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Once again, ASAE Annual has brought together great people sharing great ideas. However, as always, the hard part is putting these ideas into action and, ultimately, results. Increasingly, the objectives of these actions are focused on expanding revenue channels and increasing non-dues revenue, which must be more creative, more engaging, and more innovative than ever before to meet the high expectations of members and stakeholders.  

That was one of the takeaways from the conference’s session, “Diversify Revenue and Increase Engagement with Product Development,” hosted by Suzanna Kelley, principal at McKinley Advisors, and Mark Dorsey, CEO at Construction Specifications Institute.

What We Can Learn from Start-Ups

As Kelley explained, during the pandemic, association executives have faced various challenges surrounding membership and revenue, whether due to the negative economic factors for specific industries, the inability to fully execute events to maintain revenue streams, or the failure of new products to gain traction among memberships.  

To address these shortfalls, associations have been scrambling to create new products and sometimes expand into new markets, while also trying to improve products and tailor them to these new markets. Whether it’s a new mobile app or new research offerings on the website, or an entirely new line of accredited coursework, associations must be exploring how to better support and provide value to their membership that can drive these new revenue streams.

This shift starts with adopting a product development methodology similar to the build-measure-learn concepts used by many tech start-ups that focus on rapid deployments to enhance functionality and drive user adoption. McKinley Advisors adopted this model for associations with a breakdown of:  

  • Look: What problem are you trying to solve? Why? What research and analysis will best support your understanding of market needs?  
  • Learn: Understand how the problem is solved now. In what way can you deliver a better solution? Ideate and co-create with empathy.  
  • Plan: Develop concepts to market test. Consider low fidelity prototypes and minimum viable product (MVP) version.  
  • Deliver: Test the MVP with the market. What did you learn? Are there ways to improve it, to better address market needs? 

Once delivered, then the process starts all over again. Using this methodology with the support of experts like McKinley can completely transform an organization’s mindset, shifting the way they think about themselves and how the members and new markets think about them. 

Failing Fast, Failing Smart 

Internally, one of the most significant changes is simply accepting that failure is a vital part of the process.  
Per IBM and many other corporate entities, the failing fast philosophy is an iterative approach to identifying, developing, and launching new products and ideas. “It is heavily related to the concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and is premised on getting early feedback that can either validate or invalidate an idea,” Bryan Casey, IBM Program Director, wrote.  
Of course, while failure is part of the process, it only has value if you: 

  • Accept failure quickly  
  • Learn from that failure  
  • Put those lessons into action.  

The approach is particularly valuable for digital products that provide data points on their success and failure and can quickly be iterated and adapted to improve. 

Harnessing Technology for New Revenue 

While this all sounds great, the fact is that fully adopting this methodology requires a bit of a culture shift that does not happen over a few weeks but over years. As a result, a piecemeal approach may be more realistic for many organizations. 
For example, we have seen many of our association clients move in this direction over the last few years. Indeed, many of these discussions and adopting new approaches started before the pandemic forced organizations to transform at light speed.  
One excellent client example is the Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants (VSCPA), the leading professional association in the commonwealth dedicated to empowering its 13,000-plus members to grow and evolve to meet the needs of the clients and the marketplace.  
Like many associations, VSCPA relied on dues and in-person events to drive much of its revenue. However, the organizational strategic goals recognized the need to diversify its revenue streams and expand its membership pathways. 
Tactically, VSCPA was looking to increase revenue through Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credits and certification courses offered on the website, which would be a shift away from in-person coursework. The hope was that the expanded online courses would also increase new member sign-ups, current member renewals, and brand awareness. 
The approach allows VSCPA to measure the success of the products – online CPE courses – throughout the process, from awareness, to registration, to course quality, to interest in taking similar courses. 

Key Goals through Keywords 

To drive awareness and, ultimately, a revenue stream, VSCPA took the unique path and partnered with Unleashed to create a strategic Google pay-per-click (PPC) advertising campaign to get their messaging and their CPE online products in front of their targeted audiences. 
Following detailed research to identify the keywords and key sites for VSCPA target markets, Unleashed created five Google Ad Campaigns to assist VSCPA in achieving its goal. Three campaigns used the Google search network, and two campaigns used display advertising for targeted remarketing. 
With the target market audience defined, the campaigns were built with multiple ad variations, A/B testing, ad schedule optimization, ad extensions for additional information, and conversion-focused landing pages. The result was an overall conversion rate of more than 15 percent and a CPE campaign rate of an astounding 49-percent conversion. The ad campaign saw a stunning 1,451-percent return on investment (ROI) for VSCPA across all campaigns when assessing the revenue and investment. 

Learning and Adjusting 

While the ad campaign and the online CPE products have been an overwhelming success, it was not all roses and sunshine. While the CPE campaign flourished, the retargeting did not reach the same levels of success. An early version of the campaign included ad retargeting based on specific page visits on the VSCPA website. While a tailored approach often works, this time, it did not drive enough traffic and had to be retooled to combined audiences and alter the language to fit the broad range of personas. 
While that could be interpreted as a failure, it was a necessary part of the process: Fail fast. Fail smart. 
Even with the incredible ROI, there was never a guarantee of success for the VSCPA campaigns. It required the association to take some risk, but it wasn’t a blind risk. VSCPA leadership took the time to assess the marketplace, review its internal data, and identify what risks were worth taking. 
The approach is something every association can do if they take the time to assess their situation, find a risk worth taking, learn lessons from the attempt (both good and bad), and then adjust to deliver a successful outcome and hopefully uncover a new revenue stream.