The District government's campaign to attract and keep associations inside the city limits may need more than advertising brochures to retain some area associations.

The campaign, "Washington Is Association Business," has pleased some Washington associations because it has given them the chance to express their needs to city officials.

"The program is evidence that the District government is finally recognizing that associations are a powerful force in town," an association spokesman said.

"Associations have a very high visibility within the mayor's current economic development program right now," said Dave Smith, a spokesman for the marketing program.

But the new effort may not be enough to stop the slow exodus of associations to the surrounding suburbs. Association Trends magazine reports that between 1981 and 1985, the District lost 100 associations either already in the city or considering relocating there. Only 35 new associations moved to the District during that time. According to industry statistics, 1,113 associations had headquarters in the District in 1985.

According to Steve Carey, executive vice president of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives, high rent in the District and the availability of less expensive space in the suburbs are the main reasons associations relocate. "Across the river there are town houses that are cheaper," Carey said. "Association boards of directors are interested in building equity, after all. Who wants to throw money down the drain in rent?" he said.

R. William Taylor, president of the American Society of Association Executives, agreed, adding that before the District began its marketing campaign, he never knew where to send groups that requested information about the city. "Up until now there was no one to court the District," said Taylor. "I could send them to the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce or the Chamber of Commerce in Reston, but I didn't know where to send them in the District."Others agree that the District has much to offer but never before made the effort to market it.

Yet, across the Potomac, Alexandria has been working fervently for the past four years to attract associations and other businesses to its quaint environs, using the slogan, "Who needs a Washington address when you can enjoy the pleasures of Alexandria, Virginia?"

The Alexandria economic development office has attracted more than 103 associations in the past four years, said Richard M. Flaherty, director of economic development for the Alexandria Chamber.

Association and Society Manager magazine, published in Los Angeles, even touted Alexandria as an "Association Boomtown" -- in part because of the availability of Industrial Revenue Bonds. Alexandria offers associations tax-free bond loans to construct or purchase headquarters in the city if the groups agree to locate their national headquarters there.

The District offers glossy brochures and an 800 hotline/businessline for callers interested in relocating to the city.

"When we get a call on the hotline , we immediately put them in touch with other associations and development companies" already here, said Smith. "We want to remind the commercial development community why they associations are leaving the area.

"Hopefully, we can stem the tide of associations who think they have to leave the city to get space," he said. "They may think they have to buy entire office buildings, but there are lots of ways they can get ownership or equity in the city."

Some associations have, indeed, found solutions to the high-rent problem in the District, such as purchasing space in a large building or town house. The Greater Washington Society of Association Executives recently bought into a 4,000-square-foot town house on Dupont Circle and is renting extra space to other associations. The District offers loans through its own Industrial Revenue Bonds program, but GWSAE found that it required too much money down. Another alternative for associations has been to lease land from the District and build their own facility. The American Institute for Aeronautics has signed a joint development contract to build a 350,000-square-foot facility adjacent to L'Enfant Plaza. The project is slated to be finished in 1987, bringing about 100 association jobs from New York to the District.

One group that has moved to the District recently is the Eye Bank Association of America. Members of the group chose the District as its headquarters because it is "more prestigious." The four-member staff also found the rents in the District comparable to those in Alexandria for a small association, according to Tom Moore, association president. "I can walk across the street to the Capitol, and we are only a few blocks from the metro," he said. The EBAA has 88 member eye banks from 41 states, Puerto Rico and Canada.