For Trade Associations, It’s Not Just About Advocacy Anymore

A new study of trade association executives shows that advocacy is no longer enough to satisfy members coming out of the pandemic.

Trade associations navigated the pandemic from a unique position. Because those groups typically focus on federal advocacy, their strategy through 2020 was straightforward: Lobby on behalf of their member companies as best as they could for financial assistance and favorable regulations to help them get through the crisis.

A new survey of trade associations makes clear that advocacy remains central to their mission. But there are deeper changes that suggest trades can no longer simply rely on advocacy to satisfy members.

CEOs recognize that a lot of their organizations have become static.

In April, Potomac Core Association Consulting and Edge Research conducted a survey of more than 100 C-suite leaders at a wide range of trade associations about their priorities coming out of the pandemic. Advocacy remained on top, by a wide margin: 81 percent said it was an extremely or very important priority for an association, and 74 percent said they do it extremely or very well.

What’s changed is that other issues are becoming important, and the survey suggests they need to do a better job of handling them. For instance, 49 percent of respondents said “serving as a top resource for information, updates, and trend reports” was extremely important, yet only 27 percent say they do that extremely well. There’s similar softness when it comes to matters of institutional flexibility and nimbleness, expertise on trends, and understanding member needs.

“There’s no way that 18 months ago ‘flexibility and nimbleness’ would’ve been seen as an issue,” says Edge Research principal Jon Kulok. “But now CEOs recognize that a lot of their organizations have become static.”

Dan Varroney, president of Potomac Core, says the shift reflects two common threads among trades in 2020. One is that, for all of their industry muscle, trade associations represent a substantial proportion of small businesses, which have been on shakier ground during the pandemic and need more guidance through it. The second is that, with all of the focus on the economy in the past year, trades are more in the spotlight—and given that, expected to do more.

“Trade associations have evolved into the front porch of industries,” Varroney says. “People wanted to know what was going on, what the new COVID regulations were like, what they needed to do to keep their workforces safe. They wanted to make sure that they were in compliance and had the ability to keep supply chains rolling. So the trade association became the eyes and ears for the industry.”

And while advocacy means a lot in that context, it doesn’t mean everything. That explains why, according to the survey, trades have begun to adapt: 31 percent of respondents say they’ve made “significant” changes during the pandemic. That involves more than just putting up a virtual conference, Varroney says. It’s meant broader rethinking of product lines—especially market research that can help member businesses get through the pandemic. And it’s meant a stronger emphasis on organizational strategy.

“Trade association leaders were asking where they see their marketplace going and how to support members in terms of overcoming challenges and helping them leverage opportunities,” he says. “It’s just changed the calculus. It’s not about a particular product or service. It’s more strategic in nature.”

To that end, advocacy is becoming a major—but not exclusive—part of trade associations’ efforts.

“Advocacy remains essential, because whatever happens in policy determines the nature in which an industry is going to function in their marketplace,” Varroney says. “But at the same time, something new and something different is emerging. Public perception matters. Knowing market trends matters. To increase their value, associations will require a recalibration of strategies and strategic plans.”

(WestLight/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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