Have social media outlets such as Facebook and LinkedIn killed the trade association?
Not at all.
Trade associations may look quaint with their membership rules and joining fees, compared to the relatively free access of a social media platform. But the number of associations is growing as new industries arise that need representation. Meetings and conventions provide the necessary real connections that are deeper than the ones formed in online communities.
Networking opportunities are helpful, but associations are necessary to the American political and social scene. While not uniquely American, they play an important role in our society. When the United States was formed, Alexis De Toqueville talked about the role that associations play in a democratic society in his profound book, Democracy in America. He makes the point that associations are a unique counterweight to the government.
“Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”
Associations balance the bureaucracies found in D.C. and our state legislatures by lobbying for member interests, even lobbying on behalf of those who don’t have a voice. For example, a contractors association could lobby for further funding for vocational education, knowing that creating more potential members in the future would only enhance the association’s standing in that community.
Social media won’t replace trade associations, but they can enhance them. Think of the power of that online conversation as a champion of big ideas throughout the community and beyond the association’s membership.
Nothing will ever replace the importance of face-to-face networking that an association offers, but using the social media platforms to advance your association’s big ideas and lobbying is another function to harness.
A special thanks to Elizabeth MacGahan for co-writing and editing this piece.