When it comes to professional development, many associations ignore a large segment of their membership: their industry partner members. Your association may use a different name for these members who provide products and services to your “regular” members. Maybe you call them vendor, supplier, associate, or affiliate members. Whatever the name, are you providing education for supplier members?
Why should your association provide education to supplier members?
Many of you are thinking, “No, they’re not our focus.” Strictly speaking, that’s true, but educating supplier members has benefits for your membership culture and association.
Ideally, an association’s members would do business with fellow members. This practice would strengthen the membership culture and tie all segments of your membership more tightly together.
But supplier members don’t always know the best ways to earn that business. And, unfortunately, a few clueless supplier members can ruin things for everyone. Instead of taking the time to develop relationships, they push their business card at everyone they meet and subject fellow members to an unending sales pitch.
It’s because of annoying members like these that some associations implement policies to protect regular members from pushy salespeople. For example, they may not allow vendor members to attend educational events. That’s a step too far. It’s better to educate vendor members, not punish them all because of the ignorance of a few.
Vendor education programs serve two purposes:
• They help members gain a better understanding of the industry they serve.
• They teach members how to more effectively network and build relationships.
Many vendor members are new to your industry or profession. Even the ones who have been around a while may have only a shallow understanding of your industry. Vendor members must know how to speak the language of fellow members, become familiar with what they do all day, and understand their challenges and aspirations.
Retention rates are usually lower for the vendor member segment, but not if you teach them how to be successful members. Teach them how to effectively network and develop relationships with prospects (fellow members). This education will help them become successful salespeople: generating leads, winning business, and getting a return on their dues investment, which means they’ll renew their membership.
With their new industry knowledge, affiliate members will become more effective at marketing too. They can write posts and articles about industry issues, and speak at educational events and conferences. They will soon earn a reputation for thought leadership.
When these affiliate members feel like part of your professional community, they’re more likely to support their association through volunteering, sponsorship, exhibiting, and advertising.
Vendor education programs
Here are some ideas for vendor education programs. But before you do anything, talk to first-year vendor members about the challenges they’re encountering, and to successful, veteran vendor members about the topics their fellow members need to learn.
New member onboarding
Let new vendor members know right from the start that you understand their reasons for joining and want to help them achieve their goals. You’ve seen vendor members thrive and you’ve seen them get frustrated and quit. If they want to be successful, they need to take time to learn how to thrive as a valuable member of your community.
Point them in the direction of a special learning pathway for vendor members that includes short videos covering a range of topics, including networking, relationship building, and volunteering. Include interviews with successful associate members who explain how to network and develop relationships, share lessons on what they’ve learned along the way, and provide advice for new members.
You can even take it a step further: before vendor members attend their first event, make it a requirement to watch a video on networking. This video can focus on strategies for long-term success, and warn against pushy sales tactics.
Quarterly educational events for associate members
You’re always going to have new associate members or new contacts at member organizations, so plan quarterly events where new and veteran associate members can get to know each other.
New members will appreciate getting comfortable in a niche community of members just like them so when they attend larger events, they already have a circle of acquaintances. Remind them that fellow associate members are a good source for introductions and referrals.
Hold quarterly affiliate roundtables or lunch-and-learns, either in-person or via webcast, with discussions focused on trending topics like a new industry regulation, or perennial topics like how to develop relationships and get business. Invite regular members to speak solo or as part of a panel about their work and challenges.
Many associations offer online education for trade show exhibitors. This online training could consist of live and recorded webinars and videos focused on pre-show, show, and post-show tactics, for example:
• Budgeting and controlling trade show costs
• Getting industry press to cover your brand
• Managing leads
• Measuring show ROI
Before the show opens, offer on-site education on hot industry topics. You could combine this session with a thank you reception—a good way to increase session attendance and thank those who make the event possible.
“101” program or course
Many state Societies of Association Executives (SAEs) offer an Associations 101 program for members who are new to the industry—both association staff and industry partners. You could do this as an all-day program, like the California SAE, or break it up into one-hour segments, either online or in-person.
The Building Owners and Managers Association designed their “101” program, Foundations of Real Estate Management, for property managers, but encourages supplier members to attend as well.
Learning pathways and certifications
Create a learning pathway for industry partner members. Start with a 101 program and then design additional programs or courses that go deeper into specific topics.
You could license these courses to employers who serve your industry as a supplement to their in-house sales training.
Consider certification and digital badge programs for industry partner members. The National Association of Home Builders offers a Certified Graduate Associate certification. They promote this designation as a way for associate members to distinguish themselves from their peers. The program requires four online courses (two required, two elective) and two years of experience in the industry, so it’s not for newbies. Every three years, recertification requires 12 hours of building industry-related educational activities.
Use specially targeted campaigns to market your regular educational programs to affiliate members. Explain the benefits of participation—what they will get out of it and how it can make a difference to their sales success and career advancement.
Your affiliate members talk for a living. To succeed they have to talk to leads and customers. After attending your vendor education programs, they’ll have more to talk about. They will no longer be seen as merely salespeople, but as knowledgeable, respected members of your professional community. They will no longer be seen as merely vendor members, but as trusted industry partners.