Associations Build Membership Resilience Through Innovation

Rossell-Associations Build Membership Resilience October 6, 2020 By: Tony Rossell

A recent report found that associations that are focused on innovation have had more success in growing membership and meeting other challenges in the current environment—and overall. Here are three key reasons why.

In our current turbulent environment, innovation may be more critical than ever for associations to remain healthy and vibrant. The most recent edition of the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlights the need to change and adapt. The report revealed a strong correlation between associations that had a growing membership and those that had established a defined plan for innovation. At the same time, associations that did not have a focused innovation effort were more likely to be experiencing a decline in their membership counts.

If innovation drives growth, how does it happen? In his book, How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley presents the foundations for the innovation process. He maintains that “innovation is not an individual phenomenon, but a collective, incremental, and messy network.”

Innovation requires effort and experimentation. Ridley cites the example of Thomas Edison. Many people had the idea for an electric light bulb, but Edison and his team were the ones who developed a commercially viable product. “He did so not by genius, but by experiment.” Edison’s team tested over 6,000 plants before he found the right option for the light bulb’s filament.

Associations’ innovation process is not unlike Ridley’s description. The elements that associations say make up their innovation efforts include active collaboration, forgiving mistakes, and providing encouragement to their colleagues who are focused on improvement.  As one survey respondent commented, “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. The only way of knowing if a tactic or strategy is going to work is by trying.” 

Engaging Members Digitally

This year’s benchmarking research identified several areas where associations have been successful with innovation. One of the best examples shows up where member participation is increasing. Historically, the three legs of the stool where members tended to engage with an association were in book purchasing, buying insurance, and volunteering. Today these are some of the slowest growth or declining engagements for association members.

Interestingly, the products and services where associations report seeing growth in engagement now did not even exist years ago: mobile apps, webinars, and public and private social networks.

The products and services where associations report seeing growth in engagement now did not even exist years ago: mobile apps, webinars, and public and private social networks.

Shifting Membership Models

Adopting new membership models is also a key component of association innovation. In the past five years, 58 percent of associations have either adopted a new membership model or investigated making a change. The models most likely to be selected are a tiered membership or a combination membership structure. 

The tiered structure changes the membership relationship from who you are—like a job title or company size—to what you get in your membership package. This model offers a variety of membership options like gold, silver, or bronze benefits. The combination membership model, primarily introduced by individual membership associations, adds an organizational membership option available to allow for an entire department or company to access membership.

More Digital Marketing

Associations are rapidly shifting how they communicate with members and prospects. Each year in the benchmarking research, there has been a significant increase in the reported use of paid digital marketing tools. The data shows that 46 percent of associations now use some form of paid digital advertising. Thirty-one percent use retargeting ads to continue to follow and display ads to visitors once they leave their website. Additionally, the use of texting, while still rare among associations, has more than quadrupled in use over the last year as a communication tool.

Innovation is not only a requirement during challenging times. It is a constant need for associations. An article by Gary Hamel and Liisa Valikangas, The Quest for Resilience, makes the case to prioritize change. “It’s not about rebounding from a setback,” they write. “It’s about constantly anticipating and adjusting. . . . It’s about having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes obvious.”

Associations that have built innovation into their culture are finding help in weathering today’s storms. New challenges and opportunities are constant, so it is never too late to start.

Tony Rossell

Tony Rossell is senior vice president of Marketing General Incorporated.