Sailing Through the Headwinds: Strategies for Successful Associations

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Sailing Through the Headwinds: Strategies for Successful Associations

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Headwinds evokes the image of sailing into the storm. We imagine wind whipping our faces as we make progress against forces beyond our control. Headwinds is a good word for the market forces facing membership organizations today. Content that was once exclusive to associations is now accessible to the masses. Demands for exceptional customer experiences are increasing and hard to meet. Professionals have a growing desire to nurture their own networks.

These headwinds have been building for some time. The effects are now rippling through the association world. Advertising, royalty, and other revenue sources are lowering along with them. They have made themselves plain in the dashboard metrics of most membership organizations. Membership and revenue have been trending down. Faced with these harsh realities, organizations have chosen a wide range of responses.

How can your organization respond with boldness and innovation?

Embrace the mission

The mission is an advantage for many associations. It provides an emotional rallying point for members that others cannot replicate. Stagnant wages and declining investment mark our economy today. Increasing advocacy in support of a profession goes a long way to acquire and retain members.

Tighten the focus

Organizations focusing on specific audiences can better ride the currents of market forces. They can build unique and valuable products, content, and experiences. Large associations with diverse member segments often struggle to meet their needs. Smaller organizations can concentrate resources and fend off competition in a well-defined space.

Go for groups

The group discounts offered in the past were bland. Newer programs layer innovative benefits with measurable ROI for the employer. Intangible benefits important to decision-making executives coincide with this. This can mean increased influence within the association, or recognition for their involvement. This approach provides great value to both parties at no cost to the association. Early successes imply these programs may soon surpass individual membership in importance.

Expand overseas

Associations who lack room for domestic growth have started turning to international markets. US-based organizations often have big advantages overseas. These include intellectual property and access to American networks and resources. Overseas membership models are often less mature and competition less intense. These new markets bring new members, content creators, subscribers, and event attendees.

Diversify revenue

Organizations that leverage their unique intellectual property have become often quite successful publishers. They are not dependent on members for revenue or assets. Thus, their relationships with individuals are as customers for their content. This exchange is most often mediated by the institutions which buy said content. Such organizations now are able to focus their investments on riding the winds of change. This began with radically rethinking their membership model.

Efforts at reinvention sometimes fail, triggering new rounds of soul-searching and re-engineering. These initiatives can miss the mark on what members want from an association. Organizations that create fulfilling experiences of belonging, meaning, connection and identity thrive. Organizations grounded in “transaction value” tend to fall flat.

Can your organization create more member value?

Sweetening the offer may not be sweet enough

Some organizations have begun to repackage and bundle their membership offerings. They often couple this with steep dues discounts. One prominent professional association elected to adopt this strategy. They lost millions of dollars in dues revenue and netted no new membership growth. The mistake was in not recognizing that price is only one part of the equation. It is imperative to address external forces confronting an association’s membership model. Yet, so is highlighting the mission connection that only they can provide.


Discounts don’t do it anymore

Many associations have a legacy of offering member discounts. These have taken the form of royalty arrangements and affinity programs. This does little to attract or keep members. Additionally, the revenue these programs generate is in quick decline. Some associations work hard to add more discounts. They try to attract more desirable brands to their programs. However, members don’t need their association to connect them to discounts. Businesses don’t need to pay an association to find their customers anymore. A more productive course is to trim commercial benefits to a few unique, signature offers. This presents yet another opportunity to connect back to the core mission. The goal should be to offer real value to members, in spite of revenue.

The pace of change is accelerating. The number of fundamental shifts and unforeseen threats is increasing. Many powerful but fragmented changes overwhelm old ways of doing business. These changes create entry points for new competitors.

For those who know how to sail through them, headwinds are an opportunity to pull ahead. While others struggle to stay even, the most successful organizations seize the moment. They consider their options and turn threats into opportunities.

To learn more about market changes and how leading associations are responding, download our full white paper analysis, Twelve Ways Your Association Can Thrive and Not Just Survive.

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