We are all consumers of products from consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies like Kraft, Nestle, or Procter & Gamble. Who doesn’t love the Andrex puppy (for my UK friends), M&Ms or that delicious blue box of Kraft Mac & Cheese? CPG products are intertwined into our daily lives, and we are in awe of how they continuously innovate very intriguing products. Before becoming an association strategist in 2015, I came from the CPG world. I worked on redesigning the Andrex packaging and I launched Easy Mac to the market amongst other products. I’ve seen first-hand what makes CPG companies so successful. I’ve seen just what makes associations successful too.
There is a major difference between the CPG and association landscape that needs to be addressed.
What is that difference? I bet you are thinking budget size. Ok…you are right – no question there! However, I’m referring to another difference that separates those who grow and those who stagnate. That difference is the prioritization of innovation. CPG companies literally place line items into their annual budgets for innovation – the creation of their own new offerings, and more importantly the ability to try out new technologies to improve upon their existing processes.
As a department lead, I budgeted roughly +/- 10% of my annual budget for innovative new methodologies or technologies. The reason why big corporates prioritize innovation in their budgets is due to them knowing that the only way to grow is to take a chance on something new. They also need to be ready to pivot based on their market changing. This sentiment should resonate for us in the tradeshow industry. While I was at MillerCoors we learned that Walmart would not allow in store research. Rather than give up, I found a startup who could build a virtual Walmart. We partnered and tested the methodology and learned that having shoppers shop a virtual store had a tight correlation to actual buying behaviors. This new methodology ended up saving us money and time and became the gold standard for shopper research. These results would not have become apparent if I didn’t have the flexibility to pivot and try something new.
For organizations, a new machinery could improve production times or a new research vendor could unearth faster report delivery. For an association, a new concept could make the difference between creating a modern membership experience and cracking the code on digital exhibitor ROI or not.
Because of the power behind innovation, industry associations should be rewarding staff when finding & introducing new ideas to their organization.
Right now, there are a lot of moving pieces. Live shows being cancelled and virtual shows not delivering the expected revenue, but that is no excuse to become stagnant. Sitting and waiting for the world to revert may feel like a pathway, but your members and vendors cannot wait. Members will find vendors or publications to obtain the content they crave. Vendors are creating their own shows which leads to lost revenue for your organization and members who follow the vendor vs. your show brand.
I’ve heard associations & show organizers say that they must wait until the next budget cycle to even think about adopting a new service. Our industry does not have time to wait another year to innovate. There are companies like mine, CampfireSocial, who can provide world-class software for a revenue share. That means there is no out of pocket implication for your organization and it can live outside of the budget.
So, where should you find the next best idea? Innovation lives at the startup level and startups need believers to take the plunge.
As a startup founder myself, albeit admittingly self-serving, I’d like to advocate for all association tech startup founders who are working around the clock to solve the problems that keep you up at night. Working with a startup can sound nerve wracking. They are an unknown variable. Organizations should not blindly support a startup, but if the product speaks to an organization’s goals, then that startup should be prioritized as we are all responsible for keeping innovation alive. Downsides exist, but they are often limited to cash spent and lessons learned. The upside can equate to millions of dollars in incremental revenue. Even when a startup makes a mistake and we all do, the right startup will work with you to make it right.
Partnering with a startup could be the best investment your organization makes.
Supporting a startup can do more than just provide your organization with a new solution. It feeds sector growth and leads to product longevity. The alternative is a good idea dying because organizations aren’t willing to give it a chance. If you think an idea is good, give it a chance. Diffusion of responsibility is the quickest way to kill an idea.
Early customers keep a startup alive through feedback to improve technology, case studies, revenue, and product validation. Early traction attracts more investors and a broader network supporting its infrastructure. This type of sustainability keeps our economy growing, improves ecosystems, and creates jobs.
It also allows for continual product improvements which will ultimately provide your organization with a perpetually better product and more upside.
Plus, there are perks to being an early customer: discounts, first mover advantage, and the ability to put one’s own stamp onto the direction of the product.
Industry associations advocate for the advancement of their respective industry. What better way to show that an association understands advancement than to grow itself?
Industry associations have the foundation in place to be a leader in the global tech scene, but it will require corporate citizens to embrace the risk and more startup products & services. Imagine the opportunities that lay ahead for your organization when you prioritize innovation.
Erica Bishaf, Founder & CEO of CampfireSocial