I’ve been thinking about this post for a few months now but haven’t hit “publish” because I didn’t want to come off as ranty or negative or whatever. But let’s be honest…when has that ever stopped me in the past? 🙂 So, sorry but…not really sorry because I’d like to think that there are win/win solutions to what I personally consider to be a problem that’s becoming more and more prevalent in the association community. The problem? Association vendors–particularly technology vendors–expecting association clients to provide free content for their events, blogs and/or marketing pieces.
This is a hard/weird post to write because I realize that this issue is a bit of a “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” thing when you work in the association sector where relying on volunteers to provide free content for your publications and events is pretty much standard operating procedure. Recently, though, when I was reading Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Start-Up Bubble–ironically, while I was at an association technology vendor’s user conference to speak…for free, while paying my own travel and hotel bill to boot…I was drawn to a passage of the book where the author, Dan Lyons, talks about how he’s invited someone to come present at HubSpot’s Inbound conference only to realize that the company’s conference organizers insist that the company doesn’t cover travel expenses for speakers. In the book, Lyons remarks “I’ve never heard of anything like this. I’ve given dozens of speeches all around the world, and nobody has ever asked me to pay for my own travel. Booking a room and a plane ticket seems like the least you can do when you ask someone to come give a talk at your event.”
I had to laugh/cry because, being in the association world, not only have I heard of this practice, I barely know anything different. Associations’ bread and butter is events, the model for which is, more or less, get volunteers to create and present content for free, and then also have them cover not only their own travel costs but also usually a registration fee that, while discounted, is still a fee. So basically this: we make money off people presenting for free, paying their own travel costs AND then also paying to attend the event for which they, in part, are providing content that we charge attendees for.
So while I can hardly complain about this while I’m part of it, I do think there’s a difference between associations operating this way and for-profit companies doing it. There’s something to be said for volunteering your time and expertise to a nonprofit organization, which is why I’m both happy to do it for the associations I belong to or support and ok working for associations that follow this business model. However, while vendors that serve the association space might think the same model applies to their events/websites/marketing materials, I’m sorry but it just doesn’t. If you charge associations tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for your products or services, you shouldn’t then look to those same customers to provide content for your events which you then charge for and/or use to fuel lead gen via your website, blog, or other channels.
It’s one thing for a nonprofit organization to look to members to create and/or present content. The organization benefits because…free content developed and presented by experts in the field, and the volunteers benefit by getting discount registration to an event they might already have been planning to attend and at which they can at least network with industry peers, or raise their professional credibility by being published in the association’s magazine, blog or other platform. While it would be nice if volunteers could at least get free registration or dues, the reality is that there are hard costs to putting on events or publishing that extend well beyond what member dues alone can support. I do get that many associations turn a profit off events and/or publications, but ostensibly the more money an association can generate from those things, the better they can serve members and society. This model is also just part of the pay-it-forward of associations–I’m happy to share my knowledge and grateful to my peers who share theirs, so volunteering is part of that karmic give and take.
But vendors in the association space? That’s completely different. I’m picking on association vendors for two reasons: one, because associations are pretty much all I know and two, because I think that they may be particularly guilty of this practice, as volunteerism is such an accepted part of associations that I think vendors in that space might take for granted that it’s fine to adopt that model themselves even though they are for-profit businesses. While I get that association staff are association vendors’ clients and their companies’ best advocates, as well as experts in the issues/technologies that the products or services center around, to me there’s a kind of karmic imbalance in vendors who sell primarily to not-for-profit, mission-based organizations to then ask those same paying clients to provide free content for an event or blog or marketing piece. I get that many people–myself included–are flattered to be sought out as experts and asked to present at a vendor’s event or write an article for a vendor’s blog. Or maybe they’re enthusiastic about the opportunity to save registration fees for a user conference that their org didn’t have budget for so when the vendor offers complimentary registration in exchange for being a presenter, they jump at the chance, even when they/their org still has to pay for travel, hotel and food, not to mention the time that goes into preparing the presentation, rehearsing, etc.
A free registration is great, but honestly, what it comes down to is asking association staffers to work for free. Whether it’s writing an article, presenting at a conference or staring in that video testimonial, it’s asking people to provide something for free in order to either directly generate revenue (events) or be part of the marketing funnel (content) that powers sales. So, wanting something of value for free. Do these same vendors give their products/services away for free? Or even registration to their events for free? As a small-staff association person, I sure wish they did…but, nope. So how is it, then, that it’s ok to expect paying clients or other association staffers give their time and expertise up for free–especially if you then turn around and profit off that free work?
If you’re a vendor in the association space planning your next event and looking to tap clients as presenters, or whose business practices center around asking association staff to write content for your website or blog for free, here are a few things I humbly ask you to consider:
- People who work for associations–especially small staff associations–are tapped out. They’re likely wearing multiple hats, serving multiple functions, most likely for not-great pay. They do it because they believe in their organization’s mission or want to do good in general, not because they get a bonus if sales are up or stock options. While consultants benefit from exposure presenting at your event, association staff aren’t looking for leads or business…they’re there providing free content for your event or site. Period. What are you prepared to give back in return? A discount on your product or service? A donation to their organization’s foundation? I know you don’t give your products away for free so isn’t it only fair that you don’t expect people to give their time and expertise to you for free? Especially when those very people are employed by clients.
- Many/most association professionals probably have very limited professional development and/or travel budgets, if they have those at all. When you ask them to present at your user conference, you’re often asking them to pay their own travel and hotel fees, which means that they then lose out on using those for their already limited professional development opportunities. If you’re asking association staff to present at your event, please at least pay for their travel and/or hotel. Isn’t that the least you can do for the people providing the content for your event…for free?
- Those slides you want them to prepare, in addition to paying their own way to travel to and present at your event? That’s more free work you’re asking them to do. Ditto a blog post about their presentation or other marketing collateral. Sure, attendees benefit from these presentations, but the people who already have full-time jobs at associations are either using time they should be spending on their day job or their own personal time preparing those PowerPoints you want created to your specifications and around your deadlines. If you’re going to require slides, how about having your team collect the content from speakers and prepare the slides at your company’s expense, rather than on volunteer speakers’ own time or their org’s time?
- Association staff provided content for your event, submitted PowerPoints to your specifications and in accordance with your timeframe, and your event was great. Did you thank presenters? Most associations understand the value of a simple “thank you,” especially in exchange for volunteer work. Vendors, in my experience–not so much. Some are great about it, but others don’t send so much as a thank you email, let alone a note. One major association technology vendor at whose user conference I recently presented not only never thanked me, but wouldn’t even give me a bag at registration, or a program! The person at registration literally said to me, “oh, you’re a speaker…all you get is this lanyard.” If I ever treated a member like that at my org’s event–let alone a speaker–you can be sure I’d hear about it and potentially lose my job over it. If you’re not thanking volunteers who provide the content at your user conference, please do better next time.
- Content isn’t free. If you use freelance writers, you know that good content costs money…often, a lot of money. Going rates among freelancers I informally surveyed average around $1 per word, give or take. They don’t work for free, or for “exposure”–in this day and age of LinkedIn Pulse, Medium, blogs and just the internet, “exposure” isn’t really a thing, especially if you’re an association staffer and not a consultant. If you want good content–or just content, period–for your website, blog, ebook, etc, please pay for it, or offer something of value in return for that free work. Or reach out to bloggers who have already published content on their own sites and ask if you can syndicate that content with attribution…that way, everyone wins.
Don’t get me wrong–I love (most of) my association vendor peeps and don’t think anyone is trying to exploit anyone on purpose. But seriously, just as you don’t give your products/services away for free, please stop looking to the association community for free content and labor.