Home Opinions How to work with a Trade Association

How to work with a Trade Association

archives2012

By Lindsay Smith, EuroCloud UK Secretary General

I’ve been a member of trade or professional associations over 30 years. I’ve seen that some people, some organisations get a lot out of them and others don’t. Is there a role for them today?

Well, take a look at some of the evidence, they have always been around and in the UK today there are many hundreds of them from the Aberdeen Fish Curers & Merchants Association to the Yachting Journalists Association, so, market forces being what they are it’s a fair conclusion that they provide value. By that I mean that they have to generate more benefit for their members than they cost their members.

Do you want to know how to get at that value? Well that’s what this is about.

How to use them

I’m writing as the Secretary General of EuroCloud UK, we are a not-for-profit trade association for the UK Cloud industry, part of the wider European EuroCloud movement with over 1,000 business organisations as members. Why this is particularly relevant as a place from which to talk about the benefits of a trade association is because Cloud is a very disruptive force in the IT sector and in the wider economy. Disruptive means it breaks the old model of doing things. Breaking and questioning, changing and creating are zealously pursued – and trade associations can’t and shouldn’t escape the inquisitioner’s attention. It’s very healthy – assume that old ways of working are not relevant until you can make the case to be included in the new world. Well, we have made our inventory, and we have asked the question of our members and, thumbs-up, we are a significant benefit, but that benefit is wasted unless we reach out, tell you how to get it and make sure it’s easily accessible to everyone. So read on…

What is a Trade Association?

There are many, they have been around a long while, so I can be brief here. Here are the main characteristics:

  • Mutual Organisation – Owned and answerable to the members and run for the members
  • Aligned – to a particular sector of commerce, business or profession
  • Objectives – to further the interests of the members, the sector, to speak with a legitimate, collective voice and influence and stimulate the environment

There are several other characteristics which may or may not differentiate one from another but tight definition and segmentation really isn’t needed here. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck then it probably is a trade association, in a manner of speaking. Before leaving the dull bit on definitions though let’s just restrict my scope to trade associations that have businesses as their main (or only) type of member. Many allow for or cater to individuals, some of what goes below will be relevant but there’s not much I’ve found on the web that deals with business trade associations (which is what EuroCloud is), so that’s my topic here.

What to Expect from a Trade Association

  • Positively supporting and promoting the general business of the sector to which they are aligned
  • Promoting the interests of the members
  • Creating opportunities for the members to promote themselves

But you know that. What you want to know is how to get maximum benefit (direct first and indirect if it’s going), okay, well just a second before we pitch in to that. A quick word on perspective: the benefits a member wants and can make use of are going to vary depending on the size, maturity and type of business you are. I’m going to try and cover it for everybody, but the needs of an established, global enterprise and those of a small-to-medium sized new business are going to be quite different – there is something for everybody, but pick and choose what will be attractive to your business. So, thank you for staying with me, let’s get stuck in.

Talk to the Secretary

There’s going to be a lot of talking in all of what follows. But you see, communication is essential to getting the value you want. The Secretary is the key – involved in every aspect of the affairs of the association but particularly membership (and their contentment, retention and development), events, sponsorship, outward communications and promotion. Some associations are big enough to have specialists in charge of these functions, but get to the person at the centre who holds all the strings first. Not only can he make things happen, but he can also talk through your goals for your membership (help you formulate them if you haven’t arrived with a pre-conceived set) – explain how other people use their membership and give examples of what works well. He’s also well positioned for matchmaking. Matchmaking is really valuable. Networking I’ll look at below, but if you itch for some introduction, alliance, opening or opportunity – make sure the Secretary knows and he can take some of the dipity out of the inevitable serendipity, and what your left with is, well almost serene.

The Secretary wants to hear from you, that’s his job and he can’t do it well without knowing you, knowing what you want and having a plan to do something about it. Now you are already getting more out of your membership than the members who don’t make this basic connection. Don’t ignore the other Board members (sometimes called committee, sometimes council) particularly if you already have a good relationship there, but the odds are they will pass it to the Secretary to make something happen.

What do I ask for? What can they do for me?

This is where size and maturity play a big part. A multinational may be looking to reinforce its brand and image and be reaching-out to an eco-system to reassure them of their commitment to a particular geography or community and have a catchment for new & emerging businesses they want to attract to their constituency. A newer or smaller business may want to get visibility in the supply-chain, prospect for alliances, partners, resellers or customers. To both it’s a form of promotion and the association can actively and passively promote brand, company, product/service, image and individuals.

Any association’s reach is far wider than its membership. Here at EuroCloud UK we have over 1,000 businesses across Europe who are members of our wider movement, newsletters, briefings and announcements reach several thousand more, over half the attendance at events can be non-members, which includes press, commentators, government, and potential customers. Add to this the media and PR sponsorship and relationships we cultivate, social media channels we use and it all adds up to quite some reach. So how and what do you use it for?

1. Get your company profile in the newsletter and on the website. Trade associations are proud of their members and want to trumpet you joining and any special news you have.

2. Register for events (as early as possible) and attend – we give four paid-for places for our members at any event. You may also get access to the registration list and be able to set-up meetings, post details about you and who you might like to meet.

3. Talk at an event – our events are a balance between content, discussion and networking. There are great opportunities for 5 or 10 minute presentations that are strong on content and tie-in to the theme of the event. All speakers introduce their companies as part of their authority for expressing a view or insight on a subject – and the audience wants to know who you are and what you do.

4. Talk at an event and you will be on the stage for the panel discussion and questions which are an intrinsic part of the show. Tell it how it is, how you see it – it’s a good introduction and you will find helps people get to know you.

5. Sponsor an event – within guidelines this gives you joint editorial authority over content and shape of an event, more time to speak and develop your theme, branding in the promotion at the event and what is written and reported afterwards and a booth/space to station staff and promotional materials – people want to know about you and then have a locus to find out.

6. Network at events – more on this later

7. Ask your association to co-promote one of your events. In the UK, we at EuroCloud do this for our members. Simple bandwidth and scheduling mean we can only do one co-promoted event per month, so how do we choose? Those who ask first. Book your place when you know your event date. Sure, we have to ration the number of these we do – particularly as we provide a free speaker – and they have to work to some guidelines, but the magic ‘secret’ is to talk to the Secretary about it, just ask.

8. Blogs, white-papers, web-content – all informative, relevant and original content is a benefit to the author and a benefit to the membership. Trade associations are an exchange of information, ideas and opinions. Most provide for and encourage this on-line participation.

9. Advocacy – trade associations lobby government and the authorities, liaise and participate in other associations, on behalf of and as a collective voice for their members. Express your views if you want them to be part of this, at events, in discussion, in response to surveys or by writing to or calling the Secretary.

10. Awards Programme – EuroCloud like many associations has an active and highly competitive, well publicised Awards programme. Ours starts taking submissions in April with closure in June and an Awards event held in July. We benefit from our European structure because all winners of the national Awards go through to a European final at the EuroCloud Congress in October (this year Luxembourg). All our entrants (60 in 2012) get a great deal of promotional activity wrapped around their participation through media interest, our promotion and media sponsorship. It’s an effort measured in minutes to participate – for a great deal of presence and publicity. But only those who have thought about how to get benefit from participating get access to this gift of a PR opportunity.

11. There’s another way a trade association can support you – only we haven’t thought of it yet… if you have an idea not in this list and think it is consistent with the mission and values of your association – call the Secretary and just ask.

Networking

Networking justifies a separate mention because it’s a special and yet unpredictable benefit. Combine it with matchmaking (see above) and speaking at events or sponsorship to try and get a little more predictability in the mix, but there are some handy tips to keep networking productive.

Everyone that goes to a trade association event wants to have a conversation.

If you are at a loss, all you need to do is say just that. I’m not going to patronise with the etiquette of networking, list my 23-point plan for success through networking, paint a bestiary of networking animals or even remind you to smile, listen and be amiable. Ah, sorry, I lied. I am going to tell you to smile, listen and be amiable. That is the key that opens every door – plain, old-fashioned courtesy wins over any other approach, every time.

Networking is like one of those magic artefacts in a Harry Potter story. It can and will provide you with an unknown but valuable insight on every occasion that you consult it, but you have no control over just what that is. The best formula for dealing with this is to enjoy the serendipity of the moment. Find and benefit from the interaction you are presented with and play the long game. Give something back you think your new acquaintance will enjoy and then ask their advice – she or he may know someone who is just the person you need to meet. The other aspect to the long game is to think about networking as not one, but several attendances at sequential events. It won’t be long before the whole room opens up to you as any familiar gathering does. You are known, people recognise you and want to talk to you about opportunities they have heard of since they last saw you. Your third visit will always be much more productive than your first.

Ask not what your association can do for you but what you can do for your association

Play your association by these simple rules and you will achieve a return on your investment that will make it the most effective part of your marketing spend. You also earn a coveted status that simple cash doesn’t buy. You become known, surprisingly widely, through these connections and their connections as active, committed to, a participant of some gravitas in your sector. People, ideas, relationships will start to gravitate towards you. The mutual respect and trust of your peers converts to trust in the market and in a young industry sector – that is worth having.

Lindsay Smith is EuroCloud UK Secretary General. For further information visit http://www.eurocloud.org.uk