” This was said at the start of one of our first meetings with an association executive director, as she responded to my question of “Who/what do associations consider as their biggest competitive threat?” She pointed out that media companies now offer just about everything that associations do – content, resources, events, research, data and now, community – a fierce competitor for association memberships.
And she nailed it. (In fact, she not only nailed it, she validated our whole business model. But that’s a whole other blog.)
As a B2B media exec managing magazines, websites and live events, getting attendees was always our biggest sweat. (For anyone who’s managed an event where nobody – or hardly anybody showed – you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s like that dream where you walk into high school…and you’re naked. Only you don’t wake up.)
We’d email, we’d direct mail, we’d call, we’d discount, and we’d throw in all the free alcohol and food one could consume. But it was still hard. Frenzied even. And expensive. One day, one of our savvy young sales execs made the comment that we needed to build a membership community, like an association, to instill more loyalty among our readers. And that would make getting attendees easier. That was way back in 2006ish. And dang it, she (yes you Tashawna Rodwell) was right on. But we weren’t the only ones standing under the glare of the light bulb. Other media companies were hitting on the same idea. And starting to take action.
Associations, by and large, have admitted that they are now in a race for relevance. The Race for Relevance is a book written by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers and published by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). It has become the battle cry for change within associations, complete with a 5 step strategic road map to fight declining membership and increasing competition.
But the competition has a head start in the race. We (B2B media), realizing our own relevance was slipping, started down the track years ago. We recognized the value of community and started building our own membership models. Our goal? Build a stronger connection between our brands and the people that mattered (subscribers, users, attendees, etc.) to our business model. Make them feel like part of a cool exclusive club that we owned. Build it and they will come (to your event and/or website), renew their subscriptions, provide you with free content, engage with your advertisers, and maybe even pay you for the privilege. (One simple example I like, and am a user of, is MarketingProfs. A snapshot of their model can be found here.)
Premium content was the bait. Content, once again, became the king, and content marketing the queen. Audience development became the crown prince. (OK, I’m going too far with this, but you get the drift.) And because we (B2B media types) were already pretty good at getting ad/sponsor revenue, we were able to invest. We invested in content creation, aggregation and talent. We invested in design and functionality integrated across print, digital, events and marketing. And our audience development teams quickly became social media wielding ninjas, using multiple channels to promote the right content to attract members (loyal subscribers, users, attendees) in the right way.
Associations – smaller staffed, non-profit centric, with huge multi-hatted jobs prioritized around member services – have been slower to start the race. But the race isn’t over. The call to action is loud and clear. And if media can borrow from associations, the reverse is true as well.
And that’s our story – or the first part of it anyway. Our goal is to use our partners’ collective experience in B2B media to help associations compete effectively for members and revenue.
And that savvy young sales exec? The one with the foresight that media companies needed to be more like associations? She’s kind of a big deal. She’s now a Group Publisher running a division of magazines and websites for a large, successful B2B media company. And if you’re an association that caters to members and sponsors in the life insurance and annuity space, well……watch out.