Trade Media vs. Association Advertising: Which Is Better for Your Advertising Dollars?

Your marketing budget is finite. When evaluating spending it on trade media versus association advertising programs, consider these five factors.

In a volatile economic climate, every advertising dollar counts. Although marketing budgets saw a modest uptick in 2022, according to Gartner (averaging 9.5% of total company revenues), those same budgets are recovering from historic lows and still have quite a ways to go before returning to pre-pandemic levels.


Further, that recovery may be delayed by belt-tightening in the face of a potential recession. Even so, slashing marketing budgets could be a strategic blunder.


As Harvard Business Review reports, “When most firms are cutting back on their brand advertising, a firm’s share of voice increases if it can maintain or increase its advertising budget.” The article points to research finding companies that maintain or increase their marketing budgets in challenging economic environments are most likely to bounce back strongly.


That’s not to say that companies should not examine their marketing budgets closely in the face of market volatility and economic uncertainty, however. In such an environment, evaluating strategies to maximize marketing ROI is essential.


When planning your company’s marketing strategy, two traditional B2B brand advertising avenues are trade media and association advertising. But which is a better destination for your finite marketing budget?


Follow along as we examine the pros and cons of trade media versus association advertising along five criteria so you can determine the channel that best aligns with your company’s marketing objectives.


Criteria No. 1: Reach & frequency

Is market saturation an essential component of your strategy?


Association membership rolls and trade media subscription databases may be similar in terms of sheer audience size (though variable by industry and organization). However, trade media outlets generally offer greater frequency, meaning they have more touch points with their audience.


Trade media tends to have a narrow mission as an information provider relied upon for their newsrooms and editorial features. Therefore, trade media outlets will typically have larger editorial teams than an association, which gives them greater capacity to generate content for their audience. In contrast, associations often have a more expansive mission that is likely to include advocacy, professional development, networking, and member communications.


While many trade media outlets will deploy one or more daily digital newsletters to their audience, most associations just don’t have the internal resources to produce as much content as trade publishers.


Verdict: Trade media and associations may be similar in terms of the sheer size of their respective universe, but trade media generally offer greater frequency with their audience and, therefore, broader exposure for advertisers.

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Criteria No. 2: Targeting

Is targeting a specific niche or demographic a primary driver of your marketing success?


If you are trying to target a specific segment within your industry, it’s helpful to understand that the targeting capabilities of most trade media outlets are limited. Many don’t offer segmentation targeting. And among those that do, their capabilities are usually inference-based, meaning that they are driven by audience members’ content consumption patterns.


If, for example, an audience member read two or three articles about widget materials and production within the past 90 days, a trade media outlet will often assume that the reader is interested in widget manufacturing as opposed to, say, widget sales or widget distribution. Trade publishers with such tracking capabilities may combine this behavioral data with any available information gleaned from subscription forms to offer display ad targeting campaigns. This practice can be a valuable solution for companies wanting to market to readers interested in targeting a specific segment.


On the other hand, associations have a more expansive mission and are likely to be involved in more aspects of their members’ professional lives. Because of the connections associations maintain with their members, their understanding of member needs, interests, and demographics will be deeper and more likely based on first-hand knowledge rather than inference.


Associations may organize members into committees, sub-groups, or networking groups. Some associations even have conferences and networking events dedicated to specific segments within their overall membership. If an association advocates for a particular segment of its membership, for example, it will likely know which of its members make up this segment.


While trade media may have the upper hand with volume or reach, associations are more likely to be able to narrowly target member segments.


Verdict: Because of their relationships with members, associations generally have deeper segmentation capabilities, which, depending on the association, can often translate into more targeted advertising programs.


Criteria No. 3: Engagement

Is your brand simply looking for exposure, or is direct engagement with prospective customers critical to your success?


Because of their status as nonprofits, associations frequently offer volunteer opportunities for sponsors. In turn, associations can leverage the sponsors’ knowledgeable viewpoints and expertise to strengthen the association and benefit members. Not every association is the same, of course, but many welcome staff from sponsoring companies to join internal committees or contribute to the organization in other ways.


There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but, in general, trade media outlets do not foster the same level of community interaction as associations. Further, if engagement is important to your company, consider how active association members are relative to trade media subscribers.


Most trade publishers require an opt-in to add a reader to a subscription list or email database. Such a one-time opted-in subscriber is likely to be less engaged than an association member. Why? Because association members actively participate in networking activities, attend events, and generally rely on their membership for continuing education and professional development.


Of course, it’s possible that a member exposed to your marketing message through an association sponsorship program is the identical subscriber who would see your messaging in a trade publisher’s media channel. That said, readers of trade media tend to be passive consumers of information, whereas they are more likely to be actively engaged in an association’s ecosystem. As such, they may be more responsive to your marketing efforts within the context of their association involvement.


Verdict: Association sponsorship and advertising programs tend to offer more community participation for sponsors looking to interact directly with prospective customers.


Criteria No. 4: Thought leadership

Is it important to your brand to be perceived as a thought leader?


By virtue of their organizational mission, associations often take on the role of the “voice of the industry.” After all, an association is involved in legislative activity, generating industry reports, establishing and maintaining professional standards, and much more.


Trade media organizations, if they have independent newsrooms offering credible and authoritative reporting, are also viewed as authorities within their respective industries, but usually not at the same level as associations.


Whereas trade media’s role is to follow and report on events and trends within an industry, associations can actually influence an entire industry and the external forces shaping that industry. For this reason, associations generally enjoy a higher status as trusted leaders and authorities within the industries they serve.


Further, advertising with an association tends to offer greater brand alignment for two reasons:


  • Association sponsorship programs tend to foster more brand affinity. Through associations, your brand can interact more with the member community, as opposed to trade publishers’ passive display advertising programs.
  • Because trade media publishers are so reliant on advertising revenue, they tend to have more advertisers, making the competition for “share of voice” greater. Though associations also rely on ad revenue, an association’s ecosystem is often less saturated, making your brand more likely to stand out.

Verdict: Aligning your brand with a professional association may offer enhanced brand alignment and greater thought-leadership opportunities than trade media publishers.


Criteria No. 5: Lead generation

Does your company rely on qualified leads for business development?


Lead generation is essential for B2B marketers reliant on a steady stream of warm, intent-based leads to drive business growth. In fact, according to a Hubspot survey of more than 1,500 marketers, lead generation is the top priority. Most companies are likely to turn to trade media to meet their lead generation needs, and for good reason.


Trade publishers must rely on other sources of revenue to make up for the shortfall in print advertising that began more than a decade ago. One of those revenue sources is lead generation. As a result, trade media publishers have been offering lead-generation programs for longer than associations and may offer more mature program options for advertisers.


In contrast, association lead generation is traditionally a face-to-face activity taking place at associations’ in-person events. The most common scenario is an event sponsor rents exhibit hall booth space, collects business cards, and then follows up on those leads in the days and weeks after the event.


Companies have been willing to invest large sums in event sponsorship programs because, among other things, association leads are often very good leads. After all, association members tend to be actively engaged professionals interested in career development and receptive to the solutions that sponsors have to offer.


However, with the decline in business travel that began with COVID-19, in-person association events are limited and attract fewer attendees. But even before COVID, a once-yearly conference was unlikely to fulfill the needs of a company requiring leads on an ongoing basis.


To meet the needs of their sponsors, some associations are launching innovative digital lead generation campaigns that are quite effective because they target actively engaged members and rely on content to serve members’ informational needs.


Verdict: This one’s a bit of a draw. Companies may be more likely to find lead gen programs from the trade media outlets within their industry. If, however, an association in your industry offers a strategic lead gen solution, take a close look because the quality of the leads may be higher.

So which is better — trade media or associations?

When determining the best way to spend your marketing dollars — trade media advertising or an association sponsorship program — there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It ultimately depends on the goals and objectives of your marketing strategy.


Though trade media publishers may offer greater reach, higher frequency, and ultimately more exposure, associations may be the best solution for your brand if thought leadership, engagement, and lead generation are essential for your success.


How Lead Marvels can maximize association advertising ROI

Hopefully, this breakdown proves helpful as you plan your marketing strategy. If, upon further analysis, you determine association advertising is the best marketing channel for your brand, Lead Marvels’ Resource Library program can be an effective way to maximize your ROI and drive business growth.


At Lead Marvels, we partner with professional associations to build online Resource Libraries that allow companies to promote their thought leadership materials, such as white papers, ebooks, on-demand webinars, guides, and reports. When an association member registers to download a resource, they become a business lead for the company that provided the resource.


Further, there are no up-front costs for companies that promote their content within an association Resource Library ecosystem. Companies only pay for qualified leads as they come in — an important consideration for businesses looking to increase the efficiency of their marketing dollars.


For more information about this program, schedule a free demo from one of our lead generation experts.

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