By Alice Martin
“What would I do without my MLS?” Many association AEs—from large and small boards—who rely on MLS income to support other association activities are mulling this uncomfortable thought.
Whether you believe your MLS may disappear based on MLS consolidation trends, or you want to be proactive and lower your MLS income-dependence for tax or other business purposes, weaning your association away from MLS reliance is a good, timely idea. Here are some basic steps you can start with today.
STEP 1: Admit your dependence
Come to terms with the fact that an association and a multiple listing service are not one and the same. If members calling the association (not the MLS) office hear, “Good morning, MLS office?” it’s time to start retraining yourself. Embrace—don’t fight—change!
STEP 2: Compare your services with member needs
If the MLS has long been considered the main association membership benefit, then perhaps your members don’t know what else you offer. Perhaps even the number and quality of your association offerings has diminished because members only seem interested in the MLS.
The only way to jump this hurdle is with facts. Surveys, focus groups, and internal assessments—with the help of an objective outside consultant, if necessary—will help you uncover what, other than the MLS, your members need. Compare your survey results to what you’re currently offering and you may be able to eliminate or reduce some expensive programs that won’t even be missed.
STEP 3: Learn from those who have gone before
Many associations have made this step and decreased their over-reliance on MLS income to support their association activities. There are nearly 1,400 REALTOR® associations and only about 800 MLSs, so clearly, there is life without an MLS.
Here’s what some have done to not only offset the loss of MLS income, but also promote association value.
Keep overhead as low as possible without lowering standard of services. For example, consider flexible work schedules for staff that may reduce their hours slightly; save energy by keeping heat and AC at a set temperature, and by turning off lights and computers not in use; consider moving to a smaller office space or even becoming a virtual association (with all work-from-home staff).
Promote the resources you bring to members that are created for you by the state and NAR, such as the wealth of information found on REALTOR.org, through state legal or technology hotlines, and in REALTOR® Magazine.
Focus on core services. Streamline your offerings to programs or services that directly benefit members’ bottom line. When you have valuable services, it’s a lot easier to justify a higher dues amount.
Replace MLS income with education income. Offer only the most timely and relevant classes and something new at least once or twice a year. Call upon local industry experts to volunteer their expertise in frequent, short mini-seminars that relate to current market topics. Provide broker-only sessions and networking (costs covered by a sponsor) to cover management-level issues and idea sharing.
Increase your member outreach. Personally visit firms to share key messages about relevant (non-MLS) services and listen to what members think works or doesn’t work. It’s important to get brokers excited about what the association offers so that they’ll pass along that enthusiasm to agents. A social networking strategy can help you reach out to younger members using free platforms, such as -Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Partner and share with other associations. Your strength may be another’s weakness. There are dozens of ways to save money and boost services by sharing staff and financial support for events and services with other associations. Talk about it and think BIG. (For ideas and advice, see NAR’s Field Guide to Association Shared Services, at REALTOR.org
Develop a leadership training program or academy and promote it as a member service that helps REALTORS® become more successful business professionals and community leaders. This not only helps you find new leaders, but also can serve as a focus group to provide some fresh ideas for relevant services.
Give back to your community. REALTORS® do more than sell homes, they build communities. Boost the public image of your association, and members’ pride will grow. Don’t just get involved in charity events, fund-raisers, and other causes; tell the media all about it.
Expand the association’s influence in legislative initiatives and rule making, which will work to maintain a good quality of life and a real estate-friendly environment. Remember, “all real estate is local.” Capitalize on that idea for your association’s focus.
Expand your association membership. Open up affiliated or allied member categories to gain a new income stream, establish a pool of potential program and event sponsors, and build new relationships throughout your community and other branches of the real estate industry.
Rework your marketing and communication efforts to distinguish the association from the MLS. In the event that your MLS does dissolve one day, work now to ensure that members don’t think that means your association has gone away, too. Create separate and distinguishable logos and branding for your association, and have separate e-newsletters and Web sites. Create, post, and distribute documents that clearly list the benefits of association member-ship versus the benefits of MLS membership.
Much of the advice offered here isn’t new, but it can be easy to lose focus on the original intent of associations: to offer services to members that help them succeed.
Thanks to the following association executives who shared their thoughts for this article: Kathleen A. Sweeten, RCE, Jane G. Forth, RCE, and Pat Jacobs.
Do you have a question on association management, association leadership, or any other AE issue? Feel free to send it to Alice Martin at email@example.com. All correspondence is private, but your question may prompt a column in REALTOR® AE.
Alice Martin, RCE, CAE, GRI,
is vice president of Association Leadership Development with the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. Contact her at 312-329-8320 or firstname.lastname@example.org.