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Viewpoint: Competing with Free

by Randall Craig on January 24, 2014

Filed in: Blog, Make It Happen Tipsheet, Strategy, Viewpoint

Tagged as: , , , ,

Are you involved in your professional association? Or do you run one – either as a director, staff, or volunteer?

If so, you’re probably concerned with one aspect of today’s digital world, and particularly social media: How do you compete with free?  (Or perhaps, you’re concerned with a more existential question: Does social media make associations irrelevant?)

Consider the evidence:

  • “Community” can easily be found within LinkedIn groups, Twitter conversations, and Facebook… for free.
  • Content is available almost anywhere… for free.
  • Professional development is readily available through online training provided by vendors.
  • Support is easily accessible online through peer-to-peer conversations… free
  • Meet-ups and masterminds are making chapter meetings less relevant… again, free.  And since the pandemic, who really feels safe going to them anyway.

In  other words, Associations must compete, sometimes for the first time, in the marketplace of ideas. If they don’t – and if they don’t do so actively – the future will not look so rosy.

Here are five ways to compete against free:

  1. Play to your strengths: This means taking advantage of the unique advantages that a digital-only competitor doesn’t have; community, live events, certifications, a full communications portfolio (real and virtual), advocacy programs, etc.
  2. Develop a more powerful member focus: This means investing in market research to understand who your members and prospective members are.  Learning about what both groups want, and improving your service focus to them. Then, moving from a mailing list “e-blast” focus to a wrap-around CRM approach.
  3. Don’t give up any ground: Too often, a successful digital-only “competitor” succeeds only because you may have stood by and done very little. Move  into action by recapturing Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook pages from the third parties who have been managing them. Pre-emptively capture domain names and second tier social sites. And form tighter content partnerships with similar organizations in other jurisdictions.
  4. Connect live events to social media:  This means curating a community that can guide the direction of your live events.  Start the Social Media conversation at the event, and then continue it long after.  Those who don’t attend will see what they’ve missed, and have additional incentive to attend the next one.  As most events are now virtual, it also works the other way around: use virtual events to connect to your real-world strengths (see #1).
  5. Inbound marketing and content strategy:  Instead of thinking in binary terms of member and non-member, recognize that a person’s level of engagement is really measured in shades of gray.  digital content and social interaction must also be measured in the same way.  Consider what this means in terms of your content:
  • Free content
  • Content requiring registration
  • Pay-per-view content
  • Members-only content
  • Members-only pay-per-view content

This week’s action plan:  Examine  your “free” competitors:  who are they, and what are they doing? Then begin the planning process: how precisely will you compete against free?

Note: The Make It Happen Tipsheet is also available by email. Go to to register.

Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)
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Randall has been advising on Digital Strategy since 1994 when he put the Toronto Star online, the Globe and Mail's GlobeInvestor/Globefund, several financial institutions, and about 100+ other major organizations. He is the author of eight books, including Digital Transformation for Associations, the Everything Guide to Starting an Online Business, and Social Media for Business. He speaks and advises on Digital Transformation, Digital Trust, and Social Media. More at

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