A model for membership: What associations must do to meet the challenge of change

by Jason Porterfield

A model for membership: What associations must do to meet the challenge of change

Realtor membership represents one of the few support systems available to agents and brokers that’s focused on keeping real estate professionals at the center of the transaction. In addition to industry advocacy, members often count on access to numerous perks such as discounts, networking events and business tools.

But associations can also seem unwieldy from the outside. No matter their size, these organizations often have to fight the perception that the voices of individual agents go unheard. Their decadeslong histories may make them seem stale compared to market disruptors. Agents might question membership fees and associated expenses when they look at their individual budgets, particularly when companies like Zillow purport to offer some of the same services, sometimes at lower costs.

Associations still provide many of the same services they’ve always offered to agents and brokers. Now, however, many feel called to help real estate professionals remain relevant in a marketplace in which they have to deal with competing, non-traditional business models that aren’t restrained by old ways of doing things.

Just as real estate professionals have had to adapt to new market forces, so, too, do associations, according to Michelle Mills Clement, CEO of the Chicago Association of Realtors. “A lot of people are looking to learn more ways to be effective in their business, and we’ve tried to answer that call by being a little bit more innovative,” she said.

Communication challenges with a growing base

According to its most recent report, the National Association of Realtors recently surpassed the membership numbers tallied at the height of the housing expansion in 2006, when they counted 1,357,732 among their ranks. Growing membership is a double-edged sword, however. While more dues dollars equates to larger budgets, that also means putting in more work to remain engaged with all those people.

Bob Goldberg, chief executive officer of NAR, said his organization is constantly working to improve lines of communication so that he and his board can understand the mindset of members. When he became CEO two years ago, Goldberg implemented an outreach program to strengthen those ties with members and increase engagement.

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“I created a team whose only job is member engagement: to go out and make sure that they are talking, engaging, showing up at meetings and doing a lot of face-to-face things that I think a lot of associations over the years have lost the ability to do,” he said. “We have [nearly] 1.4 million members, so it’s a big task to go out and really get in front of people.”

At the national level, the organization also has to stay in touch with smaller associations that make up the three-way agreement of local, state and national groups. Goldberg saw a gap there as well and instituted a plan to keep staff involved in what’s happening across the country. “I assign two or more of our senior executives and our vice presidents to each of our respective 13 regions around the country,” Goldberg said. “They have responsibility for going out and ensuring member outreach.”

Goldberg’s efforts appear to be working. Membership numbers remain strong for what he refers to as the largest trade association in the country. However, these figures do tend to follow the market, and recently the market has been pretty positive for real estate. In 2012, during the height of the housing crisis, membership dipped below the 1 million mark. While the recession that some economists are bracing for isn’t expected to have as close of a tie with the real estate industry as the last one did, any economic downturn could cause members to reconsider their business expenses, and dues dollars certainly aren’t immune to that.

Demonstrating value

At the moment, however, associations seem focused on bringing new members in. Steve Volkodav, CEO of the North Shore-Barrington Association of Realtors, says it’s up to him to show prospective members the value of joining his association.

“The first thing that they’re looking for is value,” Volkodav said of his association’s approximately 4,000 members. “They’re being asked to join the association, so it’s about educating them on what the association does. Then they’re wondering, what are they going to get for their money? Now, it’s the responsibility of the North Shore-Barrington Association to prove our value and the value of the products and services we deliver to them.”

Local associations have long been charged with offering continuing education. Clement — who, similar to Goldberg, is relatively new to the job, having been hired by the association in early 2018 — has made it her mission to show value through increased educational opportunities. “We’ve really enhanced our educational tools,” she said, noting that the association has recently developed more than 15 new classes that have been licensed for continuing education credit. “We consider our Realtors’ real estate school to be on the forefront of education. We have instructors who are subject matter experts [and] are still practicing in the industry, and we think that makes a difference. They’re able to bring in real-world experiences.”

An association’s focus on education is often two-pronged, as an effort both to maintain professionalism among the ranks and to help fill the many gaps that exist between licensing classes and the actual practice of real estate. A 2018 survey by NAR found that 29 percent of its members had less than two years of experience in the field. CAR has recently been exploring new ways to tackle the educational needs of new agents, and has found that group to be receptive.

“This year alone, we launched our first [Young Professionals Network] Boot Camp. That covered simple things like building a business plan, budgeting and that kind of stuff,” Clement said, noting that after the initial event sold out, the association started offering it as a regular workshop. “That really helped train Realtors to set themselves up to run a business.”

Overall, Goldberg noted that with business-minded members, it’s important to demonstrate a clear return on the investment of dues dollars. “For us, it’s all about: How do we make our members more profitable?” he said. “How do we help improve their ROI?”

Hearing members’ voices — the positive and the negative

Keeping every member of an association happy at all times is an impossible task. But that doesn’t mean member complaints go unheard.

Goldberg appreciates it when members make their dissatisfaction known. “I love it when members love what we do,” Goldberg said. “I love it when members don’t like what we do, because at least they’re engaged.”

He regularly communicates with Realtors on social media and personally responds to nearly everyone who contacts him within three or four days, whether through email, texts, calls or social media platforms like LinkedIn.

“I feel it’s our obligation as an association,” Goldberg said. “I’ve made the same request of my staff: Get engaged in social media. … We’re here to be stewards for our members. We’re their association. Our job as key staff is to be out there, listen to what our members say and help answer their questions.”

While robust social media is still important at the local level, being on the ground means managing in-person feedback must remain a top priority. “We add that little extra personal service,” Volkodav said. “Automated solutions in today’s day and age are not working for the consumer and especially not for our members. Our members are paying a membership fee and are asking and demanding that we help them.”

Chicago’s association takes a similar tack in continuing to keep traditional lines of communication open. In 2018, CAR’s Member Care team answered 52,000 calls, and the association makes an effort to meet with agents and brokers regularly. Last year, representatives from CAR visited 2,800 offices in every part of the city. While a massive effort, Clement said she sees it as an opportunity to learn what they need to improve.

“Our members are very engaged. We have over 16,000 members, and sometimes we hear from all of them,” she joked. “This really ensures that we’re using our resources in the most impactful way. We’re fortunate. We do have a very involved local, and they’re very vocal in keeping us on the right track.”

Volkodav takes pride in the personal touch his staff provides when responding to members. “I always tell them if they have to spend another 15 or 20 minutes, don’t worry about it,” Volkodav said, noting that calls are connected as promptly as possible and email messages and texts are typically returned by the end of the day. “I’ll either pay them overtime, or we’ll work it out the next day so that they’re here for our members.”

As Realtor associations grow in numbers, they’re also becoming more diverse. While it can be difficult to serve many different populations of business professionals, Clement sees this change as an overall win for the industry, and noted that CAR has worked hard to echo this diversity at its highest levels.

“That’s not just across racial lines or demographic lines,” Clement said. “It’s across the industry as a whole. We have small businesses, large businesses, people from different parts of the country, YPN, global, commercial members. We really cultivate leaders that represent diversity of thought. And I’ve had people come up to me directly and say the reason they joined CAR is that we represent truly who they are. We represent everybody.”

Adapting to new challenges

Technology is constantly changing the face of real estate and how agents connect with their clients. From the advent of market disruptors such as Zillow and Redfin to the rise of the smartphone, agents constantly have to be aware of new technology, tools and tactics.

Associations sometimes respond to these changing dynamics in the marketplace by investing in suites of tools that are intended to make members more competitive.

But developing new technology is expensive and risky. The process is time-consuming, and there’s a strong possibility that the end result will be disappointing. The tech might be too hard to use, it may not solve the problem it was developed to address or something better might already be on the market, leaving agents to wonder why their dues dollars should go toward creating such tools.

In the past, the NAR often dedicated its resources to developing technology, such as the Realtors Property Resource program, in-house. Goldberg has shifted the focus to partnerships with outside companies, most notably ending the association’s involvement in the Upstream data management project last December. NAR has created member insight panels to help companies develop useful tech tools with the particular needs of real estate professionals in mind.

“We have a lot of partnerships with companies that we don’t have an equity investment in, and we also have companies where we do have, in some cases, have a very small equity position,” Goldberg said. “It allows us to help influence all that’s being done so that we can put a lot more arrows in the quiver of providing benefits to our members.”

In terms of its approach to handling disruption, CAR’s focus remains on education and preparing agents and brokers to face challenges presented by outsiders head-on. “We hit hard on education,” Clement said. “That really helps us ensure our members are learning new skills to keep them competitive as the market evolves.”

While some may be tempted to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to possible agent disintermediation, Volkodav encourages members to learn about potential disruptors and to use that knowledge to expand their own business.

“Disruptive factors have been part of the marketplace for a very long time,” Volkodav said. “There are always new business models, and that’ll continue to happen. My role and the role of the association is to educate the members on disruptor factors, to remind them of their Realtor value and where they are in the marketplace. A lot of times they’ll get a little off track, because they hear rumors. I remind them that this is a learning opportunity.”

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