Some associations are using new marketing techniques to drive revenue — and new members — through conferences.
The traditional strategy of using meetings as a member benefit is being turned on its head by some associations that are finding it makes more sense to do it the other way around — using meetings to build membership.
“Instead of putting all of our energy into recruiting new members, we have shifted our staff resources a bit and are focusing more on programs,” says Darlene Trudell, executive vice president at the Engineering Society of Detroit, Southfield, Mich. The association has opened up its meetings and events to nonmembers as part of its focus on getting people to the programs first — hoping to turn happy meeting attendees into loyal, dues-paying members.
The strategy has worked well. Over the past year, during a time when many associations have experienced decreasing dollars, ESD's meeting attendance and overall revenues are up about 30 percent. The additional revenues are coming from registration fees. “Our mission is to train and educate engineers,” she says. “We're putting on more programs and we are bringing in more people.”
Get Creative with Marketing
“More associations are starting to realize that marketing is something they have to look at very differently,” says John Folks, president, Minding Your Business, Chicago. Getting people to join associations, particularly the younger generations, is a bigger challenge these days — people don't join organizations just to join anymore, so associations need to look for different ways to recruit. While the strategy of recruiting members through meetings is not right for every association, Folks believes strongly that associations' using meetings for recruitment can be a great way they can get more creative in marketing themselves.
“We still do membership recruitment,” says Trudell of ESD. However, the resources and marketing dollars are being used to attract people to their meetings — membership is secondary.
Once the nonmembers attend the programs, ESD tries to sign them up as members. ESD has been able to entice people with incentives like free or discounted membership rates for one year. But even if they don't join, ESD will add them to their growing database of past attendees and invite them to attend their programs every year. The association sends a free e-newsletter to nonmembers to promote association events.
Trudell knows it's not conventional. She has gotten some raised eyebrows from her board members asking why membership dollars are down. She points to the revenues generated by the programs, not only from registration fees, but from sponsors and advertisers. The more people who attend ESD events, the easier it is to sell sponsorships, exhibits, and advertisements for those events, she explains.
Inforum, a Detroit-based association for women business leaders, takes a similar approach. All of its major events are open to nonmembers and are publicized through partnerships with other organizations, says Terry Barclay, president and chief executive officer. “Our strategy is about driving participation and engagement; the membership offer follows,” says Barclay.
Use Your Exhibitors as Recruiters
The North American Building Material Distribution Association recruits new members through its exhibitors, explains Kevin Gammonley, executive director of the association, which is managed by SmithBucklin, Chicago.
The core members are distributors of building materials while the secondary members — and exhibitors — are manufacturers of building materials and supplies. Instead of traditional booths, NABMDA offers the manufacturers tabletop exhibits with one-on-one meetings set up with attendees by appointment. The meetings are scheduled in advance of the event, and association staff serve as the facilitators, explains Gammonley. “Our challenge always is to recruit more distributors into the association,” he says. More distributors mean more manufacturers, because the manufacturers want to reach those customers or potential customers.
But in this economy, getting more attendees is a much harder sell. So for this year's annual meeting in November, the association decided to try a new strategy to boost attendance. NABMDA allowed manufacturers to send out invitations to customers and prospects who are not currently members to attend the meeting — free of charge. “We made it complimentary so there would be no barrier to come in and check us out.”
NABMDA also took it a step further by offering exhibitors the opportunity to host their own meetings with distributors — both members and nonmembers — the day before the convention. The association booked rooms at the hotel for the exhibitors to set up their meetings, which included, for example, new product intros, the year in review, or what's planned for the coming year. The association also provided logistical support for the exhibitors. Nonmembers, too, were invited to stay on for the convention. For this year's meeting, held November 16-18 at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., six exhibitors signed up for the pre-meetings.
“We're attempting to take down all barriers for nonmembers so they can come in and see if this is something they might deem valuable,” says Gammonley.
The association does not cover travel or lodging expenses, just the registration fee. But exhibitors can certainly offer to cover lodging and expenses for their invitees if they choose.
Gammonley sees it as a win-win-win for all parties. “The manufacturers, who are the exhibitors and sponsors of the event, get more distributors. It's to our benefit to have prospective members come in and kick the tires and see what the association offers in hopes that if they have a great experience they will consider joining the association,” says Gammonley. “And obviously the distributors themselves will be exposed to programs and services that hopefully will help them run their businesses better.”
There is financial outlay for the association — primarily as it relates to food and beverage costs for nonmembers who aren't paying a registration fee. But the association, and its board, sees it as a worthwhile investment. The hope is that many of these invited guests will sign up and become dues-paying members. “Part of our strategy is to enhance our ability to do more peer-to-peer member recruitment. Instead of staff contacting the prospects and selling the value of membership, nonmembers are actually on site with their peers who talk to them about why they should join the association. We think it will ultimately pay off because they are going to like what they see and hear,” says Gammonley.
The meeting generally attracts 400 to 500 attendees (the last few years closer to 400). Through this program, the association hopes to bring in 25 to 50 new member companies and at least that many attendees, perhaps more. “We anticipate that we will be able to close a good number of them either at the meeting or relatively shortly after the meeting,” says Gammonley. It's a one-time offer, he adds, so if the invited guests do not join the association, they will not be invited back the next year.
Any backlash from members who see the association giving away what they have to pay for? Gammonley says no. “I do sense that sensitivity in some other associations I work with, but not with this group,” he says.
Member-Only Benefits a Concern
Some of the nontraditional new strategies won't work for all associations. “Most people think the way to entice nonmembers to come to meetings is to discount the price, but we have not found that to be overly successful,” says Ken Bowman, president at The Robstan Group, a Kansas City, Mo.-based association management company.
For some of the trade associations that his company works for, Robstan actively markets the annual meeting to nonmembers but charges them the full registration fee. They don't want to send the wrong message to members — that is, that they're giving away to nonmembers what members have to purchase. Once the nonmembers come to the meeting, they have a mentoring program where members show them around and make them feel comfortable.
“Our success rate is very high,” says Bowman of the strategy. The association is able to convert a high percentage of nonmember attendees into members before they leave the meeting. And if they are not successful, the association follows up with them for the next 12 months, asking them to join.
Another association executive agrees with Bowman. “While we open the meeting to nonmembers under certain circumstances, we do provide several very specific opportunities at the meeting that are available to members only,” says Kathy Bell, executive director at the International Forum, a Chicago-based association for life insurance industry professionals that's managed by SmithBucklin. For example, the closing-day general session, which features several keynote speakers, is open only to members. Speakers also have the option of making a session “for members only.”