One of the great things about B2B marketing is that the world is fairly easily divided up into handy verticals. Pick a few industries your product seems to suit and then find the watering holes where your market congregates.

We used to call these watering holes professional associations, and when the dermatologists, sprinkler head testers, productivity prevention experts and even the folks in HR would pack their little wheelie bags and head out for a few days of professional development, we were ready.

It never mattered that most of what they developed turned out later to be a result of the undercooked luau entrée; it was a chance to get together with like-minded people and swap stories and feel a bit less alone in their fabric-covered boxes. For marketers, it was a revenue drive-through. Set up a booth, sponsor the coffee break, throw a few bodies onto the speaker panels and fire out the press kit. Ka-ching. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

The problem, of course, with shooting anything in a barrel is the collateral damage to the barrel itself.

Most of these associations also helpfully had glossy magazines in which to advertise, e-newsletters from which to link, local chapters to keep sales squirrels busy and all sorts of opportunities to get in front of the membership for not a lot of money.

But those days are rapidly drawing to a close, my friends. Association membership has been in steep decline for years and it seems likely that soon we’ll have only a handful of truly national organizations with more than a few hundred members.

Associations once performed the important tasks of advocating on behalf of their members with regulators, providing technical training and certification, aggregating content, and creating opportunities for members to network while they scarfed down bacon-wrapped scallops.

If you have read Robert Putnam’s brilliant Bowling Alone you will know that people are generally becoming less inclined to join things both professionally and personally. But I think, in the case of trade associations, marketers may be part of the problem. This would be the part where we shot holes in the barrels.

Technical companies have lately been creating their own professional certifications and doing a lovely job of running up the ARPU by selling such training to customers as some kind of “value-add”. I’m not sure I’m proud of that. We’ve also become pretty good at aggregating content previously curated by association editors, with the convenient advantage of being able to keep the competition’s content well away from the conversation. And in the face of tight travel budgets, marketers are become quite adept at supplanting the annual trade association schmooze cruise with things like user groups and summits. It’s far easier to convince the Keebler Elves to pay for “supplier training” than for a pub crawl three time zones away.

But most associations aren’t dead yet and a few of them may even warrant some extraordinary efforts to keep them viable. Here are a few things we can do to make the most of association marketing while the whole thing plays out.

  • Join the frigging things. You should have a memberships budget line and, particularly if you’re a major player in the industry, you should be first in the pool. Others will follow.
  • Make your executives participate. Nobody wants the assistant manager of anything on their stage. They want VPs and up so make sure you get association events, even the ones involving scallops, on their calendars and don’t let them bail out.
  • Provide content. Associations are tight on resources and most will happily republish and distribute your white papers, articles and other shameless acts of promotion.
  • Align your training with the association’s credentials. If the Accredited Printer Whisperer designation needs a certain number of instructional hours, why not see if you can provide some of them through the product training you do anyway.
  • Sponsor the stuff that matters. If the annual conference is more doggle than boon these days, shift your sponsorship to higher-quality pursuits such as webinars, recognition or scholarships. Try to get them to name an award after your CEO. That pretty much guarantees he or she will show up at the ceremony.
  • Invite the association to market to your customer base for a change. Let them set up a table at your user conference or contribute to your customer-facing blog or offer a discount rate on membership.

As for associations over the long haul, I think trade groups will focus more on advocacy and regulation, with the real danger they end up becoming the spin doctors for a few large players. Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade will likewise focus on advocacy but with a strong secondary mandate to attract new businesses to their communities. The rest of it has mostly leaked out the holes in the barrel.