How Associations Can Become Thought Leaders

For associations to be seen as a trusted resource, they must get their knowledge, along with their members’ knowledge, out to the broader community that they represent. Here's a look at some examples for getting it done.

An association can easily be considered a knowledge community. After all, it’s a community of members who share a profession or interest, and knowledge gets generated and exchanged within it. But to be an authority and a thought leader, an association has to position itself as a trusted resource in the broader industry or community, not just with its members.

“As an individual, a thought leader is a professional who is deeply embedded in their field and who regularly communicates their knowledge, intelligence, and insight out to the overall industry,” said Jason Meyers, senior director of content strategy at SmithBucklin. And associations can be broader extensions of that.

Associations that are thought leaders are recognized as experts in their field and authoritative sources of knowledge. Many associations have this type of knowledge but share it only internally. “There’s so much intelligence and insight about professions that exist within the membership of associations—it’s just a matter of figuring out the best way of capturing and conveying and communicating all of that out to other members as well as the industry overall,” Meyers said.

So how does an association boost its knowledge community and become a thought leader? A first step is establishing some kind of “industry-facing platform that gives them an opportunity to showcase the thought leadership of members,” Meyers said, such as through speaking opportunities at conferences, online content hubs, blogs, and publications.

Many associations have publications that are directed only to members. But Meyers recommends considering “something that would be more broadly accessible to the industry that they represent, and the professions that they represent overall, for the purposes of both positioning themselves as thought leaders and educating the larger industry about what they offer.”

Meyers said he has seen associations become more open about what they share beyond their members. In helping organizations shift toward a more online-focused publishing strategy, “they’ve seen that it’s more beneficial to their organization to ‘ungate’ their content and open up their thought leadership to a broader audience,” Meyers said. This doesn’t mean everything needs to be shared, but opening up more of it can help educate the industry.

It can also attract new members who value the association’s thought leadership. “If I’m a professional in a given industry or sector, I want to be recognized as an expert in my field, and one way to do that is to be affiliated with this organization of other experts,” Meyers said.

One specific thing associations can do is establish a committee of members “who are very interested in the concept of content and thought leadership and understand the expertise that their peers have.” He explained that these committees “help identify the best possible people to contribute an article or do an interview on certain subjects.”

In a way, that approach “is applying thought leadership to the whole process—we’re tapping into the experts themselves to help identify other experts,” he said. Meyers also recommends defining the committee members’ roles and responsibilities carefully, so that they understand that the association is looking to them to identify the right topics to cover and the right people to contribute.

In thought leadership, “frequency is important,” Meyers said. So the association should be publishing articles or having staff and members speak at conferences on a regular basis. However, not everyone has the time or inclination to write a long article, so a mix of formats can work well, including videos, podcasts, interviews, case studies that staff might write, and articles that members might write. “There are lots of different ways to draw intelligence out of members and get it published and out there,” he said.

(Man As Thep/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Allison Torres Burtka

By Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. MORE

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