Associations are a legacy business, like newspapers, and the TV industry. And they have all enjoyed many years of success without being challenged…until now.

Early roots of associations

Early roots of associations could be found in craft guilds, churches, and trading groups. Guilds were formed to protect the interests of merchants and craftsmen. Guilds provided skills training and lobbying, much like you see in associations today. But guilds were disrupted during the Industrial Revolution when they no longer served their purpose. Mass production became more important than making a quality product. We’ve been going down that road ever since.

Like all innovation and disruption, things go in cycles. The Transcontinental Railroad began linking trade in the East to the West. Then trade associations sprang up to deal with expanding markets and competition. Associations were back in business and remained unchallenged for decades until the Internet came along.

Disruption in associations

The Internet has disrupted more than one business. Legacy industries like newspapers and associations are especially susceptible to disruption through technology. Thanks to online content and education, and social networking like Linked In and Facebook groups. New potential members may wonder what your association has that is unique and different. That’s where creativity and innovation comes in.

Associations need to innovate!

Associations need to innovate. All aspects of your association can be innovated. From your memberships to the events you put on, to the content you provide. According to Kellen, the association management group, there are numerous streams of income you can innovate. Here are a few of them:

Multiple streams of association income

  • Continuing education
  • Training, workshops
  • Webinars
  • Selling mailing lists
  • Advertising
  • Vendor workshops
  • Sponsorships
  • Vendor programs

Associations need to provide more value

Today’s associations are being challenged with members who are looking for more value for their membership dues. Give them something they can’t get anywhere else. Increase your value, and attract more members. Associations need to innovate!

Associations’ competitive advantage

Your association’s competitive advantage is what sets you apart from other ways members can get their content. Not only can they get content online, but they can also join social media groups or meetups to network with those in their industry. You have to give them something they can’t get anywhere else. Having a great connection with your customers through memorable experiences is one of the best ways to do that. Experiences create a bond that will keep your members loyal.


A conference is a great place to get lots of industry content and networking all at once. You can keep up with the latest trends in your industry and hear from outside speakers about ways to improve your business. It’s also a great way to hear about jobs in the industry you might be interested in. Meeting people face to face at a conference is the best way to network and meet new people.


I was the innovation keynote speaker for the .org Innovation Summit on the topic of innovation for associations. Check out this promo video: