How One Association Cracks Tough Markets

North American associations are often stymied by places like Japan and Great Britain. But one association says there are opportunities there---if you're paying attention.

Every association is different, especially when it comes to global efforts. But there are a few common themes that emerge when talking about particular countries.

Don’t try to do anything in China, for instance, without finding a partner and putting in a lot of face time. Think twice about England, where your market is likely already snatched up; there’s a good chance a well-established, analogous association is already doing the same work yours does. Think three times about launching a chapter in Japan, where the language barrier is strong and strong volunteer culture is weak.

Rick Harris isn’t hearing it.

We know that people will join more than one association if they feel like they are getting value out of that association.

Harris became executive director of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals in 2011, and in the past five years he’s looked for ways to expand APMP’s presence in countries that are often considered tough markets to crack. Because APMP is relatively small—7,400 members, and a staff of five—that largely means encouraging chapters to take on the work themselves. But APMP staff spends a lot of time thinking about the small steps they can take to help those chapters become more entrepreneurial. “We try not to swat for a home run right away—we just want to get singles,” he says. “Then get enough wins where we are systematically growing the chapter instead of having explosive growth. Then, people get down when it doesn’t continue to grow.”

For instance, APMP had organically acquired about 350 members in England, but few of them around London, where their research suggested the real growth opportunity was. So APMP worked with the UK chapter to begin producing educational events, recruiting likely attendees—members of related societies, professionals in the business. The events were modest—a networking mixer and a speaker—but they converted into members. Today, Harris says, APMP has 1,600 UK members.

“People have said to us, ‘Well, I’m a part of PMI [Project Management Institute],’ and we say, ‘Hey, that’s great,’ and we keep producing,” Harris says. “We don’t let that deter us, because we know that people will join more than one association if they feel like they are getting value out of that association. They will continue to renew.”

APMP has also stayed patient in Japan, where it spent a year and a half working with a volunteer willing to start a chapter to develop a business case there. If volunteering and membership aren’t strong pulls for professionals there, Harris thought, there needed to be another reason to get people to engage. What the volunteer discovered is “there are no best practices about how to write a proposal in Japan,” Harris says. “We looked at that as a wonderful test market. We said, ‘If we set up a chapter there, and we introduced this best-practice business model for writing a proposal, that will win.’”

Translation of materials is a barrier to entry, yes, but the hunger for professional development in Japan helps relieve some of that burden. Harris says one company has signed on to run a certification program there, and now has 100 members in a country where it previously had little presence at all.

Is a hundred members a lot? Has APMP met its market, or is there a wider one to reach out to? So long as the effort stays in the black, Harris says, he’s not immediately concerned about details of KPIs or setting membership targets. “We are not going to sweat the details and put a number on that,” he says. “We are just going to let it grow like it should grow.”

The trick to playing small internationally, though, isn’t just making sure your investments are modest enough that you don’t get beaten too badly when you miss. Like any other global effort, APMP is doing the advance work to determine what the needs in each country are—just pursuing them with minimal investment. “We go directly to the consumer. We say, ‘Are you interested in this? Would you like this?’” So places where it can hard to get those answers—or where getting those answers involve a lot of red tape and negotiation—are less appealing. For instance, he says, “There is no possible way you can entrepreneurially, organically grow in China. The government has so much control over what goes on.”

North America is still the core of APMP’s membership—its where 56 percent of its members hail from. But nearly a third come from Europe now, and membership has grown 70 percent in the past five years. Harris credits that to avoiding the one-size-fits-all method of selling an association overseas and instead concentrating on discovering where the needs are and finding specific ways to satisfy them. “You have got to go where you are wanted to go,” he says. “Where you are invited and wanted. Once you have that, that’s a great recipe for success.”

How do you tailor your association’s offerings for different countries, and how do you determine the needs there? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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