How to Become Your Members’ First Choice: Strategies for “Second Societies”

Member Value Proposition
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Are You Your Members’ First Choice?

Do most of your members belong to other associations? If they had to pick one, would it be you? If the answer is no, you may be a second society. Members’ first choice will always be the organization with the member value proposition most closely aligned with what they do for a living, where they can find the resources and experiences specific to their field—the one they must belong to do their job well.

The Struggles of a Second Society

The first challenge is that you are optional, so you must make an excellent case for membership. Moreover, you are one of many options. You may be the third, fourth, or even lower choice. People have limited time and money to invest in membership, and you must compete for them. And when times get tough, you are at the top of the list to drop. When the boss stops paying, or the paycheck stops stretching, you are a much easier “no” than their number one choice. This shows up as low retention or cyclical membership that booms and busts with the economy.

Too Much and Too Much of the Same

Members choose their first society because it meets their professional needs so well. Most of what they need to do their job, they get there. The member value proposition could not be more clear. They join second societies to fill in gaps in their sub-specialties, interests, and networks. But is that member value proposition clear?

The answer often is no, for two reasons: First, they often do many of the same things primary associations do, only less well. Primary societies are deep and focused. They concentrate their resources on serving the core professional needs of their members. Second societies cannot beat them at their own game, but they all too often try.

The second reason is that they try to do too much. They want to meet as many of their members’ needs as possible, but so does everyone else in their space; so many weak offerings overlap and fail to inspire people to choose them.

When the boss stops paying, or the paycheck stops stretching, you are a much easier “no” than their number one choice.

The Vacation Home Analogy

Second societies are like vacation homes. No one needs a reason to stay home this weekend, but they need a reason to make the trip to the lake house. It needs something pretty special you can’t get at home or by going to a hotel. A great vacation home fills a white space in your life. You go there to get something you don’t get someplace else. It doesn’t have everything, but what it does have is special. Not to torture the analogy, but a great vacation home has the right to win your free time.

Your Right to Win

So, how do you get the right to win? Wee Willie Keeler, one of the best baseball hitters ever, said it best: “Keep your eyes clear and hit ‘em where they ain’t.” In other words, find the white space and offer something your competitors can’t. A lot of what you do may overlap with others. Ask yourself what doesn’t. What can you do that others in your space cannot?

For example, one Sequence client was focused on urban development, a space with professionals from many walks of life: developers, investors, urban planners, and so on. Many members belonged to nine or more associations to meet their professional needs. So where was the white space? It became clear that this association was the only place all those different people could come together to solve problems. They alone could convene those kinds of curated, trusted environments, so much that their most exclusive work groups cost thousands of dollars, which members line up to pay.

A lot of what you do may overlap with others. Ask yourself what doesn’t. What can you do that others in your space cannot?

Another Sequence client was in the food space, serving scientists and technicians from dozens of different disciplines, who, on average, belonged to four or more associations. They found their right to win in the space between all those scientific fields. They could provide connections, community, and trusted information that cut across the entire industry, something members needed badly, and no one else could provide. This allowed them to double down on the white space and stop doing things other societies did better that had little value for the organization.

Conclusion: A Winning Member Value Proposition

Successful organizations embrace their not-first-choice position and go all-in on well-defined spaces where they have a clear right to win. The key to finding that winning value proposition is understanding what your members need that no one else is giving them and meeting it in a way only you can. If you become world-class at doing that, your association will thrive.

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