When you decide that entering a new geographic region is the next best strategy for growing membership, realize that it is not a short-term, quick-fix strategy to any membership woes, but a long-term investment. Far too many times we hear associations describing new geographic regions as “low-hanging fruit” in growth strategy discussions. Just as many times, we see associations take their U.S. membership model and value proposition and apply it directly to a new region with no questions asked.
There are three questions you should be asking before whether regional expansion could work for your growth initiative:
- How much will you have to invest in educating the market?
- One of the challenges we hear about expanding into new regions (especially Asia-Pacific) is that the concept of belonging to a membership organization and paying dues is (for lack of a better term) a foreign concept. Don’t underestimate the amount of information and education that will be required to change the mindset of your target audience.
- You need to establish brand equity in the market by educating the target audience on why they should join your organization. In many regions, simply being the “American” association carries a “gold standard” reputation, but don’t count on reputation alone being able to engage and retain these members.
- Even in the scenarios where you are perceived as the “gold standard,” you want to be known for more than just prestige and professional recognition. Your reputation needs to connect with something of tangible value, that can extend the lifetime value of your membership in the minds of these individuals. Your value proposition must be relatable, relevant, and timely, based on the unique needs of individuals or companies in the new region.
- How intense will the competition be in the region?
- There are very few regions left where you are likely to be the only game in town. Do your competitive assessments in advance, not after you’ve entered the region. It’s better to understand the slope of the hill you’re trying to climb before you set off on your journey. China and India are two markets where we are still seeing high growth potential and somewhat limited competition, but that is changing quickly.
- Even though you may be the bigger fish in the pond relative to a regional association, don’t underestimate how well the regional association knows its members. Is there a partnership opportunity to help ease your way into the region? How would your resources complement each other? Either way, be sure you know your competitive advantages and disadvantages so that you know how you will position yourself.
- For-profit entities now represent a far greater threat to associations, given the amount of resources at their disposal. They may be able to provide more/better information, education, or forums for networking and collaboration. They are also “winning” more often because they can afford to bring these resources to the member, rather than the member coming to them. Convenience is becoming a “buy factor” in the association world. How will you differentiate yourself?
- How will you get the word out about your association?
- At least initially, your outbound push and pull communications will be the primary means by which you can increase awareness of your organization and your relevance to prospective members.
- Word-of-mouth can be a powerful (and free) source of promotion. Identify your member advocates and ambassadors early on and find ways to activate them as referral sources into prospective member groups.
- In the same respect, connect with senior leaders in your members’ companies. Find ways to help them, so that they can help you. This investment will pay dividends for you down the road as you look to introduce new products, programs, resources, and services, and expediting the adoption curve.
Expanding into a new geographic region can be a game-changing move for your association, especially if you’re asking the right questions. This list is not all-inclusive but is meant to ignite conversations in your organization to assess the initial and ongoing viability of the region. Starting the conversation by asking strategic questions like these is key to making a smart investment and will result in a stronger, more effective growth campaign in the long run.