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What do associations do better than anyone else?

Here's a question to melt your brain: if your association had to decide which one product or service it was best at providing and from then on produce that one item alone and nothing else, what would it be?

This came to mind after reading Jeff Cobb's post this week titled "What if you were the Dyson of your market?" He writes:

I have in mind that obvious and yet amazing claim for a vacuum cleaner manufacturer to make:

Our vacuums have strong suction and they don't lose it.

[…] imagine if you could validly say "People who participate in our learning experiences gain high quality, actionable knowledge; they retain it; and, they use it. We guarantee it."

I often find myself envious of companies that design and manufacture one type of item, like Dyson does with vacuum cleaners (or perhaps "turbine devices" to account for their fans, hand dryers, and washing machines, too). It's that kind of singular focus that makes it a lot less complicated for a company to strive toward being the best in the world at what it does.

Leah Busque's recent post at Fast Company's Co.Exist blog on comparative advantage ("If You Want It Done Right, Don't Do It Yourself") drives this point home:

There is tremendous power in focusing on the things you are most skilled at, while relying on others to do the rest. … It's necessary (and a real skill) to acknowledge where your time is best spent and make conscious decisions to focus on those areas.

The variety of endeavors most associations pursue, however, is broad: meetings, education, knowledge sharing, advocacy, standards, fundraising, research, group buying, and so on and so on. (I'm reminded yet again of C. David Gammel, CAE's postulate about an association being "a conglomerate of small businesses.")

I commented on Jeff's post to say that I worry that this lack of focus in associations might prevent them from achieving a Dyson-level of quality—the level of "we're the best in the world and we guarantee it"—in any particular product or service. Of course, any given association could, theoretically, pick one of its offerings, eschew the rest, and pursue it at the highest level. And the particular offering chosen would likely be different at every association, depending on each one's unique circumstances and skill sets.

But is there one comparative advantage for associations overall? For the association model? What is it that associations are better at than anyone else? I'll admit I struggled with this for a while, but I think the answer is rather straightforward: associations are the best at being large groups of people with common interests and goals. Their comparative advantage lies in having a critical mass. Power in numbers is what lends credibility to all the products and services associations create.

A lot of people would call this "membership," so it's understandable that we all get whipped into a froth when we debate the future of the membership model. If membership is the fundamental advantage that associations carry, and they lost it, they might cease to exist. I think this viewpoint is half right. "Membership" often denotes payment to enter, and I don't think that's always necessary. "Community" seems like the better label to me. As long as an association can foster a community, whether the community members pay to be a part of it or not, it will have opportunities to remain sustainable.

But you can't sell membership in and of itself. People don't join a community just to be a part of it. They join for all the benefits that its power in numbers enables. And so maybe the question at the start of this post is irrelevant. Perhaps we're comparing apples to oranges. What do you think? What is that associations can guarantee they're the best in the world at? Or can they at all?



This is two-fold.
What associations are "the best" at is dependent on the association and the industry. My association is the best at providing market data for our members; on the other hand, there are other associations that provide trade shows to the industry that we don't.
I will say, however, that sometimes I compare associations to for-profit service providers in any industry, and what we seem to provide "better" is actually caring about the industry and its growth, as opposed to service providers who care about the industry because of how that growth could affect their bottom line. We do what our industry needs because they need it; not because fulfilling that need puts more money in our pocket. Part of that is probably having Boards and members who direct our strategic planning, as opposed to just a "shareholder" mentality.

At least for professional associations, I think what associations are best at is creating an environment in which those who practice the profession can come together and share information, knowledge, and expertise. A successful association's main competitive advantage is that it brings together (in person, through publications, and virtually) the collective wisdom/knowledge of those in its field.

Associations absolutely have the huge advantage of community - they just don't realize it and don't get how the definition of community has changed, and now includes a lot more people than the names in your database. But think of for-profit companies trying so hard to build community out of scratch, to build it around "products" - that is much, much harder. But I think a lot of associations are squandering their community by not sharing enough control. Just look at the PRSA situation unfolding as we speak.

I think it's a pipe dream to wish for that one magic-bullet product that associations can "make" and be the best in the world at to make them successful. That's our problem. We spent decades becoming good at products, with our community happening kind of on the side. Now the social internet is making it impossible to be the best in the world in our products, at least in a centralized way. No one will be able to "own" education and networking any more. I think there is more of a future in focusing on community.

But the association shouldn't try to be a "best in the world community provider" either. That puts the association at the center of the universe (another one of our problems). If you wanted to support the best community in the world, and you had the remarkable advantage of having a bunch of dues money to work with, what would you do?

Thanks everyone for the comments.

Lauren, I appreciate your point about profit focus versus mission focus. To take the "being a community" idea a step further, I think an association's advantage could be described as being the best in the world at advancing the mission and goals of its community. By definition, an association ought to know its community better than anyone else and should be in the best position to leverage that knowledge into action.

Terry and Maddie, whenever I try to imagine a for-profit company moving in on what associations do, I always wonder how it expects to compete with an association's built-in community or audience. It's the one thing I always get hung up on when I think about those competing business models. But just as the web and social media are changing the definition of community, they're making it easier to reach broad communities as well, so that has to be a threat to associations' long-held advantage.

Jamie, I definitely chose the word "foster" over "lead" or "provide" for the reason you've articulated. The association can't claim to be the source or provider or leader of a community; it can simply aim to be the best at facilitating or guiding the community in where it wants to go.

I was curious how "associations are the best at being a community" would go over, but it sounds like there's mostly agreement with this idea. I still have concerns over the problem of lack of focus. Doing what you're best at and delegating the rest seems like a wise strategy at face value, but if an association's main advantage is the community it's built upon, then pursuing the goals of that community will inevitably spread it thin across a lot of various efforts. Is there just no way around that for associations, or is there a way to find more focus?

Jamie asks: If you wanted to support the best community in the world ... what would you do?

I think the answer lies at the nexus of what the association has and what "pain" its members are experiencing where those assets could be brought to bear.

So the first step is to look at what you have. Things that come to mind as possibilities: members with experience and knowledge, members who want to learn, content that is interesting/useful, experience in publishing, experience in organizing events, etc.

The second step is to talk to your members and figure out how you can help. From my own personal experience, I would love my association to maintain a list of venues that could be used for Meetups. I would love them to maintain a list of people willing to speak on given topics that I could easily sort geographically. I would like to be able to make use of the contact information they have about people who share my profession in my area so that I could let them know about interesting events that were happening.

If you talk to members, and you are genuinely interested in hearing the answers, I think you will find a myriad of ways to serve them better. And because associations are fundamentally about community, I think you'll discover that many of these things are community oriented in some way. By simply listening and acting, I believe you will become the best community provider -- for your community.

Having membership alone is not what makes us special as associations. Especially in this era, individuals have lots of options other than us to go for community, information, and resources. Think Facebook, think Amazon. What makes us special is being a TRUSTED resource, providing the HIGHEST quality, with a community of EXPERTS.

Here's how we apply that message to my association (International Association of Fire Chiefs) when it comes to membership. We say to our members, yes, there are no shortage of websites, blogs, social networks out there. But as a "CEO" of your organization, when you are facing your toughest challenges you need to know you can go to a trusted source, with the answers proven to work, connecting with peers who are the best in the business and to whom you can interact with confidence and confidentially.

I love the Dyson analogy - ‘Our vacuums have strong suctions and they don’t lose it.’ I really think, in some ways, that is what associations do better than anybody else, if they have that strong suction and not lose it. What I mean by suction is relevance with their audience. Associations create and facilitate communities. Some associations are fortunate enough to have what we call signature service that members need to do their everyday jobs. For example, the MLS for REALTORS. That’s a luxury; you have to have that service and go to the trade association to do your job. Most associations don’t have that, so their suction has to be to remain relevant and foster community. So in addition to community, as mentioned in this article, associations must have relevance too. Advocacy, networking and really providing member services through the power of numbers, cost sharing pools and discounts - those are the things that an association does best.

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