Add a Spirit of Partnership to Membership

A new report indicates that partnership development is critical for rapid business growth. That’s the main reason why the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States recently created a partner membership category.

Craft distilling, much like the craft beer industry, is experiencing incredible growth right now.

According to Barron’s, more than 2,000 distilleries are currently operating across the United States, up from just a few dozen a decade ago, and the multibillion-dollar industry is forecast to grow even more in the coming years.

So, what should a trade association do when business is good and its industry is booming? Joseph Donadoni, vice president of member relations at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, says that’s the time to think about a partner membership program that can sustain future member growth.

DISCUS announced its new program earlier this month. It opens membership to a wider group of businesses, including supply chain producers and bottle and barrel producers.

“Our aim is to make DISCUS a more welcoming organization to companies within our ecosystem and to really bring together all the companies in the spirits world so that we can be as effective as possible,” Donadoni says.

He estimates that the new category encompasses hundreds of member prospects that DISCUS can bring into the fold. The goal is to recruit partners that can add influence in the association’s advocacy efforts, as well as public service campaigns like an initiative promoting responsible alcohol consumption. “The larger players of the industry are highly influential and important,” Donadoni says. “[We] absolutely have to have their input.”

DISCUS’s addition of a partner membership category comes at a time when new research indicates that partnerships are an essential part of rapid business growth. This week, Forrester Consulting released a report [PDF] that says organizations with mature partner programs grow revenue nearly twice as fast as other businesses. And 77 percent of companies said partnership development has been a primary business initiative this year.

While many associations have traditionally labeled their partners as sponsors, affiliates, or influencers, Donadoni believes calling them members emphasizes the organization’s commitment to serving the needs of its entire industry. “I would say 95 to 97 percent of the things we tackle are of interest to all of our members across the board,” he says.

Donadoni says associations considering adding a partner member category should keep these tips in mind for long-term success:

Start onboarding slowly. Right now, DISCUS has five partners in the process of new-member onboarding. When you’re starting out with any new membership category, Donadoni says, don’t rush it. “It should be a slower process because we want to be conservative and thoughtful in our approach,” he says. Taking the launch slowly has helped DISCUS maintain a consistent member experience that’s on par with other membership categories.

Find new members with referrals. DISCUS first came to the idea of a partner category though several referrals made by existing members and the board. For many new and growing organizations, network theory, which relies on friends-of-friends referrals, can be an excellent way to build a solid base of community-oriented members.

Offer thought leadership opportunities for engagement. Many partners will be looking for some space to demonstrate their industry expertise. Thought leadership opportunities provide a way to engage partners early and often. Donadoni suggests creating multiple avenues for these members to be seen and heard. At DISCUS, that means giving partners the opportunity to serve on committees, contribute content, and volunteer in advocacy work.

“We want it to be a virtuous cycle,” Donadoni says, “where [partners] are contributing to the thought leadership of the association . . . and we’re contributing back to them by helping promote their businesses and achieve their strategic objectives.”

Have you considered adding a partner category to your membership? What are some of the opportunities and challenges that come with this member category? Post your comments below.

(mikdam/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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