Social Networking and Trade Associations

Have social networking sites for professionals made trade associations obsolete? Maybe not.Have social networking sites for professionals such as LinkedIn made trade associations obsolete? Maybe not.

Even though some trade associations, such as the Pay Telephone Manufacturers Association, may have lost their allure, many continue to attract members who are interested in networking, sharing knowledge and acting in concert. And emerging industries and professions are spurring creation of new associations.

There are an estimated 92,000 trade and professional associations in the United States, according to a story broadcast by NPR last week. "But as the American workplace changes, some trade associations are having trouble adjusting," reports NPR's Linton Weeks. "Many associations – including those for plastics engineers, carpet cleaners and commercial printers – have struggled to survive."

Weeks notes the association of association managers, ASAE, has turned to futurists for survival tips.

"An association must be in the business of providing just-in-time knowledge to its members," suggests Jim Carroll, author of Ready, Set, Done: How to Innovate When Faster is the New Fast.

Rebecca Rolfes, author of The Competition Within: How Members Will Reinvent Associations, encourages giving members "access to online collaboration tools where they could gather all that input, come up with ideas and then put them out for the community of members to test and determine their value."

Ann Oliveri, who writes The Zen of Associations blog, sees associations as "knowledge ecologies, dynamically connecting theorists, practitioners and clients in adaptive collaboration, continuous loops of experimentation, application, feedback and refinement."

Trade associations can play valuable roles in public affairs campaigns by creating coalitions, honing a message and directing resources toward achievable objectives. Online communities of interest are becoming more prevalent and powerful. There is no reason "brick-and-mortar" trade associations can't promote use of online communities to expand their own influence and reach.

At a more basic level, associations need to find effective methods to refine their value propositions. What members want evolves over time. Associations need to adjust in small or large ways to migrating member needs and expectations.

Inertia – "we've done it this way for a long time, thank you very much" – can be the greatest enemy of associations, as it can be for any organization. New approaches shouldn't be embraced just because they are new, but they also shouldn't be dismissed just because they are new.

Associations that cling to old practices, such as the newsletter that nobody reads, may accelerate their own demise, even if members see value in the association.

The bywords of effective association management should be openness and flexibility. In the end, associations still need to satisfy members. If associations do that, people will keep renewing memberships, attending meetings and marching to their drumbeat.