by Paul Beakley
Affiliate outreach: associations offer their affiliate members more than just exclusive access to their membership.
At a recent Realtor expo in San Diego, the most popular booth didn't feature a title company or a mortgage brokerage; it featured a plastic surgeon. The showroom floor was lined with booths for jewelers, dentists, carpet cleaners--the list goes on. Only association members were permitted to exhibit, so how did such a far-flung assembly of businesses find themselves members of the San Diego Association of Realtors ?
"You have to start with the question of what an affiliate member is," answers Karl Hampton, executive officer of the Tulare County Association of Realtors in California's San Joaquin Valley. "Some associations think the term affiliate refers to Institute Affiliates or businesses with a direct connection to real estate. At other associations, that definition may be a bit broader."
Realtor associations of all sizes have long welcomed non-brokers and non-practitioners into their ranks as affiliate members. Usually, affiliates pay dues and in return get exclusive access to the general Realtor membership throughout the year. Affiliates often pick up some costs associated with newsletter printing, luncheons, social events, expositions, even installation banquets. Sometimes, they pay the entire tab. In return, affiliate member sponsors get to be first in line to shake hands with the salespeople and brokers.
At the Pensacola Association of Realtors , there's an "unwritten understanding that affiliates should in some way be related to either our members or the public they serve," explains Executive Officer Chuck Michaels. "We traditionally reach out to related industries such as carpet cleaners, termite folks, and title companies, and bring them into the Realtor family. But," he adds, "we wouldn't refuse a wider definition, because we could probably establish a link for almost any business."
More recently, many associations have broadened their definition of affiliate. "If a business sees us as a potential market and their purposes are legal, ethical, and moral, they can join our association," says Hampton. Despite this rather loose definition, the association still goes through an approval process for every potential affiliate member, he says.
The San Diego Association of Realtors also has a broad affiliate membership. Feng shui trainers, ionizing air-filter companies, dentists, and jewelers enjoy the same member benefits as furniture rental, carpet cleaner, and pest control companies. The only restriction is that the association's magazine will run only a select number of ads for each kind of business.
Some associations offer their affiliate members more than just exclusive access to their membership. The Santa Maria Association of Realtors on the central California coast hosts an affiliates' party around Christmas every year. For this party, Realtor members foot the bulk of the bill for dinner and presents. At the Prescott Association of Realtors in Arizona home inspector members can get lockbox keys for being a member. The Yakima Association of Realtors in Washington provides its members access to a very nice conference room for $50 per day, a nice break considering the $200 cost for a conference room at a nearby hotel. Many associations try to offer classes that will be of interest to some types of affiliates. For instance, the San Diego association recently offered a class about building codes that attracted building inspectors along with traditional Realtors .
"Other than putting their company names on the membership rosters, I don't think we offer nearly enough to our affiliates," says Jeanette Witham, executive officer of the Yakima association.
Affiliate membership generally grows on its own. Many association executives say word-of-mouth is effective enough. "Our members are our best recruiters," says Hampton. "We encourage our Realtor members to recruit every quarter, either through our newsletter or at our meetings. We also ask them to do business with affiliate members, and ask non-members to join at every opportunity."
In San Diego, the association has taken a more active role in bringing new affiliate members on board. The association has hired a full-time salesperson to work with the affiliate members on event sponsorship and advertising in the association's newsletter and magazine. "Having a full-time salesperson has made a big difference," says SDAR's Lorrie Mowat, director of communications. "Our magazine ad sales are so successful that I have to tell her to stop selling ads after 17 pages. If we get any complaints about our affiliate program, it's from members who don't like all the ads. But those ads pay for the printing of the magazine, which means we don't have to raise their membership dues."
Not all affiliate members need to be treated equally. In San Diego, a step above basic affiliate membership is a corporate membership, "which is like a super-charged affiliate," Mowat explains. Corporate members pay more but get "first-dibs" access to the membership. For example, at SDAR's bimonthly Orientation Fair, there is only room for eight affiliate members, and corporate members are offered those spaces first.
Although some associations see their affiliate membership program as an important non-dues revenue generator, other are just happy to receive additional revenues and to get their Realtor members good deals. But in addition, affiliates contribute time to association initiatives. At the Tulare association, for example, nearly all the committees comprise at least 50 percent affiliate members.
The only noted downside is that affiliate members sometimes want to be too involved. "We had to limit affiliate participation in our monthly caravan to just two," says Delight Bird, executive officer of the Santa Maria Association of Realtors .
Another way larger associations are improving service to a larger part of their membership is by providing more services to Realtor specialty groups, such as appraisers, commercial brokers, and property managers. Carole Umbel, specialties manager for the Virginia Association of Realtors , works exclusively to improve services to her specialist members. "We started working with our specialists 10 years ago," Umbel explains. "We started with our commercial and appraisal members, based on a survey of our membership. Since then, we've added residential property management, international, and relocation specialists."
In VAR's case, the association gets a small revenue boost, maybe an extra $40,000 per year in class fees out of a total annual budget of more than $2 million. Umbel says the real benefit is in the association's perceived value. "We don't market our specialist services outside the Realtor family. However, the members who felt their association didn't offer them anything became more positive with new specialty support. Our members felt more satisfied with the new services."
In the end, every association wants to offer the best level of service possible to the broadest range of their membership base. When modern Realtor associations include everyone from property managers to plastic surgeons, association executives have to work harder to make everyone happy, but, they say, the payoff is worth it.
Solicit Vendors for Affinity Programs
If local businesses aren't ready to become affiliate members, or don't qualify under your bylaws, look for other ways to include them in the association.
Partnership programs between associations and businesses can take a variety of forms.
In exchange for offering a discount to your members, vendors will appreciate access to membership marketing opportunities through magazine ads, membership mailing list rental, trade show booths, and event sponsorship. Use tools such as your Web site, newsletters, e-mail, and flyers to communicate affinity benefits to your members.
A committee of association staff or members can help you outline vendor criteria and review vendor applications. Consider reaching out to the vendors whose products and services are most relevant to members and their industry. Also consider the vendor's reputation among your members.
Benefits of Expanding Membership Categories
Although NAR only recognizes as affiliate members those practitioners who are members of NAR's institutes, societies, and councils, local associations can broaden the category to include whomever they choose.
AEs are actively reaching out to professionals in allied industries such as mortgage banking and home inspection to reap these rewards:
-- Increased dues revenue
-- Larger pool of volunteers
-- Valuable networking opportunities
-- Discounts on services and products for the association and its members
25% of associations offer affinity programs to members.
-- 2004 Local and State REALTOR Association Profile