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How To Clobber The Competition
By Orvel Ray Wilson   Printer Friendly Version

It's a jungle out there. Associations must defend themselves from competition just like any other business. Guerrillas capture the high ground by recognizing that competition exists, discovering who it is, and then using that information to their advantage.

The first step is to recognize that there actually is competition. "What competition?" you say. That position will get you creamed. Even if you're the Association of Left-handed-Men-with-Middle-Names-Starting-with-R, dozens of other organizations are trying to court your members away at this very moment. Guerrillas know that their best prospects are their current customers, and their best customers are the competitions' prime prospects. Guerrillas leave nothing to chance.

Recent years have seen a virtual explosion of professional associations and special interest groups. As an author and speaker on sales, marketing and management, a number of them vie for my participation, including the National Speakers Association, the American Society for Training and Development, the American Management Association, and Sales and Marketing Executives International. Add to that list the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the American Association for the Self Employed, and my calendar is getting pretty full. Then there's the Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, the Natural History Museum, and that's just this week's mail. Add Jaycees, Rotary, Kiwanas, Civitan, and Optimists, all wonderful, worthwhile groups, I'm sure. The Gale Encyclopedia of Associations lists over 30,000 of them, so I could easily spend my whole life going to meetings and eating Chicken Cordon Bleu.

Back in the good'ole days, people who were joiners just joined. Belonging to several professional associations was obligatory, with the company often picking up the tab. Not anymore. In a recession, people have gotten pickier about who gets their dues dollars, and are even more miserly with their time. They look hard at who gives them the most value through newsletters, local chapter meetings, programming, and other services. In many cases, corporate managers, under orders to cut costs, are refusing to fund memberships carte blanc. Only those associations that carefully target the needs of a specific population group will survive and thrive. The watch word of the guerrilla marketer is narrowcasting; saying something to somebody instead of saying nothing to everybody. Guerrillas know that if you really listen to your customers, they'll tell you exactly what you need to do to succeed, and if you do what they tell you to, you cannot fail. Survey your members at least quarterly, and ask what they want before organizing committees or rolling out projects. Evaluate every aspect of every event, from coffee to closing remarks, and look for the "one-percenters," the hundreds of tiny areas where you can make cumulative improvements.

Compounding the problem, hundreds of for-profit companies are trying to siphon off your lifeblood, your non-dues revenue. A healthy non-profit generates at least half its income from non-dues sources. Members can buy everything from seminars to life insurance for less from someone else. Unless your plan offers a unique benefit, and a compelling reason to buy from you, your members will vote with their feet. Luxury conventions that are little more than golf junkets are loosing out to more pressing business priorities, and even a luncheon must compete for your members discretionary dollars. Successful conferences are packing every hour with an assortment of hard-hitting, information-packed break-outs and workshops. Start on time. End on time. Don't waste a minute of your members' day.

The second step in your battle plan is to find out as much as you can about your competitors. This includes any association who's interests remotely overlap with those of your own. Find out who they are and what they offer. Call and ask for their membership packet. Request a calendar of events. Calculate what it would cost a typical member to join and to attend each monthly meeting, plus one national convention. How do these costs compare to your own? Who are their officers? If their newsletter is available by subscription, order it. Who are they inviting to speak? What kind of training and seminars do they offer? Ask them to put you on their press list so you can receive announcements of special events. For a small fee you may be able to obtain a membership directory, or even their mailing list. Are they growing? Attend one of their functions as a guest. How was the food? The venue? The program? How do your offerings measure up? You'll be surprised.

The third step is to turn this recognizance to your advantage. Competition is healthy because it forces constant improvement. Enthusiasm begins with real quality, so become a fanatic about providing your members the very best available in everything you do. People love to be part of something they can be proud of, and they get the most value when they're encouraged to contribute. Look for star talent within your own ranks, and solicit creative suggestions from everyone. Put every member on a committee or project where they can add value. Recruit the officers and board members of competing groups to join and serve in leadership roles in your organization as well. Track down past-presidents of other successful associations and ask them to sit as an advisor to your board, or to serve as a personal mentor. If you take the time to learn from the competition, your members will rally to expand and upgrade your offerings. They'll come to your events, they'll tell their friends, and they'll renew.

Finally, when someone drops out, don't bother to send them a "sorry-we-missed-you" letter, or even a second renewal notice. Visit them personally. Get nose-to-nose, or at least phone, and ask why they're leaving. Ask what you could have done differently to have kept their interest alive. Never take a single member for granted. Listen, take notes, and report every detail to your board. Take no prisoners. You're fighting for your survival.


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