Every association CEO’s No. 1 job is helping members be successful, whether they are companies banding together in a trade group or individuals convening in a professional society. As such, many association leaders are often asked to guard the sanctity of their members against heavy-handed sales tactics of vendors and sponsors. They keep sponsors on the sidelines at their conferences, relegate them to the advertising (not the editorial) pages of their publications, and block them out of planning those and other key association programs.
That’s understandable, and laudable when sponsor demands threaten an association’s integrity. But it’s also increasingly shortsighted and fundamentally misses a tremendous opportunity. Keeping vendor members on the sidelines is a black-and-white stance that precludes associations from fully tapping the expertise of sponsors and vendor members. If your vendors’ expertise is developed, packaged and presented in educational (not blatantly self-promotional) ways, it can be extremely helpful to your mainstream association members.
Doing that means helping association sponsors and vendors to be viewed as thought leaders –i.e., as experts in their domains who can help members solve pressing business problems.
While such expertise can be valuable to many association members, it can also provide associations with a new revenue opportunity that most haven’t tapped: providing services that turn vendors into thought leaders. Becoming a popular thought leader (as Bob’s company has found with professional services industry clients) doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t occur by simply telling people to write articles, speeches, books, and blog posts.
People and firms with knowledge become recognized thought leaders only after extensive efforts to codify, package and display their expertise. It happens only after they capture the impact of their expertise on customers (to prove its value), when they can explain their expertise in language the target audience can understand, and when they take it to market through speaking presentations, white papers, blog posts, research reports, books and other educational formats that don’t appear at all to be marketing.
We believe that turning vendors into thought leaders is a major opportunity for associations. Because they historically have played a crucial middleman between members and sponsors, associations have a unique chance to turn their sponsors into thought leaders. That, in and of itself, could be a sizable revenue opportunity for associations because they are well-positioned to offer such services to sponsors, for three reasons:
- Associations are highly trusted by their members. They act in their members’ best interests and advocate for them. Thus, when associations open their channels to sponsors that the associations have helped turn into thought leaders, those sponsors become strongly connected to associations and to their member constituencies.
- Associations provide the means for effective research focus groups: Sponsors can get quick feedback on their messages from a select group of association members, which allows those sponsors to make rapid and necessary refinements before going mainstream with those messages.
- Associations enable sponsors to present their expertise in the most effective channels for thought leadership marketing: conference and seminar presentations. Bloom Group’s 10 years of research on the effectiveness of thought leadership marketing channels consistently shows that conference presentations are the best way to generate leads and market awareness for a firm’s expertise. Close behind are editorial publications, which many associations also issue to members. What’s more, the development of live streaming and broadcast presentations provide even more channels to deliver vendor thought leadership content to members who can’t attend an association event.
Associations that turn their sponsors into thought leaders generate value for both members and sponsors. They give sponsors speaking slots of conferences because they know their insightful speeches will go over well. They give vendors editorial opportunities in their publications because their articles provide big insights and useful case studies. And they permit vendors to show off their expertise in other association programs because they know members will welcome it.
However, the assistance an association provides to vendors to become thought leaders must be the starting point. Associations with programs to do this can transform sponsors’ sales pitches into valuable educational advice for association members on how to solve their business problems. Vendor conference presentations, briefings, articles and sales meetings shift from blatant sales pitches that turn off members into educational content that appeals to members who are hungry to learn from their peers.
Associations that don’t do this are leaving big money on the table: preventing sponsors from becoming thought leaders to their members. We fully understand the reluctance of association CEOs and their teams. But we also believe that there are effective ways to satisfy both side’s goals – your members’ interests in learning, not being pitched, and your sponsors’ need to communicate their value to your members. One goal doesn’t necessarily have to be in opposition to the other.
Let’s examine the opportunities for associations that can turn sponsors into thought leaders – opportunities for your members, your sponsors, and your association.
The Historical Member-Sponsor Divide
The best member-driven associations have historically resisted pressures from companies that sell products and services to their members even if those companies are paying big fees as vendor sponsors. JP knows from his experience in leadership positions at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Associations, and from his work at The Moery Company. Perhaps afraid of appearing weak, many association leaders have created hard-and-fast rules about how vendor members can play:
- Confining them to the exhibit hall booths
- Barring them from serving on the conference committee
- Preventing them from taking key speaking roles at high-profile, and even very targeted, conferences
- Keeping them out of association publications other than to advertise
- Or even worse, limiting their participation as a member altogether
The most frequent request by vendors of association leaders is getting speaking roles at conferences. This is frequently rejected by associations, which seem shackled by their perception of vendor presentations as pure sales pitches. Indeed, association leaders who cave into such demands can begin a slippery downward slope with vendor members calling the shots and dictating an association’s programming. If you don’t help vendors turn their pitches into thoughtful content, you will become the forum everyone wants to avoid. Sponsors will come to the podium and make presentations that are totally tone deaf to the objectives and cues of the meeting. JP has seen them … hell, he’s been forced to put them on the agenda!
But it doesn’t have to be this way. You shouldn’t allow vendors to pitch their offerings in conference presentations. That reflects poor event planning. However, if an association can work with vendors on their presentations and make them highly educational about some problem of members and a better way to solve it, those presentations are likely to be met favorably by members.
Think of it another way: Associations are willing to pay premiums – tens of thousands of dollars – to name-brand speakers who don’t have a clue about an association’s industry and the way it works – just to avoid having the companies that are closest to them (which include vendors) participate. That doesn’t make sense.
Why Vendor Pressures are Unlikely to Recede
If you believe that globalization, Internet competitors, and institutional investor pressures will only increase in the years ahead, then you should also assume that vendor sponsors will place increasing demands on associations to get in front of their members.
That only makes sense. Sponsors recognize the importance of associations, especially in B2B sectors, as a key channel to sell their products and services.
Many B2B companies – both product and service firms – recognize the need to sell not only their offerings but also to communicate the expertise they’ve collected about their offerings: i.e., the customer problems their offerings address. There’s no better evidence of this trend than how B2B companies have embraced of “The Challenger Sale” concept. The concept came out of research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), now part of research powerhouse Gartner. The first book in their series was a bestseller. CEB studied hundreds of B2B salespeople through the eyes of their sales managers and compared the most effective salespeople to the average performers. The key trait of the best salespeople was their ability to challenge the customer’s view of his problem – to redefine the problem, and then offer their firm’s unique solution to it.
The Challenger Sale concept calls for B2B salespeople to be considered industry thought leaders by customers, not as salespeople who focus on product features and benefits. In this light, it’s no surprise that many association sponsors want to be viewed by members as thought leaders at association events and in association publications. We believe this helps explain why so many association leaders are getting pressured by sponsors to play bigger roles in their programs.
But we also believe the best way for association leaders to deal with it is not to oppose it, but to actually welcome it – they can create a win-win-win for their members, the sponsors, and the association.
JP once spoke with one of the world’s largest and best-known companies. The only association programs this company supports are those in which its people are permitted to deliver thought leadership content to high-ranking executives. That is their only game. If associations don’t grasp that idea, the potential sponsorship revenue will walk.
The result of placing such restrictions on vendors? They will run their own meetings or events in your venue, gathering and hosting at the hotel bar. Don’t be mistaken: They will fill the void you are creating by not providing a solution to their business objectives. Far better to help vendors become thought leaders through your help and your programs.
The question more and more for association leaders is not whether they can help sponsors turn into thought leaders, but how – and how to profit from it. In the following section, we’ll discuss how to do so.
Turning Vendors into Thought Leaders
From Bloom Group’s work over the last 20 years in turning B2B companies into recognized thought leaders (especially professional services firms such as consultancies, IT services, accounting, architecture and law firms), we see five foundational elements for associations that want to do the same for their vendor members.
- Help vendors create a thought leadership strategy to determine where to focus content development and marketing resources. Such a strategy will identify which problems of association members a vendor wants its thought leadership marketing campaigns to focus on over the next 12 to 18 months – i.e., which topics (which are big problems of association members) it wants to “own” and shed light on. For example, a manufacturer of construction equipment and an association of construction equipment users might decide there are two topics for that manufacturer to cover in its thought leadership campaigns: construction site safety and theft. Thought leadership campaigns are far more effective when they drill deep on an issue and shed new light on it, and when the presentations, articles, blog posts, research reports and other content formats all focus on the same issue(s). That helps association members gain deeper knowledge from the vendor than if that vendor covered 12 topics superficially in a year.
- Set quality standards so that vendor presentations, articles, research studies, blog posts and other content are useful and insightful for members. Bloom Group’s research has found that the most successful practitioners of thought leadership create content that excels at eight criteria: novelty, relevance, depth, evidence, coherence, practicality, rigor and clarity. The exceptional insights their content offers (articles, research studies, conference presentations, books and other thought leadership formats) are a big reason why they generate leads and revenue from thought leadership that far exceeds the investment in content and marketing.
- Help vendors codify, develop and capture their thought leadership content in speeches, articles and other writings and presentations through a structured process. Bloom Group has found that the core skills to do this – idea development and writing – don’t exist at the quality levels that they need to be in most B2B companies outside of the largest consulting firms (e.g., McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group). (And even those firms tap outsiders for those skills). Exceptional thought leadership content development skills are rare today. Associations that want to play in the game of turning sponsors into thought leaders must tap into those with the skills (or hire them outright). Additionally, since association members love hearing about best practices from their peers, vendors need to help their best customers capture their best practices in using their products. The most believable conference presentations are best-practice case studies by a vendor’s happiest customers.
- Determine the optimal marketing mix of thought leadership content for the vendor to use in the association’s programs (and outside of the association’s programs if a vendor asks for that advice) – and, then help execute it. For example, thought leaders are better off publishing articles, blog posts and using other “one-directional” communications before they do public presentations on that content. The reason is that audiences prefer to read new ideas for the first time, rather than hear or see them “on stage.” Articles that resonate can then generate more conference attendees who want to hear and see the authors do presentations. All to say, a thought leadership campaign must be carefully orchestrated, with certain activities (e.g., blog posts, self-published articles, articles published in leading publications, social media) happening first, second and third — long before the audience hears the conference presentation versions of them. Associations that can help their vendors execute these campaigns (i.e., ghostwrite their blog posts, articles and conference presentations, design and execute research studies with members, etc.) will provide additional high value to the vendors that can’t manage these activities with excellence.
- Require vendors who ask to be turned into thought leaders to become association members, not just advertisers. Helping a sponsor turn its people into thought leaders is a major effort. It requires a close partnership between an association and its vendor members, and a major investment by the vendor in the association that offers to work with it in this manner. It’s a long-term play for vendors – and, for association leaders – who want a win-win-win for all three parties. That’s membership value at its core, and a benefit many vendors have never been offered. In this increasingly competitive market, we believe it’s a tremendous advantage to offer.
These five elements are the underpinnings of highly effective thought leadership programs run by associations. There are other services that associations could offer if they want to play an even bigger role in the success of vendors’ thought leadership programs. For example, one of them is helping get a vendor’s salespeople well-versed in the thought leadership content of their company’s authors and presenters and trained on how to engage association members with that content.
Associations that can regularly and reliably turn sponsors into thought leaders will not only generate substantial value for their members (vendors that become more effective at solving their problems), but for their sponsors as well (being seen by members as leading experts in their domains).
These associations will generate new income from making this happen. What’s more, they’ll create a competitive advantage for themselves over other associations – one that will grow especially important during economic times in which members and sponsors are focusing their investments on fewer associations.
JP Moery is Founder and President of The Moery Company, a consulting firm focused on helping associations grow membership, sponsorship and other revenue resources. The firm is headquartered in Alexandria, Va.
Bob Buday is a Founder and Partner of Bloom Group LLC, a Boston-based thought leadership marketing consultancy.