New Money: Back in the Black

How a struggling association won with webinars.

A little over two years ago, the Book Industry Study Group was on the brink of extinction. Net income was in the red, reserves were liquidated, membership had eroded, and only two of its six standing committees were meeting regularly. Programming had been cut back, which put severe financial pressure on what programs it did have.

“We were pushed into a situation where every event and every program had to make money,” says BISG Executive Director Brian O’Leary. “That tends to make you risk-averse.”

In late 2016, O’Leary took the reins of the trade association, which represents companies in the publishing supply chain. He had two immediate goals: first, to cut the bleeding, and then to ramp up education and sponsorships as quickly as possible.

The first step toward doing that was through sponsored webinars, and lots of them—BISG hosted 33 in 2017. The technology was cheap, and by making the webinars free, the association could draw in people who had forgotten about BISG amid its turmoil. Sponsorships for the webinars also drew in members who had otherwise become disengaged and gave them a crucial market niche to sell to.

“They can see the value in being positioned against a topic or series of topics that help them cultivate a specific audience,” O’Leary says.

Webinar sponsorships aren’t enough in themselves to keep the lights on at BISG. (The association still operates on a shoestring, with one staffer besides O’Leary.) But the webinars represented a public statement that BISG was on top of industry trends and ready to focus on educating members. Membership has increased as a result, from 138 at its 2016 low ebb to 167 today. O’Leary is hopeful BISG can soon reach its target of 175 members.

That increase has allowed BISG to expand its portfolio of in-person events. Because the webinars have established “value for membership,” as O’Leary says, live events became an easier sell. By late 2018, BISG produced its first media kit in the 40-year history of the organization, promoting sponsorship opportunities for webinars (36 slated for 2019), events, newsletters, research publications, and more.

“You’ve got to have the program before you get monetization,” he says. “It’s almost impossible if you haven’t been doing it. People say, ‘What is it going to be like? Is it going to have any value?’ Until you can prove that, you really don’t have a lot to monetize. I think we’re at a point now where we’re beginning to prove it.”

(fizkes/Getty Images)

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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