Entering New Association Markets

18th Sep, 2014

Despite the global financial crisis that still appears to loom around every corner of our everyday working lives and all too often is used as and excuse not to do something proactive, international business relations are on the rise like never before. We need only to look at the booming SME sector that dares to think big from the start and invests its great ideas into something more than feasible. Young entrepreneurs find it easy - thanks to social media - to get in touch with likeminded people from other regions in the world and set up business ventures that span the globe.

Industry permitting, the same goes for more and more associations in the NPO sector. There are several reasons and in this article we will look into three of the main drivers that should entice us to think beyond our own borders.

Industry-driven growth
In particular in the trade and industry sectors, we can observe strong shifts with workforce relocations and growth of new regional centres of excellence. Only a few years ago - or so it might seem - we witnessed the move of entire production lines from our countries to the African continent and back again, only to then move out to Asia and, in particular, South East Asia in the late 1980’s and first half of the 1990’s.

Greater awareness in the realm of Organisational Social Responsibility (no, we do not call it ‘corporate’ anymore, that is very 2013!) brought our attention back to local production and an emphasis on aspects such as ‘fair pay’ and ‘quality’. However, the price development that we saw in conjunction with production ‘back at home’ and a severe credit crisis in our backyard still favoured industry to operate from countries with less economical and social pressures.

Formerly poverty-stricken countries gained a place in the midst of consumer-driven nations thanks to the global efforts of developed economies, which is important for our industries to be able to continue on the market-driven economical dogma of constant growth.

What does all this mean for us as associations? Our industries are shifting and whether we like it or not, we shift with them. Recent new developments of Boards dictating a stricter strategy, demanding more from association staff than ever before are only the tell-tale signs. The race for relevance is in our blood and we need to be able to respond to our industries’ needs in order to survive.

In particular recent developments for associations have shown expansions towards the BRICS countries. These countries, possessing a wealth of raw materials, skilled labour and financial power are the new sex-symbols of the association world, also because they still require further skills - or so we think - in terms of social development, equal opportunities, education, all factors that are high on our association agendas.

Looking at it from a practical point of view, many IT-related associations found themselves having to bridge European, US-American and Asian standards at the same time.

Cultural clashes are to be expected. The devil is in the details and the cultural nuances are to be observed with care, in particular when we notice that also other countries underwent a similar social shift with the global growth of social media and the like. Coca-Colonisation is a thing of the past (that is so 1990’s!) and we cannot look upon social development in such a simplistic manner anymore. What has become important, globally, is a sense of value and a sense of real need. Whether you are European, American or Asian.

From a strategic position this has somewhat simplified our approach. We need to ask ourselves what we want and act accordingly, but this may not come as simple as we hoped for. Driven by our industries, we may find ourselves in the interesting position of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Remaining relevant will see us support our industry as much as we can. Ultimately, this is why we exist right? On the other hand, as NPO’s we may adhere to some moral code and wish to keep a neutral position, or at least avoid a political confrontation.

Some associations are in the lucky position that they are just too successful and do not know what to do with all their funds and support. Lucky them, right?

General need for growth
Some associations are in the lucky position that they are just too successful and do not know what to do with all their funds and support. Lucky them, right? Well, the need for relevance still applies to them and if they wish to expand globally with a purpose, they will have to undergo a few thinking exercises to prepare them for these steps.

Let us assume that an association is particularly successful because of the content it has to share with professionals. Indeed, this paragraph may be of particular interest to professional societies.

While the content may be of great interest, we must never forget that, not only when thinking multi-culturally, content will always be appropriated in a certain social context. Again, the notions of McDonaldisation and Coca-Colonisation never actually applied to the fullest extent early radicals wanted to make the world believe. Social values are - intrinsically - fluid and thus the encoding and decoding of messages, of this beauty, literally lies in the eye of the beholder.

Therefore, an association that sees itself successfully selling their content will always have to remain a step ahead in terms of what its constituency really needs and wants to remain relevant. North American content will be interesting to a European professional, but will it really help? The ability to remain socially flexible is a skill that cannot be underestimated in our association business.

A certain international association’s strategy, we unfortunately cannot give names here, was to invest in the creation of international chapters to support the headquarters in their overall mission but by adding local flavour. For many associations that are either already doing business abroad, or are planning to, this may be an approach to explore further.

Clustering and cooperation
A third strategy to grow and/or to remain relevant may be a rather straight-forward approach: If you cannot beat them, join them!

You may notice that your association doesn’t really quite have the edge anymore it used to have. Funds and members alike are on the decline for various reasons. Maybe it is time to really examine those (potential) partners and competitors of yours. What are their strengths and where could you add value? Maybe ‘cooperation’ might not be so far off an idea after all. In fact, another association saw itself exactly in this position not too long ago. Their approach did not work anymore, they had become somewhat irrelevant, even though they kept appearing here and there at strategic meetings with fellow colleagues.

Looking at what was missing and what was really needed, they launched a series of inquiries towards their membership, their competitors and (potential) partnership organisations to find out what the real need ‘out there’ was.

The result was a focused communication strategy combined with a ‘pay it forward’ approach. Making money was important but there were other priorities as well and they all needed to be put in line. Serving thus their constituency first, getting themselves into the limelight and doing ‘the right thing’ (rather than focusing too much on doing things right…) resulted in greater visibility and becoming a serious partner to organisations that were willing to support the efforts.

In this particular case, the emphasis was put on collaboration and ‘partnerships’. Developing a platform that serves everyone that contributes. In a certain way, we can call this a clustering of services and skills and in this particular case, it was clearly the right thing to do. The association is now at the brink to move beyond its geographical borders (and not only those!) and it will do so thanks to the assistance of strategic partners in other regions.

This approach, however, requires good knowledge of one’s own organisation and a clear sense of where the organisation is supposed to head. Open communication channels are a must at all times but it is ultimately an easier (and more fun!) undertaking than what one might expect.

New markets at your doorstep
After reading this article, you may ask yourself whether or not your decision to expand to new horizons really was so great. Rest assured, it does not need to take a great geographical expansion to remain relevant and discover new association markets.

In some cases, all it takes is a well thought-through survey of one’s constituency to find out what they really want and to recognise that all these years we have been looking into a completely different direction.

It is scary indeed - and surprising to say the least - how many modern associations still do not ask for feedback regularly. In times of surveymonkey.com and other easy to manage research tools, we do not have any excuse anymore not to ask our members what they would like to see from our associations in return for their fees.

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