Thursday, March 7, 2013

Association Boards Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for The Competitive Association

Today's Guest Bloggers are Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE Associations today are confronted with unprecedented levels of competition. 

For decades, membership organizations operated in a kinder, less competitive environment. But suddenly they find themselves overwhelmed with competition from multiple directions and non-traditional sources. 

The array of competition is vast. 

Competition comes from other associations; from the association’s own members; from publishing houses and media companies; from cooperatives, buying groups and self-directed peer groups within the association; from for-profit companies: both large with considerable resources and small, quick, tech savvy entrepreneurs. Last, but not least, the internet where information is available free in a split second, 24/7, where ever you are. Social networks offer a potent alternative to the face-to-face connections and search engines enable members to easily find information and resources that in pre-internet times they didn’t even know existed. 

Failure to adapt to this competitive threat puts an association’s relevance in jeopardy. Simply put: when an association’s competitor does a better job, they matter more and the association matters less. 
Unfortunately, the traditional association model is not a very competitive one. 

Today's Associations Are Vulnerable

There are four aspects of conventional association practice and thinking that make them vulnerable to competition: 

  1. Extensive menus of programs, products, services and activities – many of which are often unrelated to each other. And many of which have only “some” value versus being best in class. It is extremely difficult to market a long list of offerings in today’s overcommunicated climate. And who is interested in buying a run-of-the-mill offering versus one that offers superior value? Competitors are often single-mindedly focused on one product or service area, giving them depth of expertise and a clear value proposition that associations don’t always have. 
  2. Tradition-driven, complacent operations versus entrepreneurial thinking. “That’s how we did it last year and the year before that” versus continuous enhancement and improvement. A volunteer with a professional society recently remarked in an interview, “These are challenging times for associations and we need to think differently. We have to be willing to try new things – we should be fairly agile and test and re-try new ideas.” In another conversation, a board member from a trade association said, “We are too focused on what has been versus what might be.” These are telling remarks from enlightened volunteers. 
  3. Associations subsidize a lot of their programs and services with one or two net revenue generators. The annual meeting or trade show make strong profits that feed those services that can’t seem to cover their own costs. These subsidies can be a ball and chain for the association that a focused competitor does not have to drag. Instead, the focused competitor reinvests in and strengthens their profitable offering, further improving their competitive edge. 
  4. Many associations use processes that are slow, unproductive and inefficient. Committee development approaches can take months or even years. Time-pressed volunteers drop the ball or don’t follow up, resulting in delays. New projects or program enhancements lay idle waiting for board approval. Many associations are overweight and out of shape in this regard, making a poor match for lean and quick competitors. 

The 5 Strategies

Meeting the competitive challenge will require thinking differently about how we manage and govern. Consider the following strategies as you address the competitive realities of today’s marketplace:
  1. Identify and analyze your competition. Start with a list for all of your major programs and services. Identify the competitors for each one. Then analyze the competition. What are their strengths? Weaknesses? Delivery systems? Marketing approach? Pricing? One warning: don’t define your competition too narrowly. Yes, reading USA Today is competition for your magazine. 
  2. Concentrate resources on key result areas. Spreading your human capital, budgets and energies across a long list of programs and services marginalizes all of them. Rigorously identify your strengths and focus your resources and attention on them with discipline. 
  3. Purposefully abandon underperforming programs and activities. Resource concentration means having to say “good bye” to marginal offerings. And going forward, it means saying “no” to ideas, no matter how well intentioned, that will divert resources from those where you excel. 
  4. Work to make your programs and services fit. Management guru Michael Porter has long contended that a key to competitive advantage are services and processes that compliment and reinforce each other and that “fit” with one another. Siloed services are more vulnerable to competitors than those that are integrated. Consider developing “suites of services” around a need. An example would be a set of services around career development for an individual membership organization. It could include services like a job bank, resume templates and compensation surveys. 
  5. Eliminate waste and reduce costs. When U.S. manufacturers were confronted by global competitors, they turned to lean manufacturing processes to respond. Lean thinking considers anything that does not contribute value to the member to be waste. Mapping the processes for producing your programs and services is illuminating and helps identify and eliminate unnecessary delays, bottlenecks and other unproductive steps. Eliminating waste means more of your resources are working to add value. 
The tools to compete are available. Maintaining relevance and competitive position is simply a matter of adding them to your toolkit. Associations need a sense of urgency in responding to the challenge, however. They need to wake up and smell the competition. Every day you wait results in eroding market share and a step ahead for the competition. 


Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, are co-authors of the bestseller Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations and Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations to be released by ASAE this month.  

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