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 Meuller, PhD, CEO, Executives Club of Chicago
Do Digital First
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
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.
“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
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?
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 failing. 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.
Everyone Has a Strategy Until They Get Punched
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 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
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.
“We launched a 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
Let No Good Crisis Go To Waste
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 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
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.