Association Case Study – Disruption to Future Focus

The Australian Associations Research Survey revealed that while 100% of associations across 60 sectors say they are being disrupted, 72% admit their ability to innovate is poor or mediocre. In other words, almost three quarters of associations are stuck – they know they are being disrupted and change is happening around them, but are not responding as well as they need to. How can associations tackle disruption to create a powerful future focus?

Here’s a case study (book excerpt) from the The Future of Associations on best practice.

Association Case Study – From Disruption to Future Focus

It is not a weakness, but true strength to realise that your association is not representing the industry in the way it should. Jodie Sangster’s defining moment came in 2011 shortly after she had been appointed as CEO of the (then) Australian Direct Marketing Association in a meeting with the CEO of LinkedIn, who told her: ‘We’re not direct marketers!’

Her epiphany that the language of her association was not resonating with its members left her with two choices: to re-educate the industry on what direct marketing was, or to bite the bullet and transform the association for the reality of a very different data-driven marketing and advertising future. It never crossed Jodie’s mind to ignore the problem. ‘If an association is held up as an expert in the sector, you can’t stand up with credibility unless you can tackle the challenges and find solutions yourself,’ she says. Her ethos is that if you believe in something passionately, it’s incumbent on you to do something about it.

Step one was to change the out-dated name, so she went to the board with a new one. They said no. Two lessons were learnt here. One was in understanding the reasons for the board push back and that a name change doesn’t change everything. The second was the need to have strong consultation and supporters on the board. The eventual upshot was a stroke of sheer genius. Together, they maintained the continuity of the well-respected acronym ADMA but changed the terminology from the redundant ‘direct marketing’ wordage to the contemporary and future focused language of ‘data-driven marketing and advertising’. Jodie was now CEO of the confidence inspiring Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA).

Step two was to clearly define the footprint and remit of the association. All associations ultimately win or fail on the things they do, so Jodie avoided two of the most common pitfalls for association relevance – trying to be all things to all people, or bolting on disparate products and services without a clear value proposition. She defined the new remit to revolve around the customer experience in four select areas – data, technology, content and creativity. The aim was to become a customer-centric, always-on, member organisation.

Member value and differentiation defined step three, the creation of a powerful value proposition. The core question underpinning any value proposition is ‘Why does someone need you?’ ADMA articulated its differentiator as its global perspective, enabling its members to learn what’s happening globally and capture key trends. Jodie and her team than created a matrix of member value, both by sector and by job title, from the C-suite down to emergent new marketers. An added benefit of the matrix was the structure it provided, which facilitated the knowledge and skillset development of the ADMA team itself.

Critical to the success of ADMA’s transformation was to bang home the message of the new name, new footprint and new remit at every opportunity. ADMA engaged a new PR person and Jodie hit the speaking circuit. Being professional marketers, they knew that the communication of the message was just as important as the message itself. Like any association, ADMA’s members had become accustomed to the old brand and image, and it took 18 months of marketing reinforcement and implementation for members and other stakeholders to identify with the transformed ADMA.

Along the journey, ADMA experienced huge staff turnover. People are either accepting of change or resistant to it, and for many traditional employees, the change was too much for them to handle. This was no surprise to the board. They had brought Jodie in to lead the transformation, and knew that a future focused association needed people with progressive skillsets and an aptitude to change and flourish – just like the industry itself.

Five years into the job and Jodie’s enthusiasm is as strong and enticing as her first day. The second phase of her remit, as she sees it, is to deliver a future focused association with a one-on-one relationship with 40,000 marketing individuals. Her vision is to deliver to every member exactly what is of most benefit personally to him or her, and to do this, she is creating the CRM infrastructure, the marketing automation tools and content-led delivery that will enable it. She is also tacking the two biggest issues the industry faces in the future: a skills gap and a skills shortage.

ADMA is transforming the future of the industry with a brand new Marketing Education Program to reach marketers wherever they are, and to help them grow. So far, ADMA has partnered with eight associations in sectors as diverse as retail, fundraising and clubs to expand the reach of the program. This smart commercial move sees ADMA serve the needs of the entire marketing discipline, and take a revenue share from other associations to invest back into their own member services offering. In 2016, it also acquired the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA), effectively adding ‘digital’ to its growing footprint.

This is truly the year of partnerships for Jodie Sangster and ADMA, as she stretches out her future vision to engage, assist and inspire everyone involved in data-driven marketing and advertising.


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The book includes seven more Australian case studies, insights and practical advice along with a 6-Step Roadmap to progress, change and influence across every aspect of association leadership.

The Future of Associations – Click ‘Buy Now’.

“This is a must read for all association professionals who are serious about the sustainability of their organisations.” Brendon Ward, CEO, The Australasian Society of Association Executives (AuSAE).