May 18, 2018 • Jason Dressel
Name an industry, and there’s bound to be an organization—or more likely a myriad of organizations—representing its interests. From broad industrywide associations to niche professional interests like the U.S. Association for Reptile Keepers, there is a group for everyone. The amount of competition and specialization has associations competing for mindshare and for share of member wallets like never before.
For this reason, associations have had to adapt to new challenges and opportunities to sustain and expand their value proposition to their members. Indeed, this 2014 survey highlighted some of the acute challenges of membership retention that more than 100,000 U.S. trade and professional associations face.
From our experience working with trade associations (especially with our headquarters in D.C., where so many associations are based), we’ve learned that association leaders need more innovation and more thought leadership. The traditional offerings—advocacy, education, quality control, and standardization and networking—are certainly still viable. But leading the future direction of the industry and thought leadership are essential.
While a focus on the past may seem counterintuitive, shaping the future of an industry does, in fact, involve looking back. Owning the history of an industry reaffirms an association’s position and credibility as that industry’s steward and ultimate authority.
As for thought leadership, the most powerful trade associations—the AMA, PhRMA, the NRA, the NEA and the NAM, to name a few—have exemplified thought leadership for decades. They’re not merely conveners and information providers: they work directly with industry leaders to shape future topics and address important issues.
For too many trade associations, history is viewed as a retrospective to be updated once every 25 years. Inevitably, the effort is organized and led by a committee of past presidents. So if you’re approaching one of those anniversary milestones—but especially if you’re not—here are a few considerations for how you can use your industry’s history to advance the goals of your association.
Many trade associations develop branding and business strategies that point toward the future, as well as how they see the industry, and their role, developing. We’ve noticed that few of these plans reference past accomplishments or put the new plan into any sort of context. The best way to get people excited about the future is to understand the progress that’s been made in the past. Referencing the milestone accomplishments—or even the lessons learned from past failures—provides compelling proof of progress and sets a platform for the future.
By their very nature, trade associations are member and committee driven. And sometimes that means that too much focus is put on arcane, procedural events that don’t resonate with a broader audience. Unless it had a profound impact on the industry, the change in bylaws made in a meeting isn’t important to the grand narrative. You must elevate the story. It’s not just about the history of the association. The association that can tell a story of an evolving industry will thrive. Keep the broader story relevant, compelling and, above all, human. People are invariably more interested in the human side of an association, with its trials and tribulations, than how rules were modified or what occurred at the association fishing trip in 1972 (unless, of course, it’s the IGFA).
If you attend an association’s annual conference, you’ll most likely hear things like “storytelling,” “narratives” and “creating an experience.” In essence, they are all suggesting the same thing: impress an audience with information in a way that is compelling, memorable and enduring.
By combining association history with current storytelling methods, you can use your stories from the past as creative productions to shape your narrative and create brand engagement experiences. Instead of filming interviews with seasoned industry professionals behind closed doors, consider blowing out the production into a live social media event. Host “Inside the Actors Studio”-style discussion panels. Publish in digital forms like e-books, as well as traditional print, so you’re communicating history in the most contemporary format.
For organizations that thrive on sponsorships, heritage adds a new perspective to entice key industry leaders into partnerships. Sponsorship programs that elevate industry history will further attract companies looking for new avenues to demonstrate thought leadership. Consider adding a heritage element to sponsorship opportunities in magazines, publications and programming. This will give industry legends something to rally around.
Another way to increase sponsorship is to celebrate sponsorship tenure. A longtime partnership with a sponsor is noteworthy and worth celebrating in your programming. Highlight companies or organizations that have shared the industry twists and turns. Reminding key stakeholders in your organization how you’ve helped each other in the past can help retain sponsorships.
The association that owns the history of the industry will be seen as the authority. For competing trade associations that don’t have a firm grasp on the industry narrative, it may be difficult to gain members over a more established entity.
The best way to demonstrate that you are the intellectual stewards of an industry is to develop and maintain an archive for your association. An archive serves as a library of content as well as a definitive resource that can be promoted as the foundation for your intellectual stewardship. It’s also a benefit of membership (i.e., access to the archives) for any members marking their own company milestones or demonstrating their importance to the main industry association.
For associations, losing sight of their heritage is losing sight of their purpose. It is the duty of associations to keep a firm grip on their stories and the story of the industry for its members. At History Factory, we specialize in using heritage as authentic content to help associations support their membership as well as to promote the overall history of their trade and organization. We have close to 40 years of experience making history work harder for today and tomorrow. If you’re looking for an authentic way to reach out to your membership, let’s chat.