Stop competing

That somewhat startling and counterintuitive piece of advice comes from futurist Dan Burrus.  “No matter what your angle for competing – whether you are competing on price, service, quality, time, design, or anything else – the unfortunate outcome is you’re making yourself too much like everyone else.  So even when you are in the lead, someone else eventually matches you. 1

A lot of what he has to say resonates with the world of associations.  Yes, the days when everyone automatically joined their association because “that’s just what people in the profession do” are long gone.  Members are more demanding and insist on demonstrable and tangible returns on their investment before they will offer you not only their dollars, but their volunteer time and even their attention.  Associations are being driven to be more efficient and productive — to run more like a business.  After all, “not-for-profit is a tax status, not a business philosophy” and “no means, no mission!”

But in our quest to become more businesslike, or put another way, more competitive with for-profit vendors of services, information and product, are associations voluntarily sacrificing the very thing that makes them uniquely competitive in a world of expanding options for consumers?

Association journals, newsletters and magazines face competition from unaffiliated information and content providers (online and in print) who often have superior advertising or other financial resources to draw upon, enabling them to beat the association on price.  Association meetings and conventions face competition from unaffiliated education and networking opportunity vendors who have the luxury of focusing only on what’s hot and leaving the less glamorous, basic education to others.  And I could go on.

Let me be clear: being slow, out of date, locked into fixed and unchanging models, inefficient, irrelevant or costly are never excusable faults for an association. They are fatal. Associations can learn from our competitors how to be better and adopt their successful tactics in the market spaces we share.

But compete purely on their terms — as if you were just another periodical in the publications market space, or just another conference provider, or just another social networking venue — and chances are they will beat you.  They don’t carry all the baggage that an association does and will always be nimbler and more ruthless in jettisoning “unproductive” segments of their customer base.

A better way, according to Burrus, is to constantly find and promote new and different things you can do that defy any comparison to the alternatives. 

For associations, that means never losing sight of, and never failing to push and promote what it is that makes the association enterprise different from a department store or online retailer.  Some of the baggage associations carry, that same stuff that can sometimes make us less competitive than we otherwise would be in specific product or service lines, is the most unique, valuable and important thing we have to offer.  The thing that would be missed most if we disappeared.

As associations, we dare not delude ourselves with high sounding but empty rationalizations of our self-importance.  We need to be brutally spin-free in defining that unique value we offer that commercial vendors do not and in assessing our performance in delivering it to members.  But we also need to herald the difference, not jettison it.  We lose as competitors if associations allow themselves to become just another in the plethora of indistinguishable sources of information, meetings, education, etc.

1 Techno Trends, September 2010 (Volume XXVI, No. 9)

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About Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE
Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE, is Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior CEO roles include a nearly fourteen-year tenure as Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), Vienna, Virginia. Before joining NCRA staff , he spent eight years with the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA), Washington, D.C. He also spent 12 years with the Association of Telemessaging Services International (ATSI), Alexandria, Virginia Long active in the association community, Mr. Golden is a past Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Association Leadership, a past Vice Chairman of the ASAE Board of Directors, past Chair of the Center for Association Leadership’s Research Committee, and past member of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce's Association Committee of 100. He is the 2011 recipient of the American Society of Association Executive's Key Award, the highest honor ASAE bestows, to "honor the association CEO who demonstrates exceptional qualities of leadership in his or her own association, and displays a deep commitment to voluntary membership organizations as a whole.”

One Response to Stop competing

  1. Excellent post Mark….very well done…

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