Shrinking industry associations
The last couple of years have been rough for the printing industry. For the industry associations, it’s been just brutal.
The International Association of Printing House Craftsmen has gone from 12,000 members to 4,000 in ten years. The Canadian Printing Industries Association (CPIA) has been struggling to get enough printers out to its annual convention. In fact, it’s not unusual for suppliers to outnumber printers at conventions. Print Image International—the former National Association of Quick Printers—saw its membership crash from almost 4,000 to a little more than 1,600 in about three years. Other smaller industry associations have been struggling, too, with few adding members. It’s almost become a contest of who has lost the least number of members.
It’s not that associations are doing a poorer job now. Actually, most are doing a good job and the cost of membership is reasonably inexpensive. But, the rallying cry: “you have to come out and support the association” just doesn’t work any more. Associations are like any other business—you have to justify your existence to your customers/members every day. The cost of being involved in an association is not measured in money it is measured in time. When there is pressure on the bottom line, time is the one thing that most printers have very little of. The reality for most associations is that they have to address and sell the bottom-line benefits of being a member and getting involved. Vague benefits, such as participating for the good of the industry, just don’t work any more.
As the economic situation has tightened up, the tendency among associations is to try to broaden their base in an attempt to appeal to a larger group of members. The ultimate example of this was the National Association of Quick Printers (NAQP), which changed its name to Print Image and tried to attract prepress houses, small commercial printers and trade houses to its ranks. Unfortunately, it lost a big part of its core market—the quick printers and copyshops—and its membership plummeted by more than 50%. It still runs excellent conferences and gathers fantastic stats on the quick printing business.
The CPIA has a tendency of promoting its annual convention as a holiday package versus a real learning experience and focusing on how to improve your bottom line. Again, its conventions have improved as far as learning experience go, but trying to lure the vacation crowd has hurt attendance.
In the association business, as in the printing business, focus is what it’s all about. If you try to be everything to everyone you end up meaning nothing to everyone.
Associations have to pick what their core members are and deliver bottom line value to those members. To quote Jack Seedhouse from Zippy Print in Burlington, Ont., on why he went to NAQP conventions on the other side of the continent: “I can’t afford to not go, you get so much out of it.”
In the magazine industry there is an association called the Periodical Publishers Exchange. It is for independent trade publishers. It is only for owners who want to exchange ideas and discuss how to run a more profitable publication. It operates on a shoestring and has not branched out into anything else. Good times or bad times, its membership has remained constant for the last 30 years. Especially if you are just learning how to run an independent trade magazine, there is nothing else like it.
The trick for our industry associations is for them to go back to the basics of why they were formed in the first place. They must have two or three key services that their members need and they must deliver them better than anyone else. The health of any industry is reflected in the volatility of its associations. Now more than ever, our industry needs strong, focused associations to deal with oncoming problems.
Alexander Donald is the publisher of Graphic Monthly Canada.