Association Marketing: Tap the Potential

Genuine Relationship-Building Opportunities

By Mark P. Buck­shon, CPSM

How effec­tive is asso­ci­a­tion par­tic­i­pa­tion and lead­er­ship for archi­tec­tur­al, engi­neer­ing, and con­struc­tion busi­ness devel­op­ment? How can you be more effec­tive at asso­ci­a­tion mar­ket­ing? These two ques­tions have sim­ple, yet nuanced (and some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry) answers because the rule­books for met­rics and deter­min­ing return on invest­ment need to give­way to sin­cer­i­ty, com­mit­ment, and per­haps a fair bit of luck

Asso­ci­a­tion-relat­ed mar­ket­ing rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant, if not the most impor­tant, focus for many A/E/C indus­try prac­ti­tion­ers, beyond cul­ti­vat­ing repeat and refer­ral busi­ness (and asso­ci­a­tions help out in these most impor­tant pri­or­i­ties). The evi­dence of asso­ci­a­tion-relat­ed mar­ket­ing pow­er may be more anec­do­tal than sta­tis­ti­cal. Nev­er­the­less, when I sur­veyed a cross-sec­tion of 100 A/E/C busi­ness­es ask­ing them to con­firm mar­ket­ing method­olo­gies that result­ed in suc­cess beyond repeat/referral ini­tia­tives in the past year, the high­est number—35 percent—said “trade/community asso­ci­a­tion par­tic­i­pa­tion and rela­tion­ships” have result­ed in prof­itable busi­ness.


Miller Hull was pleased to par­tic­i­pate as spon­sor and tour host for the SMPS Octo­ber Lever­age your Bev­er­age event at The Wharf. The event, attend­ed by about 40 peo­ple, fea­tured cock­tails and appe­tiz­ers at Jimmy’s Famous Amer­i­can Tav­ern, a restau­rant ten­ant at The Wharf. Small groups were then toured though the com­plex by Miller Hull Senior Project Man­ag­er, Kurt Stolle, Busi­ness Devel­op­ment Direc­tor, Amber Mauer and Greg Boeh with GB Cap­i­tal Hold­ings, the Owner/Developer. As a spon­sor, Miller Hull had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­act with a vari­ety of indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives and con­vey the design process and pride in the com­plet­ed project.

Of course, asso­ci­a­tion engage­ment also encour­ages and facil­i­tates repeat and refer­ral suc­cess, espe­cial­ly when you become involved and con­nect­ed enough to assume mul­ti-year lead­er­ship respon­si­bil­i­ties. Yet the sto­ry is more com­plex, and we can learn some­thing from the fail­ures as well as successes—the seem­ing­ly ide­al asso­ci­a­tions often prove to be less-than-valu­able, or the per­haps obscure “sleep­er” groups spin off rev­enue year after year. Suc­cess can be acci­den­tal, as Susan Mur­phy dis­cov­ered when she received a call out of the blue to pro­vide a pre­sen­ta­tion sem­i­nar for an SMPS con­fer­ence. Suc­cess can also be strate­gic, as Tim Klabunde describes in explain­ing how the Tim­mons Group makes sure com­pa­ny prin­ci­pals are ready to assume rel­e­vant asso­ci­a­tion lead­er­ship roles in a mul­ti-year suc­ces­sion plan­ning strat­e­gy. Asso­ci­a­tion rela­tion­ships have saved and cre­at­ed careers for many indus­try prac­ti­tion­ers, but they have also con­sumed incred­i­ble amounts of time. Com­mit­tee and exec­u­tive lead­er­ship roles require hours of meet­ings over sev­er­al years and some­times much trav­el, and this work gen­er­al­ly can­not be imme­di­ate­ly con­vert­ed to bill­able hours. (In addi­tion to the time cost—which includes lost oppor­tu­ni­ty risk—you need to add the mem­ber­ship dues and, in many cas­es, addi­tion­al spon­sor­ship invest­ments.) The ques­tion is, how do you do it right? How do you fig­ure out the asso­ci­a­tions where you should invest your time, ener­gy, and effec­tive­ness? Once there, how do you make the most of your oppor­tu­ni­ties?

Start at the End

Klabunde, direc­tor of mar­ket­ing at the Tim­mons Group, a mul­ti-dis­ci­plined engi­neer­ing and tech­nol­o­gy firm based in Rich­mond, VA, says he starts off with his goals. “Who am I try­ing to reach?” he asks. “What is my objec­tive? Do peo­ple in the indus­try know my firm, or am I try­ing to tar­get in on spe­cif­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties and jobs?” Then he checks the asso­ci­a­tion out by attend­ing a few events or meet­ings. “Some asso­ci­a­tions you think you would like to be very active­ly engaged in are not always where the deci­sion-mak­ers are,” he says. “Often­times, you will find asso­ci­a­tions, such as devel­op­er groups, where three-quar­ters of the peo­ple work for (busi­ness­es try­ing to sell to) the devel­op­ers. The asso­ci­a­tion has been tak­en over by con­sul­tants, and there are no deci­sion-mak­ers in the room.” Klabunde’s obser­va­tion relates to one of the para­dox­es of asso­ci­a­tion par­tic­i­pa­tion. If you join a group with busi­ness devel­op­ment rela­tion­ships in mind, and vir­tu­al­ly every­one else does the same thing, can you real­ly con­nect with the peo­ple you want to know (who might tend to run for the hills to avoid the sales pres­sure they encounter at asso­ci­a­tion func­tions)? “The real end users don’t real­ly want to come out to some events because they get pounced on (by sales­peo­ple),” said Vern Solomon, pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral Cana­da Chap­ter of the Inter­na­tion­al Soci­ety of Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Engi­neers (ISPE). Solomon’s busi­ness, Envi­ron­men­tal Ser­vices Cor­po­ra­tion (ESC), designs and builds clean­rooms for aero­space, research, elec­tron­ics, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal, and bio­log­i­cal con­tain­ment. Clear­ly, many of ESC’s clients would belong to the ISPE and these rela­tion­ships pro­vide a huge part of the company’s busi­ness. Yet you need to know when and why to cool the aggres­sive busi­ness devel­op­ment process­es, Solomon says. “I’ve worked hard to under­stand (and try to show sales­peo­ple) that we’re here for the edu­ca­tion. Please, don’t sell. Peo­ple show up with­out busi­ness cards because they don’t want to be con­tact­ed by three peo­ple they have absolute­ly no use to know in the next week. You can try too hard. If you know the cus­tomer isn’t going to buy a prod­uct, why both­er them?” In oth­er words, if you go to asso­ci­a­tion func­tions look­ing to dis­cov­er busi­ness right away, you will prob­a­bly fail. If the asso­ci­a­tion turns out to be full of peo­ple attempt­ing the same busi­ness devel­op­ment objec­tives, the orga­ni­za­tion may not be a great fit. And, yet serendip­i­ty can cor­re­late with sin­cer­i­ty. Pre­sen­ta­tion skills con­sul­tant Mur­phy says she changed her career direc­tion when she received an invi­ta­tion to fill in for a col­league in 1998 to give a pre­sen­ta­tion skills work­shop at SMPS Boston. “I had no idea what SMPS was,” she said. Now, she says “my entire career is a gift from SMPS.” At that first pre­sen­ta­tion, she col­lect­ed five clients—two of whom are still doing busi­ness with her today. She received invi­ta­tions to speak at oth­er SMPS gath­er­ings, adding to her refer­ral and con­tact net­work. “After that one speech, I have total­ly spe­cial­ized in A/E/C with­out doing any mar­ket­ing oth­er than speak­ing at SMPS events.”


The Wharf, designed by Miller Hull, is a com­mer­cial and mari­na devel­op­ment on the Port of San Diego prop­er­ty in America’s Cup Har­bor.

Don’t Expect Overnight Suc­cess

Most like­ly, you won’t expe­ri­ence this sort of instant suc­cess. In fact, asso­ci­a­tion lead­er­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion can be a mul­ti-year (even decade) process, where the ben­e­fits are grad­ual, indi­rect, and often quite sub­tle. Con­sid­er Claude Giguere, Con­struc­tion Spec­i­fi­ca­tion Canada’s (CSC) past pres­i­dent, and vice pres­i­dent of Mon­tre­al-based engi­neer­ing con­sult­ing firm Pageau Morel. (CSC is the Cana­di­an coun­ter­part of the Con­struc­tion Spec­i­fi­ca­tions Insti­tute (CSI)—and both orga­ni­za­tions have spe­cial rel­e­vance to build­ing prod­ucts man­u­fac­tur­ers, as well as design­ers and con­trac­tors, because the spec­i­fi­ca­tions deter­mine a project’s char­ac­ter­is­tics well before shov­els hit the ground.) Giguere vol­un­teered for Mon­tre­al chap­ter activ­i­ties, became the chap­ter vice chair, start­ed attend­ing nation­al direc­tors’ meet­ings and, after four years, was invit­ed to join the nation­al exec­u­tive track—requiring more than a decade of com­mit­ment before he became the association’s nation­al leader. He says the asso­ci­a­tion lead­er­ship has “ben­e­fits for the busi­ness and career. The first point is the vis­i­bil­i­ty for myself and the com­pa­ny. We’re more a Que­bec based com­pa­ny and this has helped us achieve bet­ter busi­ness across the coun­try.” The asso­ci­a­tion has pro­vid­ed “lots of oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with peers and learn things,” Giguere said. “I bring things I learn about spec­i­fi­ca­tions writ­ing back to the office so peo­ple learn about stan­dard prac­tices and all that.”

You need to be able to com­mit time and energy—often requir­ing years—and you need to build rela­tion­ships with­out wor­ry­ing about imme­di­ate busi­ness devel­op­ment results or sell­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. Yet, you can dis­cov­er oppor­tu­ni­ties, some­times under your nose, by mov­ing great dis­tances or by dis­cov­er­ing an untapped group that has the deci­sion-mak­ers you real­ly want to reach.



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