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Will Associations Go the Way of Print Media?

42-18373074SCIP just announced that its formal merger was consummated with Frost & Sullivan’s Institute. This merger is a sign of the times: it’s hard for associations to survive in this tough economic climate. But I think it’s more than that: the association model is changing not just due to competition from other associations, but for people’s time and easy access to connections formerly made through associations via social media.

Historically associations mailed trade journals and relevant news to the membership; and conducted in-person events such as conferences, educational programs and city chapter meetings. Member volunteer time was crucial to keeping costs down and content up, and still is. The association staff needed to be sensitive to the association’s industry, but association management was the key skill required.

Today the transaction cost of in-person meetings has escalated as people are stretched to do more with less, and can’t get away from work as easily. They can also find relevant information and connections especially through social networks liked LinkedIn, Twitter and industry formed Nings. These changes are sorely felt by associations in reduced attendance at annual conferences and chapter meetings. Annual conference revenues are the bread and butter of most associations. Like other associations, most SCIP chapters record poor attendance. The more progressive include complementary associations such as Robert Bugai, SCIP’s NJ Chapter Chair who hosts semi-annual networking meetings with 10 other organizations. The Denver chapter of the Association of Corporate Growth attracts strong attendance. It has local association support, an excellent PR machine and strong word of mouth fuelling intense interest. It is known to offer some of the best networking connections in the Denver metro.

SCIP has responded by offering fee-based Webinars and an on-line news bulletin, which contains a “New & Notable” section by Bonnie Hohhof, worth the price of membership for those who take the time to read it!  However, all major educational programs are in-person.

I belong to AIIP (Association of Independent Information Professionals) which hosts a listserv (AIIP-L Discussion List), alone worth the price of membership. Individual members ask questions of each other, share information and words of encouragement—an excellent, ongoing form of connection. AIIP’s member directory is public and searchable. The publicity is fuelled by strong word of mouth and through such journals as FUMSI, a portion of which is edited by Marcy Phelps, current President of AIIP. AIIP actively exhibits at complementary association’s conferences such as SLA and SCIP. The booth is staffed by volunteers and paid for through reciprocal exhibition at AIIP’s annual conference. Webinars, free to members, are given by members. AIIP volunteers often ask other members how the association can serve them better. I predict this model will survive these tough times since it is evolving according to the needs of its members through good two-way communication.

Associations need to adapt their model to their membership in these changing times since the old value proposition won’t work. Here are a few ideas to consider:

1. Multiple, affordable means to connect members electronically
2. Free services that are interactive, like Webinars
3. Continuous PR blasts about the profession’s benefits to both users and providers of that association’s constituency
4. Strong industry knowledge by association staff (like Bonnie Hohhof at SCIP)
5. Steady corporate and service provider sponsorship (financial and time)
6. Cooperative affiliation with complementary associations or industry associations which value your association’s skill

As a long-time SCIP member, I hope that the Frost & Sullivan Institute’s marketing machine and reach extends SCIP and the competitive intelligence discipline to be more recognized and valued by those who use competitive intelligence in its many forms.

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