After nearly three years of pandemic and economic uncertainty, what has your association learned? Are you doing anything differently? Have you stopped doing anything? What are you better at now?
Your answers hint at how well your association might handle the future, because this uncertainty won’t be ending anytime soon.
One lesson from the painful past is the need to diversify revenue. Associations that have are in the vanguard. Their staff attend meetups, webinars, and conferences dedicated to non-dues revenue—like the events hosted by Non Dues-a-Palooza, Professionals for Association Revenue (PAR), and Partnership Professionals Network. They would gladly welcome you to their ranks so you can help your association successfully navigate uncertainty.
The outlook for non-dues revenue in 2023: diversification
A PAR survey asked participants, “Which revenue sources does your association consider the highest priority?” The answers seem lost in time.
• Membership: 88%
• Meeting registration: 65%
• Meeting exhibits: 43%
Too many associations still rely on what PAR members call the “old faithfuls.” Didn’t the pandemic prove the need for revenue diversification? What about year-round or content-focused sponsorships? What about professional development and credentialing programs?
If association diversified their revenue, they wouldn’t have to rely so much on membership or in-person meetings. In an uncertain economy, the first budget line cut is often membership dues. Value questions arise. What are they really getting for their dues? Is it worth it? Can they get it elsewhere?
The financial success of in-person events depends on the ability of associations to adapt programs to:
• Market demands: People can listen to lectures at home. If they travel, they want meaningful time with peers.
• Travel issues: Expense, unreliability, and environmental cost.
• Economic issues: Lack of employer support, and inflation- or recession-induced budget cuts.
The safe bet is revenue diversification instead of relying heavily on membership dues and in-person events.
The content-driven approach to sponsorship
Per the State of Sponsorship Engagement, a survey by the Partnership Professionals Network (PPN) and Dynamic Benchmarking, only 21% of sponsors said they’re achieving their objective most of the time.
The traditional approach to sponsorship is the problem. It mainly provides brand awareness opportunities for sponsors through the display of logos and thanks from the podium. Sponsors are starting to realize there are better ways to spend their money.
They already use a variety of methods to reach and educate your members:
• Blog posts, case studies, white papers, and ebooks
• Podcast appearances
• Virtual and in-person summits and user conferences
They’re building authority with your audience and with Google, making a name for themselves as thought leaders, and generating leads. Some are learning they can do better on their own throughout the year than pay a great deal of money for a day or two of exposure at your conferences.
Consultant and PPN convener Bruce Rosenthal has a solution: his Big Tent Theory of Sponsorships. “Associations should create a bigger tent for members and sponsors to maximize collaboration and information-sharing, or companies will invite members to their tent.”
Many sponsors already do that. Bruce says, “Companies would prefer to partner with associations for the power of affinity. However, if associations don't invite companies into the association's tent, companies will expand their tents and create attractive opportunities for members.”
What would attract companies to your tent? According to the PPN survey, 70% of sponsors want to educate members and be seen as thought leaders.
At the RevUp Summit, hosted by Professionals for Association Revenue, Jay Ablondi of the Massachusetts Medical Society and Erin Pressley of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said they’re seeing movement away from event sponsorships into more substantive content investments because sponsors must justify their spend and ROI.
The message is coming in loud and clear from multiple sources: content-driven partnerships are the way forward. Instead of companies hoarding all their expertise on their own website, let them share it with your members on your website and during your events.
• Sponsored blog posts, articles, survey reports, white papers, and ebooks
• Sponsored toolkits and templates
• Sponsored podcasts, video series, webinars, and conference sessions
• Sponsored discussion roundtables, networking meetups, and other virtual education/networking activities
When sponsors can change their focus from selling to teaching, it changes your members’ perception of them from salespeople to thought leaders.
Jay and Erin described these sponsorship opportunities as more profitable, longer-term commitments that give sponsors more than a brand impression, but a means of showcasing their insights and expertise.
More associations are now hosting year-round content hubs where sponsors can share resources of interest and value to members. Members gain knowledge, sponsors gain leads, and associations gain revenue.
An enhanced professional development portfolio
The need for professional development is undeniable. Most professions and industries are continually undergoing change that requires people to improve and acquire skills. But a huge obstacle stands in the way of progress: the cheapskate mindset of employers and the head-in-the-sand mindset of employees who aren’t willing to invest time and money in professional development.
To combat this state of ignorance, associations must constantly raise awareness among employees and employers of the need for professional development. Yes, it’s self-serving, but it ultimately serves the profession or industry too—your mission.
Learning subscriptions. Another barrier to professional development is getting expenses approved by your boss every time you want to attend a webinar or other program. With learning subscriptions, employees only have to make one ask a year. But that’s just one benefit. A growing number of associations are offering and profiting from learning subscriptions.
Corporate learning portals. Professional development is not a core competency of your member companies, but it’s one of yours. Make life easier for them by offering frontline training, compliance training, and entry-level industry training. You could even offer subscription-based pricing for member companies like the National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research does.
Soft skill and leadership training. Associations have traditionally offered courses teaching hard skills, but soft skills haven’t always been a focus. Who better to offer industry-specific soft skills and leadership training?
Young professionals. Gen Z and younger Millennials understand the importance of professional development. They’re interested in entry-level credentials and digital badges that demonstrate their ambition and their newly acquired competencies.
The Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA) offers a New Broker Success Package, a hybrid online program. It combines independent study with live instruction. For an additional fee, new members can choose to add this package to their first year of TIA membership.
Jump Start for New Special Educators from the Council for Exceptional Children is an online program featuring live workshops, on-demand sessions, Q&A sessions, toolkits, and peer networking.
Learning cohorts. Yes, we’re talking about cohorts again. They’re incredibly successful in the for-profit education space. It’s an old concept—the National Association of Home Builders’ 20 Clubs have been around for decades—but more powerfully relevant and effective in the virtual age.
Coaching. We’re also seeing more associations offer coaching services as an up-sell to online courses or as part of a premium program. TIA includes coaching in many of their programs.
Learning pathways. Learning or career pathways show people how to progress during the current stage of their career and what they need to learn to get to the next level. To get a feel for this approach, read about the pathways offered by the Institute for Credentialing Excellence and EDUCAUSE.
I’ll leave you with what I think of as the PAR motto. It’s a phrase shared by PAR founder Sean Soth in his welcome at the RevUp Summit—inspirational advice for curious association professionals who seek new ways to increase non-dues revenue: “Lead, learn, and earn.”