Villing & Company

Point/Counterpoint: Are Local Marketing Clubs Doomed?

Those who have been involved in the local marketing scene for several decades remember a time when marketing luncheons and award ceremonies were significant affairs. Hundreds of local professionals gathered together to learn, network and socialize. In recent years, both the local Michiana AMA chapter and the local AAF (Ad Club) chapter have struggled to maintain membership numbers and luncheon attendance. In a world of online conferences and social networking websites, is it worth fighting to keep these clubs afloat? Two of our staff members who have spent years on the Boards of both local clubs take a hard look at this question in a special "point/counterpoint" post below.

Do you have an opinion? We'd love to hear from you.

Like It or Not, One or Both of Our Local Marketing Clubs
Seem Destined to Fail.

Point

Nathan DeSelm
Written by:
Nathan DeSelm

I've had the pleasure of serving on the Boards of both the local AMA chapter (2004-2007) and the local AAF chapter (since 2007). In that time, I've seen both clubs go through good times and through incredibly challenging times. In both cases, there were times where the Boards had to deal with the very real possibility that the club would close its doors...permanently.

In my experience, the reality has been that the success of our local marketing clubs is a zero sum game, i.e. as one club becomes successful, the other club suffers. This situation was manageable when the sum total of membership and attendance was relatively high; both clubs were able to pay their bills and break even. However, in recent years, overall attendance has dropped, making the margins for whichever club happens to be struggling unsustainable. Luncheons only work with high attendance; otherwise they lose money. The Board of the struggling club is caught in a difficult situation: they're unable to afford recognizable speakers or significant promotional efforts, the morale and motivation of the volunteer Board drops and each unsuccessful luncheon further strains the club's resources.

Strong leadership, especially by individuals who have access to time and talent outside the Board, can turn things around, as was the case with the AMA chapter when an influx of new Board members helped re-energize the organization in 2008. However, the AMA's success came at the cost of AAF attendance, which quickly began to decline. This back-and-forth between the two clubs has played out several times in the last two decades, causing many of us close to the clubs to question whether our area can sustain two similar organizations. Merger, unfortunately, is not an option (one of the national parent organizations disallowed attempts to merge back in 2007).

There are several factors contributing to this unpleasant situation:

  • Webinars are convenient, professional and often free: If you know where to look, you can probably attend at least two to three marketing webinars each week. The quality can vary, but some feature high-profile speakers that would be difficult to snag for a local luncheon.
  • Professional networking has moved online: This certainly is more noticeable in other areas of the country, but even in Michiana, a great deal of business-related networking and self-promotion is happening online. Whereas it used to be important to make an appearance at local events to get personal exposure, many of the same benefits can be achieved by posting to a popular blog or participating on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
  • Geography is less important: It used to be more difficult for small businesses to build market share outside their immediate area. Now, geography has become less important than specific expertise. Marketing happens to be one of those industries that is very compatible with long-distance relationships. This means it's less important to be well known locally.
  • Information is readily available "just-in-time": Twenty years ago, when a speaker came to your town to talk about, say, "How to design a great billboard," you didn't have many other options for finding that information. Even if you weren't working on an outdoor project at the time, you used the opportunity to learn. Now, most training can happen when you actually need it. The Internet has made it possible to learn as you go, rather than worrying about "learning the trade" upfront.

Keeping the doors of local marketing organizations open has definitely become a challenge. These are difficult challenges now, but it's likely to be even more difficult in the future. It's possible that the passion of a few individuals may keep both clubs alive for a few more years, but local marketing clubs as we know them today are in grave danger of extinction.

Extraordinary Times Require Extraordinary Effort

Counterpoint

Thom Villing
Written by:
Thom Villing

Like Nathan, I have served on both Boards at various times over the years and currently I am the immediate past president and current programming chair of the local AMA chapter.

I agree with Nathan on several points. For sure, technological and societal trends present major challenges to the sustained viability of the local chapters of professional organizations, especially those in smaller markets. There are an abundance of online resources for professional education and, frankly, business people have less time to participate in monthly meetings and traditional networking opportunities. I would further submit that many younger professionals don’t seem to be as motivated to be “joiners” as in the past. Thus the declines in membership and, I would submit, the challenge of bringing new blood to Board leadership.

That being said, I do not subscribe to the belief that extinction of local marketing clubs is inevitable.

For starters, I am unconvinced that online networking can provide the same quality of experience as a personal conversation -- one in which you can look the other person directly in the eye and assess all relevant communication signals. The hint of a smile. A subtle gesture. The speaker’s vocal inflection. An air of confidence. Give and take in real time. I daresay few of us would be comfortable deciding on a potential new hire without a face-to-face meeting. I believe the same applies to the professional networking experience.

Of course, the value of belonging to a professional organization goes beyond luncheon attendance. It's really all about being well informed about industry trends, best practices and new ideas — being a true student of one's profession. There are resources provided through a quality professional association. The local chapter is a direct extension of the services of the parent organization.

At the risk of offending some people who I respect tremendously, I do believe that one of the reasons our local AAF chapter has struggled in recent years may be attributable to the failure to differentiate its programming. By definition, the American Advertising Federation should be speaking to its niche: the promotional component of the Four Ps of marketing. This would appeal to the club’s historical base of advertising media representatives and those agency and client members whose primary interests are focused specifically on marketing communications. By contrast, the American Marketing Association’s base includes educators, agencies and marketers with interests that span the full spectrum of the marketing discipline.

To my way of thinking, local professional chapters can survive. Their numbers may be diminished from past highs due to the trends discussed earlier, so the challenge may be more a matter of rightsizing rather than downsizing. But survival in extraordinary times will require extraordinary measures. Specifically, here are what I believe are the keys to success.

  • Relevant programming – I’ve always said programming drives everything. If the speakers are consistently relevant and engaging and are promoted aggressively, people will come.
  • Leadership development – We all have to do a better job of not only communicating the values of membership, but also of being an active volunteer. I hope that as our younger professionals see the results of efforts to add vitality to local professional groups, they will not only be more inclined to join, but also will see fit to engage in active participation.
  • Leveraging digital marketing opportunities – or if you can’t beat them. Join them. Rather than blaming technological trends, we need to leverage the new tools at our disposal to tell our story. The local American Marketing Association has active LinkedIn groups and some strong advocates utilizing various social networking assets. This type of activity needs to be taken to the next levels and constantly refined to create maximum buzz about the organization and its activities.

It is interesting that WOM (Word of Mouth) is all the talk these days. WOM has always been the best form of advertising. The difference is that the discussions are more likely to take place online these days. And that’s OK. Because it can still create a sense of excitement and a sense of belonging that will manifest itself in increased participation in traditional chapter activities.

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