10 Ways to Get Ready for the Membership of the Future Now

Membership Of The Future
Reading Time: 9 minutes
This report was originally published as Ten Ways to Futureproof Your Membership.

Are You Ready for the Membership of the Future?

To say the year 2020 was unprecedented is an understatement of epic proportions. The COVID-19  pandemic created global upheaval and unexpected change for all companies and organizations.

Membership-driven associations were severely impacted. These organizations were forced to transform their time-tested, tradition-steeped member operations and launch new content, education, and meetings with unprecedented speed.

And now, with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, associations are asking how member expectations have changed. What can they learn from the often painful lessons of the pandemic? How can they integrate newfound entrepreneurial spirit into their culture and continue to innovate new member benefits and experiences?

We conducted research with top executives from leading organizations that navigated the pandemic experience successfully towards the membership of the future. Here is what we learned.

Margaret Mueller Executives Club Of Chicago
“We Launched an new and explosively popular program at eight in the morning a few times a week. During ‘Coffee and Connect,’ members share peer to peer advice, connecting with one another.”

Margaret Meuller, PhD, CEO, Executives Club of Chicago

Do Digital First

Adopt a digital-first mentality with visionary leaders who can deliver great member experience.

The pandemic delivered the long-sought digital membership, but all the new digital engagement came at a high cost when the digital revolution came. Since the dawn of the Internet, associations have worked to improve digital engagement, striving for more web traffic, more email clicks, more video views, and more online forum discussions. However, with digital meetings and online education, members lost in-person interactions and a sense of community that had previously defined their experience.

Those who continue to treat the digital experience as a nice-to-have have already been left behind.

Membership organizations are sorting themselves into two classes: Leaders that are going all-in on the digital experience with new systems and content and laggards unable to overcome their system limitations and staff skill deficits.

Leaders recognize that their digital experience must be strategic now and prioritize the necessary and often painful changes. Real vision and strategic leadership are required to position an association to meet the escalating expectations of digital membership. Modern systems, updated staff skills, and agile processes are necessary to deliver the vision. Inevitably, leaders will need to re-evaluate their organizational design to meet the unique demands of a digital-first membership of the future.

Crank Up The Content

Build an online publishing engine that can deliver high-speed, high-quality, high-volume content to members.

Many organizations that prided themselves on peer-reviewed, committee-driven, printed publications with impeccable accuracy and prestige discovered that their content was ill-suited to members’ needs for relevant information in the moment. The past year ushered in a new velocity of content production and member value many organizations previously considered impossible. It was accomplished by abandoning time-honored traditions and demolishing inefficient processes that added little value.

The best Associations did more than digitize their printed magazines and move committee meetings online; they made important changes to content development workflows and experimented with gate and paywall strategies. Many organizations leaned into their missions and opened valuable COVID information to the public. Some eliminated fee gates to valuable content such as annual meetings or journals. These efforts vastly increased awareness and engagement with an ultimate hope of growth for the membership of the future.

Now, associations must continue to deliver increased content volume and variety to meet their needs. Member expectations have been reset. They will have to rethink long-established paywall approaches and re-engineer their digital platforms and processes to operate differently.

Ian King Apa
“Standalone in-person meetings are a thing of the past. You’re going to need an online and in-person offering, and they will be differentiated in some way.”

Ian King, Chief Membership Officer, American Psychological Association

Embrace Your Scrappy Side

Create a culture of rapid deployment and experimentation through simple solutions that spark member engagement.

Driven by the unprecedented pace of current events and a need to respond to unforeseen member demands, organizations turned to small-business commercial tools like Zoom or Eventbrite to deliver immediate member value. In addition, the COVID crisis pushed organizations to break the shackles of their long planning cycles, technology system limits, and bureaucratic management styles.

These technology solutions offer speed over structure with a low cost and learning curve for those associations with adaptable infrastructure. Organizations used these software solutions to deliver immediate and good-enough information in a good-enough format, “throwing things out there” and doubling down on the things that worked. This way of working was unthinkable before, but it has opened many Associations’ eyes to what’s possible and sparked their imagination about what they could do next in the membership of the future.

Understanding your members no longer requires comprehensive surveying and analysis. test-and-learn approaches using simple tools empower membership leaders to try new ideas with little financial or reputational risk. This has opened the door for rapid-cycle innovation and accelerated member value for organizations that have embraced it.

What Is An Event Anyway?

Reinvent events without concern for traditions in order to grow membership through uniquely valuable digital experiences.

COVID quickly eliminated most organizations’ ability to hold large conferences. As the meetings were canceled, lost registration and sponsorship revenues compounded the Associations’ financial woes related to work-from-home expenses and softening membership renewals. A big conference’s reliable annual economic life ring disappeared nearly overnight for many organizations.

While some organizations create lackluster digital replicas of their traditional conferences, others looked to gather through technology in wholly new ways. The American Medical Association recognized they could secure top-tier event speakers freed from the need to travel commitments and reach a bigger audience and create more memorable experiences. The AMA hosted a nationwide medical school graduation ceremony online, with Dr. Anthony Fauci, past Surgeons General, and recognizable actors known for medical roles. More than a million people tuned in to watch.

More than any other association function, meetings will never be the same. Creating new digital events requires a creative mind and fluency with technology unhindered by the history of in-person conferences. Meeting planners traditionally lacked the digital expertise or project management skills necessary to produce a sizeable virtual event with a remote team. As a result, many meetings failed, with many more nearly falling. Associations would be wise to engage non-event experts to conceptualize new ideas and create unique and fun experiences for the membership of the future. 

Todd Unger Ama
“We believe the membership value proposition derives from the brand strategy. First, establish your overall strategy and then tell the proposition story colored with successes and facts.”

Todd Unger, Chief Experience Officer, American Medical Association

Help Old Dogs Do New Tricks

Break down physical and departmental collaboration barriers for new membership ideas.

Unprepared and inexperienced with a   remote and distributed workforce to serve their members, associations stumbled into a new culture of employee trust and digital collaboration. Before COVID, many organizations had policies that prohibited or drastically limited remote work opportunities for employees. At the same time, as the power of digital tools to create things quickly and interact with members became apparent, a new world of opportunities opened up for organizations willing to try.

Often, unexpected cross-departmental collaborations produced surprising results. Inevitably, many associations tried to retain the top-down hierarchy, rigid silos, and long-standing ways of doing things of pre-pandemic life. Others seized the moment, adapted, and embraced the new way of decision-making. For example, leadership changed its management style to focus on outcomes instead of processes and encouraged employees to work in ad-hoc teams across the enterprise to get things done.

New organization models and incentives that support risk-taking and reward creativity will be necessary to cement these new behaviors into the long-term life of the organization for the membership of the future. As association workforces return to the office and the chaos of COVID subsides, leaders must carefully consider how to instill a culture that continues to encourage unique collaborations and creative ideas.

Come Together, Right Now

Enhance digital experiences with structured and informal member-to-member networking.

The pandemic locked Americans in their homes and isolated them from friends and family, creating a desperate need for human contact and connection. Many Associations were well-practiced in creating in-person networking opportunities. Still, they had little experience connecting members online and few tools and platforms to allow members to find each other themselves.

Lagging organizations lamented the lost networking opportunities of in-person meetings and attempted to recreate it through Zoom-powered cocktail hours. Others realized that they were in a unique position as a nexus of like-minded professionals eager for opportunities to talk to each other by hosting online education rich with group discussion. They scheduled drive time dial-in “Coffee and Connect” conversations. They reimagined their online discussion forums and added ways to connect around their web content personally.

Associations need to take a broad and unconventional view of member networking and understand the unique opportunities they can create in their forums, webinars, website, and e-commerce offerings. Growing opportunities to comment and contribute to live or static digital content will allow members to become recognizable and find other like-minded members. In the membership of the future, members will create communities around the passions they find in association digital content. The association’s role is to facilitate connection and get out of the way.

“A good analogy is an old can of paint all congealed over. Give it a good shake, and it is good to go.”

Ian King, Chief Membership Officer, American Psychological Association

Everyone Has a Strategy Until They Get Punched

Strategic planning is essential, but serving members in a crisis requires disaster preparation.

COVID was not part of any association’s five-year plans. Year after year, association boards engaged in strategic planning that carefully considered the competitive landscape, member needs, organization capabilities, and financial constraints, leading to detailed strategic plans. All organizations were forced to pivot and adapt, planning on the fly and replanning when the next thing hit.

The organizations that weathered the storm best kept their long-term goals firmly in view while shifting to a highly fluid planning style to drive business decisions on the ground. Is this the end of traditional strategic planning? Not necessarily. Some of the most successful strategies shifted to scenario plans: “If this thing happens, we will do that, and if another thing happens, we do something else.” Empowered with the ability to react rapidly and scale financial decisions, organizations learned the flexibility to survive and respond quickly to changing market conditions.

This style of leadership calls for changes in culture and organization. Volunteer Boards and other leaders must step back from tactical operations and refocus on outcomes. Organizations should implement and operationalize new strategic planning paradigms based on lessons learned from COVID, which allow for quick reaction time and rapid innovation while keeping the long-term goals front and center. They will be more successful in good times and more prepared for the next crisis in the membership of the future.

Keep Your Promise

During confusing times with member needs changing, following your purpose may be all the strategy you need.

The pandemic presented organizations with myriad decisions that had to be made in the moment, surrounded by chaos and uncertainty. Forced to abandon their drawn-out deliberative decision processes, successful associations doubled down on their purpose.

Your purpose is not the mission statement. It is who you are for and how you serve them. In business terminology, it is your Brand Strategy. It is the promise you make to your audience about who you will be for them. Every association has a mission and vision. Unfortunately, very few think seriously about their brand promise. Crucially, the successful leaders we spoke to had invested deeply in their brand strategies before COVID hit, which made all the difference. Their promise became the decision lens  — the stake in the ground for the organization to rally around.

Associations need to define and embrace their brand promise in the new membership of the future and align all their efforts to it. A saving grace in bad times is their competitive advantage in good times.

“The organizations that complete successful technology transitions focus on building capabilities and not investing in solving narrow business problems.”

Todd Unger, Chief Experience Officer, American Medical Association

Let No Good Crisis Go To Waste

Drive future membership changes under the protection of chaos with reduced opposition and lower cost of failure.

The COVID crisis led to many wrong turns and failed projects–and all was forgiven. New ways of doing nearly everything were necessary, and organizations found themselves working in ways and delivering things they never thought possible before. Decisions got made faster. Innovation happened. Mistakes were forgiven. Pent-up demand for change was unleashed. Crisis flings open a window for change—a brief burst of energy and possibility that soon closes and reverts to old ways. The best organizations know this and have moved quickly not only to push change through but to build structures that will keep the changes in place long-term.

Organizations that would never consider virtual events or, God forbid, virtual Board meetings now do them routinely. Events that took years to organize now come together in weeks. Business units that worked happily in silos for decades collaborate daily. Offerings for members that would have never seen daylight because they might fail launch almost overnight. They work or don’t, and the failures count as learnings.

Now is the time to experiment with the membership of the future, while the window is still open and move quickly to protect your success. Try new communication channels, new content, and new formats. Pilot the ideas that have get rejected year after year. Find inspiration from other industries and adapt them to your association. You may never have this chance again.

Build Capabilities and Outcomes Will Follow

Meeting the new expectations of the membership of the future will require a bevy of new capabilities requiring investment and nurture.

COVID exposed shortcomings in most associations. Organizations were ill-equipped and well behind the commercial curve, from meetings to content publishing to strategic planning. While many associations have discovered new ways to make do temporarily, they lack the advanced digital skills and capabilities for permanent pivots that this moment requires.

The associations that fared the best in the crisis had already invested in the right skills, technologies, capabilities, and strategies and only had to turn up the volume. Content creation, digital publishing, virtual events, e-commerce, and brand strategy proved crucial capabilities. They remain so today. One of the most important lessons of the COVID crisis is that we cannot predict events or outcomes. However, we can build the organizational brains and muscles to position ourselves to succeed, come what may.

The pandemic creates a short window to make broad changes with fewer organizational resisters. Organizations should unflinchingly evaluate their capabilities in light of the new reality they live in and make the necessary investments to fill their gaps and build on their strengths. Clear-eyed assessment and intelligent bets in the right places will allow you to seize this rare moment and win the next one for the membership of the future.

6 Ways Young Members Are More Like Boomers
Than You Think

Young Members
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Young Members Are Not That Different From Boomers

In 2015, millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest population in the workforce. The majority of the workforce is getting younger. Most membership organizations are seeing the average age of their members go up.

In response, nonprofit associations are prioritizing the attraction of young members. Young members are future volunteers, future dues payers, and future leaders. But attracting young professionals hasn’t been easy.

 Perception is the root of this challenge. Millennials are unlike the generations that have come before them. Technologically savvy, they sit on the cutting edge of change. Conversely, baby boomers are thought to be technologically unsophisticated and allergic to change.

6 Shocking Similarities

These generalizations suggest an insurmountable abyss exists between boomers and millennials. Associations believe they must reinvent their past strategy to attract millennial members. Recent AARP research shows that young members have much in common with boomers.

The distance between the two generations is converging. Associations will benefit more from noting their similarities rather than their differences. 

So what are these shocking similarities?

1. Consumer-Centric

Boomers are the original “me” generation. That thinking has filtered down to the millennials. Often raised by boomer parents or grandparents, millennials grew up around this idea. They expect everything is–and should be– about them. Not only do baby boomers and millennials want what they want, but they also want to be able to do it themselves.

Both boomers and millennials want a “customized” experience. So they will choose the association that can give it to them. That means more options and on-demand services that offer them what they want, when, and how they want it.

2. Overwhelmed by Choices

Boomers and millennials alike idealize choices. However, the abundant options make the decision-making process a burden for both generations. Their rejection of guidance from intermediaries further complicates this.

Associations don’t need different content to appeal to choice-fatigued millennials and boomers. They need to present and distribute their existing content in new ways. Associations need to expand content distribution to channels preferred by these generations. This will give them the best chance of capturing their attention.

3. Mistrust of Institutions

Young members and boomers are skeptical of institutions. True to their “me” instincts, they question what’s in it for them. Nevertheless, both generations want institutions to prove their value.

Trust is key to loyalty. Boomers and millennials are loyal to institutions they trust—but that trust has to be earned. Associations can overcome their mistrustful nature by promoting defined and proven membership benefits. In addition, they can work to build confidence over time.

4. Experiences over Things

For millennials and boomers, things are just things. It’s experiences they are after. According to a study conducted by Eventbrite, 94% of millennials and 91% of boomers believe that experiences lead to a fulfilling life.

Associations that provide opportunities to engage will draw in millennials and boomers. Whether digital or face-to-face, the prospect of an experience will entice them.

5. Social Sharing as Status

Experiences are the new status symbols, and social media is the trophy case. Young members’ affinity for sharing on social media is well known. But boomers are catching on, too. People aged 50+ are the fastest-growing segment on social media.

When associations provide meaningful experiences to their members, they share them on social media. This is especially true for millennial and boomer member segments. Social shares spread an association’s message and proof of value.

6. Pervasive Use of Technology​

Technology is not just a millennial thing. While millennials are technology natives, boomers have adopted technology readily. They consume it at a rate rivaling the millennial generation. If you’re not reaching out to boomers and young members digitally, you aren’t reaching them.

Associations using technology well to communicate with their membership will see higher engagement.

Young Members Predict Your Future

There are numerous similarities between millennials and boomers. But this crop of young professionals isn’t a special case. Millennials echo many of the needs of older generations—just in a more demanding tone. The older generations have been more tolerant in waiting for change. Yet their patience is wearing thin.

Associations need to do more than determine how they can attract young members. They need to change to meet current and future member needs. Fortunately, young professionals can tell us a lot about doing that.

When the needs of millennials are met, so are those of current and future needs of associations. Associations can attract young professionals and improve the experience of older members by bringing the generations together.

See: Who Needs Associations Anymore? 4 New Membership Models for more insights and ideas about young members.

Association Success: 7 Ways to Thrive Not Just Survive

Association Success
Reading Time: 10 minutes

This report was originally published as Tacking Into the Headwinds of Association Growth

The Shifting Association Market

We heard it again and again from our clients at leading membership organizations. It was harder every year to reach association success.

Some knew the market was shifting around them. Some had thought they were immune. But instead, all felt the pressure on their numbers, which told them the way they had always done things was not working anymore. 

 But what exactly changed? Our team at Sequence Consulting devoted the past twelve months to answering that question: studying the research, having in-depth conversations with clients, and collaborating with other leading associations.

 This gave us an understanding of which market forces they were up against and, much more importantly, what they could do about it. We learned that some organizations have been victims across the membership landscape, and others have been victors of significant shifts in their environment. 

 This report is about what studying the headwinds can teach association leaders  and what you can learn from those who have tacked into them successfully. 

Table of Contents

We heard it again and again from our clients at leading membership organizations. It was harder every year to reach association success.

Some knew the market was shifting around them. Some had thought they were immune. But instead, all felt the pressure on their numbers, which told them the way they had always done things was not working anymore. 

 But what exactly changed? Our team at Sequence Consulting devoted the past twelve months to answering that question: studying the research, having in-depth conversations with clients, and collaborating with other leading associations.

 This gave us an understanding of which market forces they were up against and, much more importantly, what they could do about it. We learned that some organizations have been victims across the membership landscape, and others have been victors of significant shifts in their environment. 

 This report is about what studying the headwinds can teach association leaders and what you can learn from those who have tacked into them successfully. 

Market Pressures On Association Succeses

When we think of headwinds, we think of slow and halting progress against forces beyond our control. Today, membership organizations’ headwinds come in many forms: increasing consumer demands to get anything they want “on-demand,”; huge shifts in the data economy and everything it touches, and pressure from every angle on the affinity marketing model. 

 These headwinds have been building for some time. But unfortunately, the effects are rippling through the association world – putting downward pressure on membership, lowering advertising, royalty, and other revenue sources, and impacting the dashboard metrics of most organizations. Faced with these inexorable realities, organizations have chosen a wide range of responses, from defensive and incremental to innovative and bold. 

 These headwinds will not abate. Laggard organizations have fallen further behind, and many will continue to do so. Moreover, the accelerating rate of change will quite likely prove too much for some large, long-standing organizations that have been too slow to adapt, and they will be forced to merge or find other ways to exit the market. 

 Meanwhile, winners who embraced these changes keep winning, sticking to their association success formulas while adapting to the new realities. 

High Expectations Of The On-Demand Economy

Consumers expect immediate and easy access to whatever content, product, and services they want. Moreover, they expect access to be free or part of a low-cost, subscription-based service that offers highly unique and relevant value. Examples of hugely successful on-demand-type services include discounts, travel, insurance, content, and others. 

 In short, the paradigm of membership, in general, is less appealing because it is less well-aligned to the daily experiences and ensuing preferences of today’s consumers, especially those who are younger. This is not to say membership is dead. However, the bar for thriving membership is higher. Organizations must come to grips with the increased competition and consumer loyalty around even their most tried and true core offerings, including their mission-based work. 

 Options on causes to support are merely one example of the “on-demand” economy that has upended consumer expectations across the spectrum of modern life, including the core business of membership organizations. The gap between winners and losers will be measured by their ability to adapt to these new realities. 

On Demand Discounts

On-demand discounts. Honey has been downloaded over 5M times and can automatically apply codes from more than 21,000 stores during the check-out process. Users, of whom 67% are Millennials, have saved $170M+ this year. In addition to ad revenue, 

Honey earns a small commission on every coupon code used. The secret to Honey’s success is fulfilling consumers’ need for confidence that they’re getting the best price before completing their transaction. The resulting increase in completed sales is a huge benefit to retailers.

 On-demand insurance. Slice provides on-demand insurance for home-sharing. The homeowner can buy customized levels of coverage just for the term the home will be rented. Other providers offer “microinsurance” for high-value items like phones and computers. 

These new insurance companies are targeting Millennials and have taken pains to simplify and streamline the application process so coverage can be purchased in minutes through a mobile device.

On Demand Insurance

The Exploding Data Economy

The most tectonic shift facing membership organizations is the meteoric rise of the new data economy. Some say that “data is the new oil.” It is the fuel that powers nearly every aspect of the world we now live in. However, it is also a vast, complex, largely untapped, highly fragmented, and impossible to control resource for which the world has an insatiable appetite. New data sources come online every day, and a multi-layered industry to extract, refine, and distribute data has grown exponentially. 

In the past, organizations were able to capitalize on their exclusive access to their members and prospects to drive their recruitment efforts, create communication channels to drive advertising revenue, and monetize their list through royalty agreements. In essence, as “owners” of an exclusive and valuable audience, membership organizations were in the driver’s seat in offering access to them, giving birth to an entire industry in affinity marketing. 

 This role as privileged gatekeeper has been progressively eclipsed by the realities of today’s data economy. The sheer wealth of consumer data, widely available, allows marketers to target the consumers they want in many ways. These marketers, who in the past would have eagerly signed up for royalty agreements for access to a member list, can now find, understand, and target those same consumers themselves and do so more cost-effectively.

The Eroding Affinity Model

Many major insurance carriers that were once mainstays of the affinity industry have exited the industry or significantly reduced their involvement. Seeking to streamline their own operations, minimize their regulatory exposure, and maximize their marketing ROI, they have re-organized and re-invested in ways that have left their affinity relationships behind, oftentimes after decades in business together. 

 The affinity market of just a few years ago represented $60B in annual premium. Insurers are not abandoning this outsized opportunity, but they are increasingly abandoning the model, which formerly provided great value in terms of unique access to marketable groups of strong buyers. As the calculus has changed, so have insurers’ approaches to the market and their affinity partnerships. 

Insurgent Threats To Membership

While membership organizations and their marketing partners have been questioning their models, insurgent organizations have been reinventing them without them. For-profit start-ups which have mastered the new data and digital realities have been able to quickly steal significant shares from larger membership organizations that cannot yet compete on this new playing field. 

At the same time, smaller, more nimble, not-for-profits have successfully undermined larger, “umbrella” organizations through a relentless focus on understanding their key segments and delivering them strong unique value. 

New Insurgents

Doximity, a for-profit, online startup focused on physicians, raised $85 million in venture funding and amassed more than one million physician members in six years. Their membership now includes 70% of all US physicians, 90% of fourth-year medical students, and nearly half of all nurse practitioners and PAs. 

Their revenue model, which has been cash-flow positive for some time, is based on the free membership and no advertising, monetizing the membership by selling access to recruiters. 

Member value is delivered through simple but powerful digital tools that doctors need and use every day and high-profile partnerships, including US News and World Report’s Hospital Rankings. 

One key to their meteoric growth is their mastery of the market data, which includes data on every US physician before they ever become a member.

Faced with the inevitable reality of these challenges, organizations have taken a variety of new directions, ranging from incremental and defensive to radical and innovative. 

The Dying Royalty Model

As the royalty model erodes, organizations of all sizes are forced to rethink their product portfolios. Once reliable passive income sources, their product suites have been devalued by the exit of their traditional royalty partners and an absence of new partners interested in the “standard” affinity marketing arrangement. 

This leaves many holding products and services that do not contribute much revenue and that members do not value. Retrenchment takes the form of drastic pruning, leaving only those “signature” offerings that are uniquely aligned with their mission and have commercially competitive advantages. 

In other cases, the model of “products as revenue” has given way to “products as member value,” which leads to new, highly flexible commercial arrangements to secure products members love first and foremost, sometimes with minimal or even no revenue attached at all. 

 Several prominent associations have dramatically reduced their product portfolio. They have eliminated products with low engagement and weak member value. Instead, they have consolidated their royalty streams around high-value, highly unique products with high revenue—for example, profession-specific insurance products. 

In place of their old, unproductive royalty relationships, they have launched new marketing relationships akin to sponsorships. Providers with high-value products for members can promote them through a  straightforward marketing relationship — exclusive access to highly responsive marketing channels for a negotiated fee. 

The primary driver is delivering member value, to the end of acquisition and renewal, with revenue a secondary consideration. This model is far more comfortable and attractive to most modern marketers, which opens up a whole new range of potential relationships and offerings that would have been out of reach in a traditional royalty model. 

New Directions for Association Success

Faced with the inevitable reality of these challenges, organizations have taken a variety of new directions, ranging from incremental and defensive to radical and innovative. 

Seeking Growth Globally

Organizations that have reached saturation in their markets, or are faced with insurmountable competitive pressures here in the US, have turned to international markets for new audiences, including members and subscribers, buyers, event attendees, and others. Membership models in these countries are often less mature and competition less intense than at home. 

In addition, US-based organizations often have considerable advantages in their intellectual property and access to American networks and resources. Far from a panacea, disparities in buying power and business methods require adaptability and will. Still, strategically patient and determined organizations have succeeded in offsetting pressures here at home by advancing into untapped markets abroad. 

Img Globe Association Success

One prominent engineering association, like many organizations, saw its value proposition erode due to the confluence of market forces, particularly pressure on their publishing business. 

However, unlike many organizations, they recognized and reacted to the trends early, in their case, by shifting focus to international markets in search of growth. As early as 1995, they began investing in marketing operations internationally, leading with publishing, technical standards, and events, which drove membership. 

Taking a long view allowed them to enjoy sustained and diversified growth. Fully 1/3 of all of their business, including membership, is international, where they have seen a predominance of their development while the US market has mainly remained saturated and flat. 

“The bar for association success is higher and organizations must come to grips with the increased competition and consumer loyalty around even their most tried and true core offerings, including their mission-based work.” 

Buying Growth With Acquisitions

Some organizations that have money to invest but lack the internal resources to develop critical new capabilities have chosen to buy them instead. These organizations seek out and acquire capabilities that complement the mission and elevate the organization’s position but would be impossible or impractical to build themselves. Not for the faint of heart, acquisition and integration are complex and fraught with risk. But wisely done, small purchases of niche players with unique assets or intellectual property can transform an organization’s profile and give it a real competitive advantage by cementing its hold on uniquely valuable spaces in the market and often provide new sources of revenue and relationships. 

Sae International

SAE International has made a series of acquisitions of for-profit companies that bring unique capabilities to their industry offerings, from cybersecurity to quality control to training and certification. 

These strategic acquisitions allowed them to quickly build an entirely new, industry-facing arm of their enterprise, providing new revenue streams and competitive advantage alongside, but independent of, its membership. 

Growth Through Groups

As the individual membership model becomes less and less fruitful, some organizations have opened a new avenue of membership for employers. Far from the “group discount” offered in the past, the new institutional membership includes individual membership for employees but layers on new B2B benefits uniquely available from the association and only offered to group members. 

Intelligent program design offers clear financial benefits to the employer, with calculable ROI and intangible benefits that are important to the executives who decide to buy. In addition, successful programs can more than offset declines in individual membership and potentially foretell a future in which group memberships surpass individual memberships in importance. 

Ama

AMA, recognizing that nearly half of US physicians are now employees of large health systems, created an entirely new group membership for large health systems, loaded with benefits for the group and its executives. These benefits and discounted memberships for all of their physicians were easy for executives to justify. As a result, group member growth will surpass individual member growth this year. 

What Will Association Success Look Like?

One of the most important lessons the market teaches us is that organizations that have thrived in the face of often tectonic changes responded boldly and did so a long time — even decades ago. The pace of change is only accelerating, not only in velocity but in the sheer number of fundamental shifts and unforeseen threats facing every organization, even the most venerable and entrenched. 

It is often not one new development that imperils a business model but rather a nexus of powerful but fragmented changes that overwhelm old ways of doing business and create entry points for a potential swarm of new competitors. 

From our market survey, it is clear that the pressures associations have felt are neither transitory nor entirely within their control. The pace of change will increase. 

The unexpected should be expected. And the fundamental forces at play go deeper than messaging and positioning. Instead, they encroach upon the elements of the business model itself, which entirely revolves around an organization’s ability to build and monetize an audience, that is to say, a membership. 

 Headwinds mean challenges and opportunities for association success and those who can tackle them while others struggle to stay afloat. The most successful associations have seized the moment to consider their options and courageously turn their threats into opportunities. 

Who Needs Associations Anymore? 4 New Membership Models

Membership Models
Reading Time: 3 minutes

How Have Association Membership Models Changed?

Associations have always been the trusted go-between. They convene people, connect resources, curate content, and mediate conversations. Or at least they used to do. Things have changed.

For as long as we can remember, membership organizations were exclusive mediators. They provided access to challenging, often impossible, resources to find elsewhere: information, services, political influence, and much more. The membership model as a must-have mediator cemented its importance in members’ lives. It was the primary reason members had to join, engage with, and pay dues to an organization. It was the fuel for most non-dues revenue – subscriptions, ad sales, royalties, etc. That is changing before our eyes.

The change has happened already. Technology has multiplied options for what to view, buy and engage. Today, choices overwhelm consumers. They face them in the palm of their hands, in every aspect of their lives they can access. So what has this meant for nonprofit membership models? And what are the leaders doing about it?

Democratization of Content

Members historically looked to their associations first for unique, trustworthy content. However, 40% of membership organizations now report competitive sources of information as the biggest challenge to growing membership[1]. Google is not the only problem, 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 broad spectrum of social sciences.

Spontaneous Networks

Associations’ membership model has long been to act as 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. Doximity offers a free, secure collaboration platform for physicians in the medical field. It has amassed more members than the American Medical Association in a few short years. There are dozens of vibrant LinkedIn groups catering to any profession or interest area.

Marketplaces Replace Experts

Human experts like travel agents were 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 essential benefit for members and a source of income for associations. Today, the number of accessible, uncomplicated online discounters is countless. For example, Honey automatically applies the best discount code at checkout for hundreds of brands. As a result, no affinity program can compete with its services. As a result, the affinity business model is increasingly in question. For more on this, see: You Are Doing Affinity Products Arong: Member Value Comes First.

As in any market disruption, there are winners and losers. Some associations have embraced new membership models 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 infringing 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 new technologies and strategies?

Significant market changes call for extensive organizational responses. The most forward-looking organizations have responded in several ways. First, they find ways to deliver more and better value in the new, un-mediated world and rethink the membership model. Second, embracing the mission even more and in ever new ways. Third, tightening focus on the areas where they cannot be displaced—even revamping the non profit membership model itself.

 

 

Member Focus: The 2 Most Important Questions

Member Focus
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Can your nonprofit grow through member focus? Ask yourself these two questions.

Who is your association for and how clearly can you describe them?

You can “test your vision” by defining what makes members and non-members different. For example, could you look at a list of people and accurately predict which are members and not from the data? If not, you need to tighten your member focus. 

In the past, we relied on research at best and instinct at worst to profile who members are and what they want. Maybe built personas. But they all usually described joiners and non-joiners the same way. We can do much better than that in the age of big data. The most potent, predictive segmentations are not about who people are. They are about what they care about. Just as your value drives your organization, so too are your members. Data can help us get in touch with what it looks like and how your organization should use it to tighten your member focus.

One prominent medical society used outside and internal data to define its audience. First, they perceived four “attitudes,” or interest groups, that described them. Next, they used these groups to predict, at an individual level, which segment(s) they belonged to. Focusing their messaging along these segments tripled their growth rate in one year. Contrary to popular belief, doing more for your members does not necessarily mean delivering more value. Doing more of what your members need and making sure they clearly understand how that can benefit them does. Data insights drive this home. If you think this sophistication is beyond your reach, they did too. But today’s tools and resources make yesterday’s impossible the table stakes of today.

In the past, we relied on research at best and instinct at worst to profile who members are and what they want. Maybe built personas. But they usually described joiners and non-joiners the same way. We can do much better than that in the age of big data. The most potent, predictive segmentations are not about who people are. People are about what they care about. Data can help us in touch with that, too.

One prominent medical society used outside and internal data to define its audience. First, they perceived four “attitudes,” or interest groups, that described them. Next, they used these groups to predict, at an individual level, which segment(s) they belonged to. Focusing their messaging along these segments tripled their growth rate in one year. If you think this sophistication is beyond your reach, they did too. But today’s tools and resources make yesterday’s impossible the table stakes of today.

Is what your association does for members unique, and how hard would it be to duplicate?

Test your product focus. Ask yourself how quickly a well-resourced competitor could do the same things you do. If the answer is anything but “never,” you have more room to focus on your work. Organizations that can “own” a tightly-defined area of interest can win against much larger competitors. They can build fanatically loyal audiences and serve them exquisitely tailored offerings. Some smaller medical societies that have mastered this strategy have grown at eye-popping rates. Focusing on interests over descriptions has even drawn new members from outside their specialty. Even people that may not fit into your organization’s typical idea of what a member looks like may be able to benefit from what you have to offer. The key to capitalizing on their capability to help you grow is to champion a value proposition that is so clear that the benefits of joining are undeniable.      

Larger organizations with “umbrella” missions struggle here. They believe that they must serve every need of their entire audience. In reality, you best serve those who engage with you, and member focus drives engagement. If you focus on doing what you do best and ensuring your members know what that is, your ideal members will come to you. But to do this, it might be time to start stopping old practices that are holding you back from membership growth. It is challenging to stop doing some things and start doing more of others. The crucial first step to growth is the realization that member focus equals power and that less is more.

Larger organizations with “umbrella” missions struggle here. They believe that they must serve every need of their entire audience. In reality, you best serve those who engage with you, and member focus drives engagement. It is challenging to stop doing some things and start doing more of others. The crucial first step to growth is the realization that member focus equals power and that less is more.

To read more about the power of member focus, see How to Make Membership An Offer They Can’t Refuse and “Focus on Members Who Love You Most.”