Membership 101: What About Trade Associations?

If you’ve been following the Membership 101 series, you may be wondering: “What about trade associations? A lot of your advice seems directed to individual membership/professional associations. My members are companies/institutions. Does your advice still hold?”

The answer? Sort of.

On the one hand, many things are different in your operating environment. Trade associations frequently have a highly defined universe – you often know EXACTLY how many companies qualify for membership in your association (and who they are). Generally speaking in individual membership associations, anyone who wants to pony up for dues can be a member, while in trade associations, new members may come in on provisional status until they’re approved by the board of directors, because there are qualifications they have to meet first. Dues are usually SIGNIFICANTLY higher than for professional societies – a $100 individual membership can be an impulse buy, but a $100,000 company membership is not. And advocacy often plays a far more significant role in the slate of benefits in trades than it does in individual membership societies – which can actually be a big problem, as companies elect to be free riders, trusting that the association will advocate for them regardless of whether they PAY for that service or not.

On the other hand, while the company may be paying for the membership, the association is still in the business of creating relationships between people (both between the members and the association and within the membership base as a whole). But being a trade adds a layer of complication to that. Your primary contact will often be a CEO-level person, but the dues notices go to the finance department, while the people who are taking advantage of membership benefits are often widely spread across the organization, and many of those people might, like the blind men of the fable, only be experiencing a tiny part of the elephant.

That means that a few of the things we’ve talked about in this series become even more important:

Trade association membership staff MUST accurately calculate comprehensive Life Time Value of membership, because the high dues amounts your members pay mean that it’s often appropriate to spend LARGE sums on recruitment.

Trade associations’ limited universe means that your members have the right to expect a much more personalized level of service. You should at least consider providing concierge type relationship management, including in-person visits.

Although someone in the C-suite is probably your primary membership contact (and thus approves paying the annual renewal notice), the value of membership may be somewhat hidden from that person, as staff members across their company are the ones who are using and benefitting from your programs, products, and services. Because of that, it’s critical to illuminate that value by providing an annual activity summary to that payment approver.

While advocacy is often a critical service your trade association provides, you have to be careful about how you talk about it. One, you can’t guarantee any legislative outcomes, so you have to be cautious about what you promise. And two, as mentioned above, there’s the free rider problem, so you need to think about what you can offer that will encourage companies to kick in their fair share.

Since you’re often talking large sums of money for dues, you also need to be aware of your members’ fiscal year, budget schedules, and annual flow of business in a way that an individual membership association promoting $100 membership doesn’t. Align your fiscal year with your members’, don’t run your renewal cycle during their busy season, and if you’re going to make significant dues changes, pay attention to their budget cycles before you do – they’re going to need some lead time to prepare.

But in the end, remember you’re still real people dealing with real people, and your main focus is still on creating authentic relationships that allow them to come together to accomplish goals they were unable to achieve on their own.