How Trade Associations Stay Optimistic

Despite plenty of uncertainty, a new survey says trade-group execs remain positive, thanks to efforts to move beyond advocacy.

These might be complicated times domestically and globally, but trade associations feel like they’re well-equipped to handle them. The 2024 Trade Association Executive Survey, released last month and produced by Potomac Core Association Consulting with Edge Research and Vetted Solutions, found that a majority of trade-association CEOs (57 percent) rate their organization’s situation as “better,” with another 32 percent saying it’s about the same as in the past.

Moreover, nearly half of the respondents (49 percent) say they believe membership will grow in the coming year, and 57 percent say they anticipate revenue to increase. The report is based on an online survey of 146 trade association executives, conducted between February and May of this year.

Potomac Core president and CEO Daniel A. Varroney credits the good feelings to trade associations recognizing their need to work beyond their traditional role of industry advocacy. “Trade associations have stepped up and become strategic partners with the industries that they’re serving,” he said. “The forward-leaning trade associations, and there are quite a number of them, have done a great job of reacting to global uncertainty and policy uncertainty.”

Trade associations have stepped up and become strategic partners with the industries that they’re serving.

Daniel A. Varroney, Potomac Core President and CEO

Trade associations’ more robust activities include generating public awareness of their industry, education, research, and workforce development. But though these associations might be broadening their scope of work, they recognize that there is still plenty of work to do. For instance, while 82 percent of respondents say that being a “top resource for information, updates, and trend reports” is an extremely or very important quality in an association, only 68 percent of them say they do an extremely or very good job of delivering it. Public awareness presents a similar challenge: 75 percent of CEOs say it’s important, but only 45 percent say they’re delivering. 

Varroney says that those numbers don’t suggest trades are falling short so much as offer evidence that they’re trying to step up. “While some may say these are gaps, I think these are viewed as opportunities to evolve and really meet the moment,” he says. “When CEOs say things like this about themselves, there’s a recognition that they’re not just going to just keep up anymore. They’re going to get ahead of the curve.”

There’s some evidence of that effort around AI: Nearly two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) say they are currently researching or updating best practices around AI strategy for members. And nearly all executives are exploring diversifying revenue streams, with some of the most popular avenues being refining the overall value proposition, sponsorships, and expanding the criteria for membership. 

Varroney notes that while CEOs in the survey weren’t openly expressing concerns about an economic downturn, they recognized that their members are facing more financial challenges due to inflation and other rising costs, and that they expect trade associations to do more to help. To a sizable extent, Varroney says, they’re getting the message.

“What’s driving this activity is increasingly high expectations by industry leaders and board members,” he says. “They say, ‘We are going through disruption and we are leading our businesses through it. We want our strategic partner trade associations to lead with us, and we want them to be as flexible, as adaptive as we are.’”

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