A Few Thoughts on Associations

By Maggie Barton Baird.

‘The Startup Community Way” by Brad Feld and Ian Hathaway is one of my favourite books about startup ecosystems. One of the main lessons from the book and much of the work of TechStars speaks to the idea of ‘Give First’. As TechStars puts it, “in the startup world, Give First means simply trying to help anyone, especially entrepreneurs, without any expectation of getting anything back.” You can learn more about the Give First mentality of startup communities on the TechStars website.

What if we applied this approach to create a thriving events community of support?

I began in the event industry over seven years ago, and after a somewhat negative experience with another event professional, I didn’t feel I could participate in any of the local associations because this person played an active role in them. That experience gave me pause to really look into the event industry associations and identify the value they had for me, and my company. 

After years of disjointed thoughts and ideas about the associations, I realized that what they really need is innovation, a shakeup, a change. But what exactly does that look like? I don’t know but I do have some thoughts. 

Two main approaches come to mind: the first being the Give First mentality I mentioned at the start of this article and the second being the approach to community marketing that many large tech companies are embracing. 

Give First creates a community and norm of supporting each other while expecting little in return. It has an immense ability to create belonging, support, and community amongst colleagues. A perfect example of this is Alex Lindsay’s Office Hours: every single morning Alex and a dozen other professionals answer any and all questions at no cost or no expectation of return — simply to support the community and industry. Imagine an industry where you could email, call or connect with any event professional to ask for help. The startup community here in Edmonton has exactly that. They have an open slack group that anyone can join: it’s a living, breathing example of Give First. 

Yes, there are obviously limits to this — but remember that you can build your own boundaries. But imagine a future where you can connect a fellow event professional when you’re really stuck — especially in your early years. That’s a world I want to live and work in. 

I am newly diving into community marketing, and I am awe-struck by the work of so many thoughtful community professionals. Building community is ultimately a sales funnel for many of these companies, but they manage to build a community that ultimately feels giving, collaborative and supportive. 

I truly believe that this is possible within the events associations, it’s a matter of how willing we as an industry are to change. 

Consider This! 

Associations approach all activities with these questions in mind:

  1. Is this a living, breathing example of ”Give First”
  2. Is this what the community wants?
  3. Is this what the community needs?

I have attended many association events that checked all these boxes, and others that didn’t check a single one. For example, we need to have conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, what I don’t need is to pay to do a site visit and tasting with 30 other event professionals that I wouldn’t pay for if I did it on my own for a client. 

With these questions in mind, associations may have considered supporting the Global Meetings Industry’s Day, with more of a focus on the activities of the local, community-led events. Instead of running a 12-hour day, they could have created a portal to access global events for event professionals to attend, network, and learn from each other globally — which is what I had accidentally assumed was happening. 

Perhaps if the associations don’t have the government sway, I at least assumed they had pre-covid, perhaps we can transition to focusing on building community and less on making sure memberships are paid, events have a cost for non-members, and building events the community might not actually need or want. 

With community marketing and Give First mentalities, I think we have an incredible opportunity to build associations that are inclusive, supportive, and community-led.

Maggie Barton Baird is the Principal at MB & Company, an event planning firm based in Edmonton, Alberta, which is dedicated to crafting unique gatherings and experiences both in-person and virtually. For over ten years, Maggie has been working in events and experiential marketing, primarily with tech and innovation companies. In November 2018, she was named Top 40 Under 40 by Edmonton’s Avenue Magazine, and regularly contributes to CBC and 630CHED as an event expert.

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