Emily Rabbitt is manager, research content and knowledge resources, for the ASAE Foundation.
Anticipating the future needs of your members is one of your most critical—and challenging—responsibilities as an association leader. Research from the ASAE Foundation points to ways leaders can learn from current trends to strengthen the value their association provides to members.
What will member engagement look like in the future? While there is no single answer to that question, thinking through possibilities inherent in current trends can help leaders identify and respond to future member needs.
The ASAE Foundation research report Exploring the Future of Membership suggests that associations should tailor their offerings to accommodate shifts in the roles of individuals and communities and in the value of information. Associations can also distinguish themselves not just as creators of content, but as curators of knowledge.
Some trends suggest that organizations need to balance seemingly conflicting interests. Increased personalization in the commercial delivery of goods and services is raising consumers’ expectations for other kinds of personalized experiences, and social interaction increasingly happens online. Though these trends suggest an increasing focus on individual need or convenience, research indicates that people of all ages still want to be involved with their communities.
The ASAE ForesightWorks “Volunteering” action brief states that each generation in the workforce is volunteering at significant rates. Thirty-six percent of Generation X volunteer, followed by 30 percent of boomers and 28 percent of millennials. In The Decision to Join study, members were asked to rate the importance of both the personal benefits of association membership and the benefits to the field, and benefits to the field rated slightly higher overall.
The challenge for associations, then, is to balance these member interests. A la carte membership offerings and virtual platforms to foster online networking between members will help people find what they need when they need it. But leaders can appeal to members’ community service interests by promoting membership as a way to make an impact.
Though trends suggest an increasing focus on individual need or convenience, research indicates that people of all ages still want to be involved with their communities.
Exploring the Future of Membership suggests conceptualizing service in a broader context: Associations can make new kinds of connections to bring value to their members and their field. For example, the National Sciences Research Center partnered with Hewlett-Packard to work toward their shared goal of improving science education. Such partnerships can also offer new and nontraditional kinds of volunteer opportunities to members.
Knowledge resources are a key benefit that associations provide to members, but leaders may believe that they can’t compete with the vast amount of free content available on any topic. Exploring the Future of Membership acknowledges that associations are no longer the sole or even primary source of knowledge and content available for the industries they represent. The research suggests that associations should focus on earning trust as an information source by positioning themselves as a hub for knowledge in the vast information landscape. While creating a steady stream of original content may be beyond some organizations’ capacity to deliver, they can still be arbiters of quality, curating content from other sources and pointing members to the best information available.
As with any strategic decisions, content decisions should be thoughtfully planned and executed. Leaders should be careful to make decisions about content engagement with the right data. What users say they want and what their behavior reflects about their actual consumption may be different.
By understanding the emerging trends that will continue to affect member-serving organizations, association leaders can adapt how they deliver the most valuable aspects of membership and how they communicate about those offerings to members and potential members.