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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Professional Development in Difficult Economic Times


By building a larger financial resource base, associations position themselves to more effectively accomplish their Mission and serve their members. Unfortunately, many associations struggle with the challenge to increase this resource base. This challenge has been exacerbated in the professional development arena by the recent economic climate.

During the last decade, associations focused on two primary strategies to achieve their resource goals, membership strategies and product strategies.

According to this ASAE data, the percentage of revenue collected through membership strategies has trended down for many years. Since 1993, associations have placed a greater priority on product strategies, especially conferences and meetings to replace reductions in membership revenue as a percentage of gross revenue.

The reliance on non-member strategies, specifically education and professional development strategies has created additional pressure on association educators to develop their activities as revenue generators.

What specific challenges do associations currently face?

In our study of associations, Association Laboratory Inc. has identified some of the following areas of concern that potentially limit associations' ability to achieve revenue growth.

  • Many associations have at best, a limited understanding of their markets and how these markets are different in terms of their motivations, behaviors and needs.
    Without understanding the differences between markets, associations cannot identify the most valuable markets and design strategies to effectively target these markets.
  • Many associations dilute their marketing efforts by attempting to serve too many markets.
    Associations attempt to target multiple markets with divergent needs and interests with a large array of products and services. This compounds promotional challenges by forcing the association to communicate too many disparate messages thus diluting promotional efforts and confusing the marketplace.
  • Many associations do not have a clearly defined marketing strategy.
    Associations add programs based on targets of revenue opportunity or as a result of internal political dynamics. This decreases the ability of the association to focus and sustain quality marketing efforts.
  • Many associations create separate, mutually exclusive strategies for individual programs and products but do not integrate these strategies.
    While an individual program may be successful for a time, synergies between programs and an overall leveraging of the association's brand do not take place.
  • Associations focus too heavily on promotions instead of the underlying product quality or value.
    These associations can be identified by continued attempts to change the promotional message with no change in the underlying program or service upon which the message is based or an understanding of the market to which the program or service has demonstrated an appeal.

What process can I follow to address these challenges?

To overcome these challenges, the association educator must begin to think strategically and understand how to create a focused, effective business strategy for the marketing of professional development services.

This process includes the following steps:

  1. Define the scope of your activities
  2. Assess your internal strengths, weakness, competencies and opportunities
  3. Market analysis
  4. Identify and select high value target markets
  5. Assess market needs and problems
  6. Identify and evaluate competitors

Defining Scope

The first step in developing an effective marketing plan for professional development is to define the scope of your activities. Scope is determined by many things including:

  • General audience (profession or industry)
  • Mission
  • Organizational goals
  • Products or programs related to your Mission and Goals

Your professional development initiatives must fit within the context of your Mission and the strategic goals of your association. Activities which do not fit within this context are candidates for elimination. This frees up staff and financial resources for more effective efforts.

It is easier to create marketing strategy targeting an existing market with your existing program/service mix than to identify new markets or create new programs.

Association Assessment

The next step in crafting a solution is to determine the extent of the problem. Two questions need to be answered:

  1. Do I have a problem?
  2. What is the extent of my problem?

Most associations have, over the years, created a complex mix of services, products and programs. Many different types of individuals and/or companies might be targeted.

This complexity makes it difficult to recognize you have a marketing problem. Without understanding the nature and scope of your problem, crafting effective solutions is difficult.

Make a list of your top revenue producing programs within your department. Look at the 5 year trend in sales, net income and staff time. Which products trend up, which down, which are flat?

If all products go down you have a systemic marketing problem. A systemic marketing problem is a matter of survival for the organization. This type of problem indicates that the basic relationship that creates meaning and value between the organization and the market is at risk.

A systemic marketing problem may reflect broad shifts in the basic needs of the market, demographics of your market or fundamental changes in the dynamics of an industry.

If only a single product is trending down you have a programmatic marketing problem. A programmatic marketing problem involves just one program or component of the association's many products and services. In this instance, poor performance does not necessarily threaten the survival of the organization.

By identifying whether you have a systemic or programmatic marketing problem, you can prioritize how to respond.

Market Analysis

It is vital to have a clear picture of your target market. Identify characteristics of your market in two areas.

First, you must be able to describe the most important characteristics of the individual decision maker. Common characteristics include age, education and title. By understanding these characteristics you can clearly design programs and marketing communications to these individuals.

Second, you must be able to describe the employing organization that will also benefit from professional development activities. Whether or not the employer actively pays for professional development they will need to support time away from the office. Common business characteristics include gross revenue or number of employees.

By understanding the unique characteristics of your market you can also identify and evaluate unique communities and determine to their value to the association and to what extent you can meet their needs.

Identify and Select Target Markets

Two driving questions impact the selection of target markets.

  1. How valuable is each potential market?
    • Units (registrations, certifications, etc.)
    • Dollars (net and gross)

    Your goal is to pursue the target market that provides the most value to the association in either sales or unit volume. In this manner you focus resources on the highest value market.
  2. How well does your existing offering meet the needs of each market?
    • Value of market
    • Match between needs and association products/services

It is important to focus on the target markets that represent the greatest potential gain for the association. It is difficult to dramatically change your association or introduce new products. It is easier and less expensive to target markets already attuned to your existing offering.

Needs Analysis

To determine strategy you must have a clear understanding of the problems faced by both the individual and the employing organization. By understanding their problems, you can determine how best to structure and market your professional development programs.

What are the three most important problems faced by your target audience that are relevant to your association and could be solved by existing programs and services?

What are the three most important problems faced by their employing organization that are relevant to your association and could be solved by existing programs and services?

Competitive Analysis

Competitors are any entity that performs services similar to yours or services that can be substituted for yours. You must understand your competition so that you can design professional development services that can be clearly differentiated from these competitors. Answer the following questions.

  • Who is the organization or company that also serves your primary audience and addresses the problems you've identified?
  • What is the competitor's primary service? How do they meet audience needs?
  • What is the primary strength of this service?
  • What is the primary weakness of this service?

Given this information, how will you position your association and its products against your competitors?


The essence of marketing in challenging times is to clearly understand your own capabilities and match them with the needs of your market versus your competition. You must be ruthless about prioritization.

If you provide a valuable product to the market, they will continue to participate in your activities. If not you may continue to struggle, and when the economy renews its' growth, will have already lost an opportunity for expansion to other organizations.

Company Information:

Association Laboratory Inc. is a national consulting firm specializing in the research and development of organizational and marketing strategy for trade and professional associations. The company provides a broad array of consulting services including market research, product marketing strategy, professional development strategy and membership marketing strategy.

More information is available on Association Laboratory Inc. at

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