Regardless of your position, if you work in a learning business, you need to care about finding opportunities to grow revenue—AKA business development.
According to Sean Soth, chair of the Leadership Advisory Board for Professionals for Association Revenue (PAR), we are all in business development.
PAR is a professional member organization that works to support and connect association teams to the ideas and applications needed to grow revenue. PAR’s mission is to inspire revenue growth for association professionals through knowledge, resources, and community.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Jeff Cobb talks with Sean about PAR’s origins and mission, revenue generation, revenue diversification, and the growing importance and relevance of the business development role in associations and other learning businesses.
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[00:00] – Intro
Professionals for Association Revenue (PAR)
[01:30] – How did Professionals for Association Revenue get its start?
Sean and some like-minded association professionals created PAR in 2019 with the goal of helping association staff connect with others that build revenue and do business development, as Sean didn’t know of place to find those kinds of folks. PAR wants to move the needle on revenue and align business competencies with mission.
The Evolving Role of Business Development
[02:21] – Do you feel like business development plays a more important role now in the association world than it has in the past? If yes, why?
If you think of a bell curve, the role of the association business developer is still on the starting point of the curve. The reason is the traditional association model. Associations typically prioritize and focus on the ongoing, sustainable revenue streams that have always existed. But the idea that there could be other enterprise-wide impact for associations is being recognized more.
The pandemic shook many associations. Some haven’t yet recovered, and some may not recover. There is a wonderful opportunity now to understand what corporations and other industries are doing to become sustainable.
There are opportunities for corporations, sponsors, and partners to engage with associations, and associations can provide workforce support to help move the needled in the industry they serve.
If you got 10 percent more out of your revenue programs moving into next year, what would that mean for your organization? What would that mean for bonuses to current staff, new programs, new ideas for membership, maybe giving scholarships? There are so many opportunities that prioritizing the strategy behind business development really allows. And those are some of the things that we’re seeing beginning to take shape. I’d say we’re just at the start.Sean Soth
A Hunger for Revenue Diversification
[05:21] – Are you seeing a hunger for revenue diversification?
PAR launched in January 2020, and its goal was to hold a meeting to bring people together that year. By March, COVID forced PAR to rethink.
A lot of associations have long searched for new ways to generate revenue. What PAR hopes to do is begin to understand not just what could be diversified but how and why to diverse revenue streams. How do organizations make sure that they’re supporting a business development function?
Business development isn’t purview of one or two people or even a team; the entire organization should be thinking about revenue.
Those are things that you’re going to see a big shift in over the next five to ten years in the association space. Associations need to stay competitive because there’s increased competition from the corporate side.
Challenges in Adding New Models of Revenue
[08:09] – We don’t see a lot of people in charge of business development in associations. Why is that?
Associations have had the good fortune of recurring revenue streams from membership and attendance at events for many years. So it makes complete sense to invest energy in those areas…until they’re interrupted (thanks, COVID) or until organizations begin to understand new revenue options instead of doing the same thing over and over again.
Thinking about what new revenue options could mean for margin and mission is beginning to become more common in associations. There are business competencies to wrap around the things that associations are already doing well, which is bringing like-minded professionals interested in moving the needle on a mission-oriented objective.
Leading Learning Newsletter
[10:47] – As someone who listens to the Leading Learning Podcast, you should know about the Leading Learning newsletter.
The newsletter is inbox intelligence for learning businesses and helps you understand the latest technology, marketing, and learning trends and grow your learning business. Best of all, it’s a free resource. As a subscriber, you’ll get Leading Links, our monthly curated collection of resources to help you grow the reach, revenue, and impact of your learning business; the podcast digest, a monthly summary of podcast episodes released during the previous month; plus periodic announcements highlighting Leading Learning Webinars and other educational opportunities designed to benefit learning business professionals. Subscribe, for free, at leadinglearning.com/inbox. And, if you’re already subscribed, point a colleague to leadinglearning.com/inbox.
Why PAR Uses a Membership Model
[11:47] – Why did you create PAR as a membership organization?
In Sean’s career, he’s had the fortune of having some great education experiences that have helped form his approach as a professional. The most impactful of those involve engaging and talking with other people who do what he does.
PAR has a lot of members who work on non-dues revenue, and hearing them talk about the challenges they face, externally in the market and internally, is informative and helpful.
A lot of that comes down to how we’re sharing and learning with each other, and the community aspect of PAR is really what we wanted to do because we just felt like training seminars—anyone could do a training seminar, anyone could do a Webcast. And, of course, there are varying degrees. Some people do them amazingly well, but we wanted to be able to pull together people who were thought leaders in the market, thought leaders on business development competency, but also people who are living in the association world every single day. How can we all tie it together and help each other?Sean Soth
A Business Development Mindset
[14:05] – As PAR has grown, are there specific things you’ve tried from a business development standpoint to reflect what you think the best practices should be for a membership organization wanting to cultivate business development mindset?
Everyone on PAR’s Leadership Advisory Board has either led or currently leads a team that does business development. PAR has worked to create value as an association by looking at what its members are doing. Who’s doing the best job at membership sign-up? How can we reduce the friction needed for someone to join? PAR is focused on how to equip association workforces with business competencies and short- and long-term ideas that they can build into their organization.
The Role of Educational Programming in Business Development
[15:57] – Educational events have experienced a lot of disruption. What’s your perspective on how educational programming potentially fits with the need for a greater emphasis on business development?
From a professional development standpoint, associations are uniquely positioned to not only educate members but also the industry at large as well. Sean is seeing more industry-facing programs that are meant to highlight member work in a way that invites industry audiences to be involved.
If you have high-performing members and corporate partners and you’re looking to attract similar members and sponsors, what better way than to introduce programming in that direction? Sean is seeing non-member-driven investment in market expansion, similar to what corporations do.
Some corporate partners have larger audiences than the associations they support, and they do that primarily through education for their customers.
[17:52] – Trade associations are getting into education, and individual member organizations are thinking about business-to-business relationships around their education. Business development is a challenge because you need somebody who can create relationships and then structure a deal that’s beneficial for everybody involved.
Customized learning has a bright future. Small, incremental changes in an organization’s learning and development strategy may allow them to reach new markets.
Sean is also seeing organizations develop pathways for experienced professionals.
Check out our related episode about developing pathways “Curate, Create, Commission with Veronica Diaz.”
The Value in Creating Pathways
[20:33] – Forward-thinking organizations have been offering pathways for years. If you’re able to define pathways and then offer the education and learning experiences that help people walk down one of those paths, that’s incredibly valuable to the individual learner and the employer, particularly if you attach a credential to it.
There are so many different angles to develop your team, but you need to meet your individual talent where they are.
Sean believes boards will require more from staff from a revenue innovation standpoint, and it’s important to be ready with ideas.
[23:05] – You launched the RevUP Summit at the end of 2022. What was it like getting a face-to-face event up and running in this emerging-from-the-pandemic world?
You have to take some risks, and this is where strategy should guide you.
From the start, PAR’s Leadership Advisory Board wanted to host a business-focused event to bring people together. And it was a lot of fun.
I think the one thing I can share is a lesson for anyone out there: it is hard to find some of the business-facing folks at an association because a lot of us don’t really think that we’re in business development. I would say that we all are in business development. The way we’re positioning our information and our message may just be what’s different. Putting together something that you believe in is worth the risk.Sean Soth
Sometimes in associations, there are opportunities to incubate great ideas into something substantial that makes a difference. RevUP brought thought leaders together to have conversations, network, and meet, and PAR is excited to do it again in December 2023.
Lifelong Learning Habits
[26:23] – What learning experiences, habits, and practices do you engage in to continue your own development, professionally and personally?
Sean admits he took his learning for granted for a long time. It wasn’t until he started working with the Association for Talent Development, which exposed him to some new ideas, that he started to stretch himself through learning.
PAR is the offshoot of an idea that it would be awesome to create business development leaders and leaders who understand business development. And what better way than to share with each other?
One thing that Sean’s done with his team since the pandemic is to read books together. They’ve read Good to Great, Made to Stick, The Power of Regret, and The Tipping Point. Each week Sean and his team tackle two chapters and share what they learned.
Check out our related episode on professional development books “Four Essential Career Books with Jerel Bonner.”
[30:04] – Wrap-up
Sean Soth is president of Hi-Fidelity Group and chairman of the Leadership Advisory Board for Professionals for Association Revenue.
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