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.  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.
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: Are You Doing Affinity Products Wrong? 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:
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.