Membership organizations are trusted and beloved middlemen. They convene people, connect resources, curate content, mediate conversations. Or at least they used to do. Things have changed.
For as long as we can remember, membership organizations were an exclusive mediator. They provided access to resources that were hard, often impossible, to find elsewhere. Information, services, political influence, and much more. This role as a must-have mediator cemented their importance in members’ lives. It was the primary reason members had to join, engage with, and pay dues to an organization. Even more, it was the fuel for most non-dues revenue – subscriptions, ad sales, royalties, and more. That is changing before our eyes.
To be honest, the change has happened already. Technology has multiplied options for what to view, buy and engage with. Today, choices overwhelm consumers. They face them in the palm of their hands, in every aspect of their lives that they can access. What has this meant for associations? And what are the leaders doing about it?
Democratization of content
Members historically looked to their associations first for unique, trustworthy content. 40% of membership organizations now report competitive sources of information as the biggest challenge to growing membership. This is not just Google, either. Businesses focused on curating high-quality content are working to take associations’ share. Sage Open, for example, provides open access to papers and contributors across a wise spectrum of social sciences.
Associations have long provided a professional home for members. They have been the primary conduit for connecting far-flung colleagues and helping them collaborate. Yet professionals most want to interact with others who share their specific interests. This is easier and more efficient online. LinkedIn and other platforms allow people to create, join, and interact with professional communities. In the medical field, Doximity offers a free, secure collaboration platform for physicians. It has amassed more members than the American Medical Association in a few short years. One can find dozens of vibrant LinkedIn groups catering to any given profession or interest area.
Marketplaces replace experts
Human experts like travel agents were largely supplanted years ago by sites like TripAdvisor. They have become a critical part of the consumer experience. An association’s endorsement pales in comparison to the influence of user reviews. The trend continues, as platforms from Uber to Etsy connect sellers to buyers. Users can evaluate options and choose for themselves, and now almost always prefer to do so.
There is always a sale somewhere
For years, affinity discount programs were an important benefit for members and a source of income for associations. Today, the number of accessible, uncomplicated online discounters are countless. Honey automatically applies the best discount code at checkout for hundreds of brands. No affinity program can compete with this or services like it. The affinity business model as a whole is increasingly in question. For more on this see: Affinity Offers: The End of the World as We Know It?
As in any market disruption, there are winners and losers. Some associations have embraced the change to succeed. The first step is accepting that your role as the valued mediator has already changed. It will change still more in the future. Then, ask the hard questions:
- Are others encroaching on your role and providing more value or a better experience?
- Are they undermining your traditional sources of revenue and member value?
- How can you pivot to bring unique value to your members despite, or by means of, new technologies and strategies?
Big market changes call for big organizational moves. The most forward-looking organizations have taken a range of responses. They are finding ways to deliver more and better value in the new, un-mediated world. Rethinking the member value proposition and positioning. Embracing the mission even more and in ever new ways. Tightening focus on the areas where they cannot be displaced. Even revamping the business model itself.
To learn more about these market trends and how leading associations are responding, download our full analysis, (Link to Headwinds)
 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmark Report, Marketing General 2018