Is Your Association Meeting Members' Shifting Needs?

Eight Questions February 12, 2018 By: Robbie Baxter

New competitors and members’ changing needs can be a one-two punch to your membership numbers if you’re not fighting to keep them up. Here are eight questions and a look at membership-based tactics that will help you be responsive and stay relevant.

Recently, an executive on the board of a well-respected professional association shared his concerns with me about dwindling membership. His conclusion was that their messaging must be off, that people just didn’t understand the value the association could provide. My conclusion: The organization’s value proposition was way off.

Associations can struggle to stay competitive and relevant in today’s rapidly changing world. People join associations because they want to connect with like-minded people. It’s about building long-term relationships, status, and developing a better career. But now, professionals can access benefits like content, connections, and career opportunities without belonging to an association.

This has given rise to what I like to call the “membership economy”—an emerging business model that is making inroads in nearly every industry using customer-centric tactics like access over ownership, subscription pricing, inclusiveness, and digital community. Many companies in the private sector are getting wise to the value of these membership models. Software as a Service (SaaS) companies use subscription pricing, live events, and online communities, for example, while consumer-based subscription services are providing access instead of ownership—a new way of packaging value. Facebook uses the language of membership to attract users. Amazon continues to disrupt and dominate through its membership Trojan horse, Amazon Prime.

The result? Associations must compete with a huge variety of groups and information sources. 

Any association hoping to attract newcomers must be willing to change and find ways to incorporate membership-based tactics to stay essential and competitive. So how can your association strengthen relationships to continue to grow? Consider these important questions:

  1. Are you worthy of your ideal member? A decline in member acquisition is a hint that your offerings may no longer be relevant. Take a fresh look by asking: Who are the most involved participants? How are you serving their needs and interests? Then, ask yourself about your ideal member: What is their job title? Are they thought leaders? Are they affiliated with specific corporations or institutions? Realize that your prospects might be different from your most loyal members.
  2. Can you identify new segments? Once you have a clear picture of who you want to attract to your association, determine what benefits they need. Then, ensure that you optimize your offerings for specific groups of people.
  3. How do you define competition? Do you know who your competition is? Think beyond other associations. Who or what else provides the same benefits to your members but offers them in more appealing or economical ways? The answer might be an online publication, app, user group, certification provider, or virtual community.
  4. Do you embrace technology? You don’t have to update your current products and services overnight, but it’s best to continually incorporate new technology. Instead of using five-year plans, try thinking in six-month increments. Another tip: Make sure every employee is constantly thinking of how they could more effectively integrate their part of the business with technology, instead of leaving it all to the IT department.
  5. What are your collective assets? As technology drives down the cost of providing certain benefits, what once were differentiators are now commodities. It’s up to you to find a way to deliver value. What resources do you currently have that can become products and services? Who wants to know what you know? Who would gain by enhancing their understanding of your members?
  6. Are members proud? In the past, a glossy magazine may have been the public face of your organization, but your online presence is how people see you now—including potential members. Ask yourself: Is our website dynamic? Easy to navigate? Full of refreshed content? Do we make it easy for members to connect and share content?
  7. Can you sweeten the deal? Think of ways your association could leverage its size and credibility to create partnerships that are relevant to members. Are there organizations that could offer discounts for useful products, special events, free subscriptions, or preferred access to information or services? In choosing partners, focus on solutions to worries or hassles experienced by your members.
  8. How can you make your relationship with members stickier? Can you create ways to invite participation on a regular basis, such as polls, podcasts, webinars, or recognition programs? Can you confer status to those reaching professional milestones or to members who actively recruit new members? Doing so keeps your organization at the forefront of members’ minds.

Despite the challenges they face, associations still have many advantages to leverage for members, including a long legacy of trust: They are mission-driven, independent, and peer-run, which gives them credibility that for-profit organizations generally don’t have. They also have a loyal base and know their existing members well. Many provide benefits that are still desirable, including proprietary research, credentialing, and aspirational awards. With such a strong foundation in place, why not make the necessary adjustments to cement your place in members’ lives?

Robbie Baxter

Robbie Baxter is the founder of Peninsula Strategies, based in in Menlo Park, California, and author of The Membership Economy.