Generating non-dues revenues is one of the biggest challenges associations face today. Not surprisingly, some organizations need help in raising their fortunes in this regard. Enter The Townsend Group, a Maryland-based advertising, sponsorship, and trade show sales and management firm for associations.
Founded by Holly Townsend, The Townsend Group has been serving trade groups in a wide array of industries since 1983, with memberships ranging from a few thousand to more than 1 million. Townsend sat down with Bottom Line Briefing recently to discuss the challenges she and her staff face in helping clients achieve their goals.
What follows is our chat:
BOTTOM LINE BRIEFING: Could you please tell our readers what The Townsend Group is and the work you do there?
HOLLY TOWNSEND: The Townsend Group raises non-dues revenues for associations. This includes selling print and digital advertising, exhibit booths, and sponsorships. Our services are completely turnkey. In addition to sales, we provide research services, sales strategies, promotion plans, creative services, ad trafficking, digital ad serving and campaign optimization, client reporting, and billing and collections. Not every client needs every service, so we tailor what we provide to meet their precise needs.
BLB: When associations come to you for ad sales and sponsorship help, what are some of their common wants and needs? What are they usually lacking?
HT: It’s rare when the top need expressed is something other than more revenues. Other common challenges include a lack of staff resources and a lack of understanding about the shifts that continue to take place on a macro level that impact raising non-dues revenue adversely, especially with respect to advertising and what to do about them.
BLB: What are some of the first things you and your staff do in helping an association in this regard?
HT: Our initial job is to try to figure out why their revenues have been disappointing and why they want to outsource the sales function or move it to The Townsend Group from another firm. We do a quick assessment of where they stand relative to their competitive set and evaluate where they excel and where they fall short. We identify their potential opportunities based on best practices among associations and also for-profit publishers and create a sales plan that we share with the association, sometimes formally, other times less so. Next, using all of the information we have gathered, we aim to arrive at mutually agreed-upon expectations with an eye toward exceeding them. Finally, we put the plan into motion.
We are a data-driven organization. So, on a weekly basis, we measure our progress formally for each association client to make sure we are hitting our benchmarks. Adjustments to our plan are made, as necessary.
Probably the most important thing we can do for our clients is to be accessible to them and to provide them with ongoing information about what we’re doing and the results we’re getting. Key to this is communicating our market share growth or decline compared to our direct competitors so that our performance can be communicated appropriately to leadership. Feedback on what we’re hearing “on the street” and what ideas work or don’t resonate with prospects is also essential.
BLB: Do you find that you sometimes run up against resistance from within associations in making changes, especially those with an “old guard” still in place? If so, how have you been able to overcome that?
HT: This does happen occasionally. The most effective way to overcome resistance to a new idea is to use case studies that demonstrate how the same idea has delivered big dividends for other similar association clients. Fortunately, we have plenty of those!
BLB: How has working with and for associations changed over the years since you’ve gotten involved in this sector?
HT: When I first began working in the association sector, our work was largely confined to print advertising sales. Sponsorships and exhibit booths were usually sold by association staff and digital advertising did not exist. In the last decade or so, we all began to realize the importance of cross-platform selling. In my view, silo selling fell out of favor for two reasons. First, industry suppliers – advertisers, exhibitors, and sponsors – didn’t want two or three people contacting them. Oftentimes, this sales approach resulted in competing interests among the sales team, and it certainly didn’t set the stage for an easy development of a comprehensive plan that would meet each supplier’s needs. Second, lots of media industry attention was given to the role that each asset played in meeting a supplier’s objectives, and folks in my business listened. A few examples: Magazines work especially well for branding, new product introductions, and driving traffic to a company’s website. Digital media helps with branding, too, especially if a company is able get a large share of voice and, of course, it provides an easy way to measure ROI. Webinar sponsorships build brand, establish thought-leadership credentials, and deliver leads. Trade show booths and sponsorships build brand and deliver leads. You get the idea. Most industry suppliers need to accomplish many of these objectives. So, it’s our job to ascertain the relative importance of each, weight our cross-platform recommendations appropriately, and build a program that will deliver the results the client is looking for.
BLB: How big of a role does technology now play in generating ad sales and sponsorships?
HT: Technology has radically altered the way we do business. On the positive side, it helps us work smarter and faster. A couple of examples include CRM programs and the availability of e-mail. Our CRM system helps us keep track of massive amount of customer information, generate reports, generate invoices, and so on. We would never be able to accomplish as much as we do without it.
We use e-mail extensively to communicate with clients and prospects and to send electronic promotions in support of everything we sell. In fact, many clients and prospects prefer this form of communications to phone calls. I find this preference troubling in some respects. While it’s efficient, it also can result in lost sales. People buy from people they know, like, and trust. It’s much easier to build rapport and long-lasting business friendships using your voice than your keyboard.
BLB: What do you consider to be the favorite part of your job?
I love the deal making, to be honest. Not just getting the deal, but the process of taking an idea and bringing it to fruition, that is, to a commercial success. Or, the chance to solve a customer’s problem by building a program tailored to addressing their needs. Collaborating with a client is really fun.
BLB: What do you still find the most challenging, the most difficult, aspect of your work?
HT: Occasionally, we’ll have an association client that is slow to give us the tools we need– like not providing an editorial calendar or sponsorship descriptions in a timely manner. When this happens, it can bring a prospective sale that we’ve been working on to a grinding halt and sometimes we lose the opportunity completely.
BLB: Was there some advice given to you early in your career with regards to working with associations that has stuck with you?
HT: Yes, that even the Executive Director has folks to answer to for his performance – the association board. Understanding this, I try to make sure that The Townsend Group is doing its part to make him look as good as possible. This means not only delivering on our revenue promises, but also collaborating with his staff to create winning programs that satisfy member needs.
This article originally ran in the October 15th, 2014 issue of Bottom Line Briefing. See the original article here.