Trade associations mainly serve their members by: 1. keeping them informed of developments in Brussels; and 2. lobbying and communicating on their behalf. Both these functions could be developed considerably through the smart use of online tools, even by the most cash-strapped association.
If you look at pretty much any Brussels-based trade association’s website, it’s immediately apparent that they’re not making the most of the tools at their disposal. I picked about 15 associations from Euractiv’s list of Euractors and looked at their sites, and apart from a few exceptions, they all use their sites to: present their mission statement, structure, board and secretariat staff; describe their industry/sector and activities; publish press releases; and promote their events and publications.
This is really a wasted opportunity. Here are three areas within which I think they should be adopting more web tools (measured against an association’s priorities and activities of course):
Publications Sites tend to have a list of publications and an order form, but more should be done to make the content accessible. If the publications are intended to be read by as many people as possible, but the association is not that interested in making money off them, all should be made available as eBooks that are easy to download and easy to forward. If the publications are meant to make money, I think they should be published on Google Books, where users can read but not download, allowing them to verify that the content and quality matches their expectations. This would not deter purchases: nobody would read a whole book online, and most buyers want these type of books for reference, available from a nearby book-shelf at their whim.
Events Most associations host events and yet their sites only tend to promote them and nothing much else. Where’s the integration? Following events, a lot more material should be made available and promoted (podcasts or videos of attendee interviews, presentations), and it should be really easy to spread. Getting this material isn’t difficult. A simple dictaphone or basic handheld camera is enough. Editing can be done for free (Audacity for audio only; Window Movie Maker for video), and hosting can be done on free web platforms like YouTube. What’s the point? It extends the lifespan of an event; it improves outreach and gives attendees a record of what they saw.
Plus seeing as associations place such value on events, I’m guessing they’d like to host more of them but can’t afford to. Why not move them online? One big annual conference and four smaller online events, with all the functionalities of a “real” event other than the coffee breaks (presentations, Q/A?). This is not expensive or difficult to set up, and could potentially attract more attendees than live events (no travel).
News Presumably, most associations have a newsletter, email updates, maybe some activity in members only areas that we can not see. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure they’d want to be doing more. I’m guessing many members feel daunted by anything emanating from Brussels, and the trade association’s role as a knowledgeable gatekeeper of news and other information is vital. What could they do? Very few trade associations use a blog to update members or anyone else who might be interested with material that is in the public domain, it seems. I think near-instant updates via a blog could be invaluable, much better than email updates, which get lost in cluttered inboxes, or newsletters, which require a certain number of articles. The advantage of blogging in this respect is that you can report just one story at a time, whenever you want, and all stories are stored in one place. And the blog can be short – “check out this really important document” (publicly available only of course); or longer – “we attended a hearing at the Parliament this afternoon. Points X, Y and Z were raised. We’ll be doing A and B”. And if members really want the news in their inboxes, they can subscribe to blog updates via email.
As for news aimed at the press, associations’ press rooms are usually very dull, containing little more than basic info and press releases. Far more could be done at little cost to both spruce up the content and improve reach. Like what? For starters, linking to other relevant stories on the web (a site should be a source for more relevant content than that which you write yourself), short video clips, easy bookmarking to make it easier for people to spread and find material, and RSS, so that users can request updates in a reader or via email. Some of these things, like enabling bookmarking and RSS, take minutes to set up and are free.
Of course, online communications goes a lot further than this. There’s online monitoring, social media engagement, pay-per-click advertising, eCampaigning and so on. These tactics would probably be a step too far for most trade associations given their scope and resources, but they have no excuse for not taking advantage of a number of cheap and cheerful web tools that could really add value to their work and delight their members.