In general, trade associations in many industries are decades removed from their peaks in membership, participation and influence. 

Let me make something clear from the outset: the subject addressed here is not aimed specifically at any trade association serving your industry. I’m not familiar enough with these organizations to draw conclusions about them. I leave it up to those of you who know them better to decide whether what I’m about to discuss applies to them or not.

It’s just that, in general, trade associations in many industries are decades removed from their peaks in membership, participation and influence. Some can be blamed for not doing enough to earn their keep, but even those blessed with energetic leadership and programs have trouble overcoming the changes in our society that have rendered many trade associations less relevant over time. Our parent company, BNP Media, publishes scores of magazines spanning construction and various other industries. Colleagues in a number of fields tell me most of their trade associations aren’t what they used to be.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. I can point to several trade associations in construction-related fields that are bigger and more influential than ever. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is one that comes to mind. Reasons for their success have to do with economic growth and favorable business conditions in their sectors, especially today’s mandate toward energy efficiency. Also, let’s not overlook the obvious. Trade organizations that are successful tend to have a dues base and other income streams sufficient to support a top-notch staff and wide array of useful services for members. No matter what the endeavor, you tend to get what you pay for.

Of course, if it were as simple as that, any trade association could boost its fortunes simply by raising dues and fees. For that to work, members have to perceive greater value received for the added dollars. If prospective members find value in joining an organization, they will clamor to join. If not, association leaders will have to resort to gimmicks and discounts to boost membership, and ultimately will become frustrated when they find out even that doesn’t work very well.

Exceptions aside, trade associations had their heyday in simpler times when they served as the focal point for industry-specific information, education, communication and social life. Plentiful alternatives exist nowadays for all of those functions. Also, like society at-large, the business world has splintered into ever narrower special interest groups.

In the mechanical contracting field that I’m most familiar with, the past couple of decades have seen the rise of some very successful affinity groups operating under names such as Nexstar, Plumbers’ Success International, Contractors’ Success Group and others. Roofing industry affinity groups include Roofers’ Success International, PROSULT Networking Groups, RoofConnect, National Roofing Partners and Certified Contractors Network. Unlike trade associations, these organizations don’t aim to serve the industry at-large. Most have territorial membership restrictions and they target residential service or some other narrow business segment.

The plumbing and HVAC service industries have also seen the rise of various franchise operations with various degrees of success. Roto-Rooter is the best known, and has spawned competitors such as Mr. Rooter and Rescue Rooter. Of more recent vintage are the Benjamin Franklin Plumbing and One-Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, both owned by the same organization. Other franchises in the plumbing and HVAC fields have arisen over the years with limited success.

The main distinction between affinity groups/franchises and traditional trade associations is their appeal to a select group of members rather than attempting to attract membership from the industry as a whole. They have developed a range of proprietary business management and marketing programs to help members succeed financially, and most charge premium membership fees, ranging well into five figures. That causes some contractors to shake their heads with sticker shock, but many members feel they get much more value out of these organizations than they pay into them.

Partly these organizations reflect a larger fragmentation of our society as a whole. A best-selling book from the 1990s titled “Bowling Alone” addressed this phenomenon. The title referred to the fact that years ago bowling was a popular communal activity and bowling leagues abounded. Bowling has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent times, but most bowlers now are inclined to visit a bowling alley on their own or with a small group of friends.

Another example: years ago during the early days of television there were only a handful of stations to watch, and this helped reinforce a common culture among American TV viewers. They would gather around the proverbial water cooler the next day and discuss the previous night’s episode of “The Lucy Show” or “What’s My Line?” (popular TV shows from the 1950s, for you youngsters). Nowadays, cable and satellite dishes fragment the viewing audience by addressing numerous special interests. Even the most popular programs, while they might have respectable raw numbers due to our increased population, don’t draw nearly the same percentage of viewership as the most popular TV shows from the past.

Fragmented interests are not the biggest problem for traditional trade associations, however. More important is their ability or lack thereof to attract tens of thousands of lone wolves who don’t join any kind of trade organization. Various member recruitment gimmicks get tried year after year, but nothing seems to work very well for very long. The fundamental problem is simply that the loners don’t see enough value in joining a trade association.

This isn’t to say trade associations have no value. Most still do things that make them worthwhile. It’s just that the value they provide isn’t as self-evident as it used to be. The onus is on the trade associations, whether local, state, regional or national, to document that value.

Most try to do so in vague terms, pointing to generalities such as education, lobbying, networking, etc. The problem is that most prospective members either don’t value those functions or can’t put a finger on what they’re worth.

Ed Rigsbee is a strategic alliance consultant and author who has penned useful articles showing how various association activities add up to thousands of dollars of value over the course of a year. (Look up “Determining the Yearly Sustainable Real-Dollar Value of Association Membership,” If you are in a trade association leadership position, do yourself a favor and take the time to read his articles. Any trade association has a better chance of recruiting and retaining members if they can show in dollars and cents that the value provided far outweighs the cost.

Nobody is getting anywhere with platitudes and appeals to industry patriotism.