Stuck in the Middle with You: A New Vision for Associations


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, providing access to resources that were hard, perhaps impossible, to find elsewhere. Information, services, political influence, and much more. This role as a must-have mediator cemented their importance in members’ lives, and 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. All of that is changing before our eyes.

To be honest, the change has happened already. Technology has vastly multiplied and fragmented options for what to view, buy and engage with. Today, consumers are overwhelmed with choices, literally in the palm of their hands, in every aspect of their lives that they can access directly, independently, and now. 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. Now, 40% of membership organizations report competitive sources of information as the biggest challenge to growing membership[1]. This is not just Google, either. Businesses focused on curating and distributing high-quality content are actively working to take associations’ share. Sage Open, for example, provides an interactive, open access format that promotes the connections between papers and contributors covering a full spectrum of social sciences and humanities.
  • Spontaneous networks. Associations have long provided a professional home and been the primary conduit for connecting and collaborating with far-flung colleagues. Yet professionals most want to interact with others who share their specific interests, which is easier and more efficient online. LinkedIn and other platforms in every niche imaginable have allowed people to easily create, join, and interact with professional communities of their own design. In the medical field, Doximity, which offers a free, secure collaboration platform for physicians, has amassed more members than the American Medical Association in just a few short years. For any given profession, one can find dozens of vibrant LinkedIn groups catering to specific areas of interest.
  • Marketplaces replace experts. Human experts like insurance brokers and travel agents were largely supplanted years ago by online pricing tools and user review sites like TripAdvisor. The impact of an association’s endorsement pales in comparison to the influence of actual users and their reviews. The trend continues, as platforms from Uber to Etsy instantly connect sellers directly to buyers. Users can evaluate and choose for themselves, and now almost always prefer to do so.
  • There is always a sale somewhere. For years, affinity discount programs were both an important benefit for members and source of income for associations. Today, the number of online discounters are countless and the ease of using them astonishing. One example, Honey, automatically applies the best discount code at checkout for hundreds of brands. No association affinity program can compete with either the savings or the experience. 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 to accept that your role as the valued mediator has already changed and 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? Most importantly, how can you pivot to bring new and unique value to your members despite, or perhaps even by means of, new technologies and ways of doing business?

Big market changes call for big organizational moves. The most forward-looking organizations have taken a range of responses to deliver more and better value in the new un-mediated world. Deeply rethinking the member value proposition and positioning. Embracing the mission even more tightly 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, we invite you to download our full analysis, Tacking into the Headwinds of Association Growth.




[1] 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmark Report, Marketing General 2018

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