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Sep 18 2010

A Guide to the Association Market in China

The following article below appeared in the September 2010 issue of ASAE’s Global Link e-newsletter.

What does it take to build membership and raise an association’s visibility in China? What are the elements to consider in building a business plan on growing an association in China?

These questions can only be answered by considering the type of association or professional industry involved. First and foremost, there has to be a clear understanding about the objectives motivating the access to China’s community. On the Chinese local market, building visibility through various marketing and communications channels and conducting events such as conferences and training programs are considered key elements to building a community. On the other hand, membership is not considered a credential, although credentials are perceived as key incentives for the Chinese community.

Considering future trends, the asset of membership will most likely lose its importance; national trends highlight that the local market values the product line or package offered by associations or professional industries. The emphasis on product package shows how important it is to be a knowledge provider in China.

Government relations must be considered as an important aspect of the association’s business plan, and if associations have ready-to-use standards that can be applied to the national market, this will be of value for the association’s future development. Considering this, the business plan should also be about how to leverage the standards.

How is Certification Perceived in China?

Advocacy and outreach policies should be used to raise awareness on the importance and value of certification. National companies support certification programs in China as they want to be considered as global players and are looking for ways to get accepted by the international community.

International associations should keeping in mind that local positioning in China is key. The objective is to differentiate your association from the competition while remaining within national standards.

Key elements for a business plan should include developing, localizing, and distributing certifications and publications and organizing events. Events should include training programs and networking opportunities in the case of professional associations. Other marketing considerations may be web-based trainings, webinars, and virtual education. Overall, marketing and communication activities are crucial, keeping in mind the importance of translation issues, which have to be budgeted beforehand.

Are Chinese Product Buyers by Tradition?

Traditionally yes. Facts show that certain types of products can influence Chinese nationals. This leaves an open market slot for products from professional industries or associations. From a cultural perspective, Chinese value products that offer immediate returns like promotions or recognition. Their strong sense of pride in achievements can be triggered with highlighting the value of credentials. Furthermore, Chinese companies want to play on a global scale.

In the past, what types of products have sold well or have not sold well in the Chinese market?

Types of products that haven’t done so well in the Chinese market include:

  • Membership and affinity products that are perceived by nationals as generating extra costs without additional value to them;
  • Products with poor language conversion, as their Chinese translation may be perceived negatively or have a funny connotation;
  • Products where the company’s ownership is questioned.

Types of products that have done well include:

  • Product lines that trigger professional recognition (e.g. certification holder being a tangible reference towards others);
  • Products that enjoy a proper name conversion;
  • Products perceived as popular or part of luxury brands;
  • Products that imply networking events with intelligent global leaders.

What types of cultural characteristics need to be taken into consideration when dealing with potential Chinese buyers?

  • Age: younger generations prioritize virtual experiences (importance of internet-based tools);
  • Price;
  • Career development (they want companies to pay for their education);
  • Short-term goals preferred over long-term goals;
  • Products that will help buyers receive a quick raise.

How to Find a Target Market

Conducting market research and surveys will help to properly identify target audiences. Another important factor to be considered is the affordability or purchase power of targeted audiences (there is no value at targeting a specific audience for a specific product if the product represents their three-month salary). Also, word of mouth is very popular in China, so focus should be put on peer recognition of your value.

Web-based strategies are incredibly important and work more effectively than traditional advertisement. The only issue with this is the necessary adaptation to national providers (such as Facebook, Twitter, and so forth) that are submitted to a certain form of censorship by national authorities.

What are the Demographics for Potential Buyers?

Potential buyers are those who invest in their professional development and those who are career minded. By analyzing an association’s membership, men represent their main contributor as opposed to women, who have a different perception of memberships. In the actual market, associations are perceived mainly as knowledge providers focusing on professionals, who are mainly men, when considering national demographics.

How Do We Reach Potential Buyers and What Factors May Aid Their Decision Thinking?

  • Bottom-up and top-down endorsements are needed.
  • Local human resource departments will not proactively support associations unless endorsed by a general manager.
  • Management needs to see the value of the training.
  • Web-based products like e-newsletters, webinars, social and networking platforms (Twitter, Facebook), mobile channels, or other cyber-related activities work well.

What Else Must an Association Consider Before Entering China?

  • Neutral profit or profit making. If profit making, what is your revenue model?
  • Identify your association’s value to the Chinese market. Your association may be a top service and product provider, but is there a need or a market for your products?
  • Environmental scan:
    • Risk analysis. Understand external environment factors (such as politics).
    • Legal and finance implications. Understand your legal implications and get the right legal information.
    • Market readiness. Is it the right time to enter the Chinese market? Are there current qualifications of professionals in your field of activity? Do they recognise your association’s products?
    • Competition analysis. Who are your competitors on the national market? Is there any product in this marketplace that can replace your offering?
    • Government relations. Map out this community, which will be different for each industry or profession.
  • Sustainability. What are you going to do long term? How will you highlight toward your Chinese target audiences in your long-term commitment?
  • Localization. Articulate the appropriate service model, product, and customization, thus implying translation and tailor-made products to adapt to local market characteristics.
  • Language barrier. How and how often do you communicate?
  • Pricing model. Consider affordability. Should you use the $10 model or $1,000 membership fee?
  • Technology. How do you manage your entire database and deliver your products? When relying on web-based tools, what would be your positioning to articulate your brand recognition? Keep in mind that your potential target audiences have a different internet culture—some groups may not deal with multi-lingual information (hints the importance of translations). Also to be considered are different internet privacy issues. Considering all these aspects, how can your association get in touch with everyone?
  • Centralized or decentralized decision-making. Can you decentralize activities to a local partner or does everything has to be controlled via the headquarters in the United States?
  • Professional talent. Working components have to be considered (indirect or direct work with or for the association).

About the author

Peter Turner

As MCI's Senior Advisor, Global Development Strategy, I help associations build and execute global growth strategies. Over the past 30 years I have served three associations (ASAE, MPI and IEEE Computer Society) as a leader of business, product and partnership development.

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