Professional and trade associations are under increasing pressure to consider how their brands will remain relevant as global and local markets adapt to a digital-first business model. In many respects, associations are not alone in trying to remain relevant with their membership. We can look at non-profits in a similar light, and draw comparable challenges in the retail space where consumers now make more than 51% of their purchases online. The unique distinction for trade or professional associations is the serious threat of declining industries or sub-industries. As market segments contract and consolidate, the shrinking member base puts additional pressure on its association to demonstrate real value and remain relevant.

The Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) and the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) represent associations across North America, and like their member associations, they too must maintain a high degree of brand relevance. The ASAE notes that association membership is declining across the board. They cite both socioeconomic and behavioral shifts as key influencers. Cost-cutting, generational workforce changes and the emergence of social networks are all impacting how associations position their brands.

Millennials place less value on formal and traditional means of networking—traditionally provided through professional or trade associations. Their preference is to use social networks, providing members with easy and direct ways to connect. In addition, the abundance of online content has led to vast and often free access to the types of information, insights and training that were once the domain of trade or professional associations and industry conferences.

Our work with associations such as the Canadian Credit Union Association, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association have all proven that relevance is the single greatest determining factor for a brand’s long-term success.

When building and maintaining brand relevance is central to an association’s strategic plan, the objective shifts from member acquisition to member value with a greater sense of purpose and relevance. Here are four key areas that trade and professional associations can focus on to create highly relevant brands:

  • Be member-centric: Know your members better than they know themselves; make it a cultural ethos.
  • Tell your brand story: Create a consistent and compelling brand narrative that connects with your members and gives them a reason to believe.
  • Lead, don’t follow: The historical subservient association is a self-destructive model. Be a leading association that innovates with technology first and breaks new ground for members.
  • Be accessible: Get out from behind the due diligence of association work. Have a member-facing brand experience that’s consistently accessible to all members—wherever or whenever they need access.