2020 and beyond: How associations can deliver even more value

We caught up with Rohit Bhargava, former ad executive, to discuss how associations can go beyond training and lobbying.

BY Kim Caviness
EVP, Chief Content Officer, Imagination

Every year, Rohit Bhargava sifts through the zeitgeist—across verticals, B2B, B2C, B2B2C, audiences, formats, countries—and prognosticates the 15 trends that will shape culture and business. The former advertising exec (Ogilvy, Leo Burnett), current Georgetown University adjunct professor and WSJ bestselling author then publishes his findings in an annual update to his book series Non-Obvious: How to Predict Trends and Win the Future. (Which fans like me preorder and try to wait patiently for, as we plan our next-year program strategies.)

I caught up with Bhargava last fall as he was putting the final touches on this year’s update, Non-Obvious Megatrends: How to See What Others Miss and Predict the Future, which is out now. Except this book is different, he said, excited. “The idea is that it’s an anniversary, but it’s also meant to look back at the past 10 years and what that can tell us about the next decade coming forward.”

Bhargava’s going for back-to-the-future marketing. Just in time, too! So: What does he think the last decade tells us about what will be new and Non-Obvious in the verticals Imagination prioritizes: financial services, associations and B2B?

Bhargava—who brands himself a “marketer, author, speaker, professor, nice guy” on his website—nicely put on his Non-Obvious glasses to peer into the past and future states of our big three. First up: associations.

“The association should become the body that grants credibility through certification. [But] they’re not actually thinking about it as building a brand.”

Rohit Bhargava
author, "Non-Obvious Megatrends: How to See What Others Miss and Predict the Future"

The non-obvious marketing opportunity for associations

Bhargava lives in Washington, D.C. He knows associations. The Georgetown University adjunct professor of marketing innovation is a regular on their keynote circuit.

His hot take? Associations are missing the boat on a lucrative service members need.

“The biggest mistake a lot of associations make is they focus on only two things,” Bhargava says: training and lobbying.

“They forget that there’s a third element, which is that everyone who’s in professional services, or who’s in anywhere, needs a way to stand up. They need credibility. The association should become, if they’re smart, the body that grants that credibility through certification.”

Bhargava is quick to point out that most associations have a certification program, somewhere. But it’s hidden away online, underfunded and under-loved. “They’re not actually thinking about it as building a brand,” says Bhargava. “The problem is the only way this becomes valuable is if you invest enough time as the association in building the brand of your certification.”

Here’s the hard challenge/opportunity Bhargava offers associations about cert programs: Brand, or expect nothing: “If it’s not recognized in the marketplace and it’s not recognized by consumers, then nobody cares. If they said, ‘What do we need to do to make this certification more branded?’ they’d change the way they did a lot of things. They’d change the design of it, because a lot of times they look awful. If you want a certification and a seal of approval, it needs to look correct. It needs to look impressive—otherwise, nobody cares.”

2020 marketing advice for associations

Caring means branding. Put your vision, time, energy and money into making sure your certification program matters to your membership and their stakeholders. Upgrade the logo, training modules and marketing materials to be sophisticated, valuable and accessible in the right channels. This will attract the next generation of members who will continue to support your operations. Then promote the heck out of it with a savvy content strategy and apply paid media to find and convert.

You’ll be glad you did: Certification brand value is something you can take to the bank.

This article is one of a three-part series, which also covers Bhargava's forward-looking marketing trends for B2B brands and financial services firms.

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published: May 18, 2020