Nov 5, 2015

Membership Has Its Privileges

Across North America leaders of professional associations and nonprofits are facing a seismic shift:

  • Membership rates are declining
  • Event participation is waning
  • Recruiting new members is getting harder and harder

Belinda Moore, CEO of Australasian Society of Association Executives, writes, “A number of powerful generational, cultural and economic forces are colliding to create a perfect storm that will make the next 5-20 years some of the toughest ever faced by associations. Associations who don’t adapt face a slow decline into obscurity.”

Naturally, the idea of “membership” is being challenged. Pundits are arguing the membership model is dead, and people don’t want to pay dues to belong to an organization.

These are troubling times for associations and nonprofits, and I am concerned they’re not getting the right advice.

Membership is not dead. To paraphrase American Express, membership has its privileges.

Communities Grow Membership

Last week I spoke at the Canadian Society of Association Executive’s National Convention, and today I am speaking at the Chamber Executives of Ontario’s Annual Convention.

At both events I delivered a clear model for growing and scaling membership organizations: community.

Communities make brands sticky, and communities scale. But it’s bigger than that.

Membership organizations are experiencing a generational divide. Boomers join associations, young professionals join communities.

Communities are a natural extension of the digital world. Social media provides a vehicle to connect, participate, and learn — and you can do this all for free. No one needs to go to a networking event to meet their peers. You can do that every single day on Facebook.

This is the new reality of member based organizations. People don’t pay to join a group; they participate in a group of their peers.

Membership Is the Inner Circle

Membership still has a strong role within a community — it’s the inner circle.

People are happy to pay for services and connections that they value. This has been proven in the software industry with freemium products like Evernote, Hootsuite, MailChimp, and Dropbox.

Each of these companies offers a free service that can be widely used by everyone. For example, MailChimp is free to use for users with less than 2,500 contacts. The caveat is MailChimp includes its logo and branding on free accounts, and limits some features.

Freemium is a great way for users to try before they buy. Once they get addicted they can dive deeper into the service and unlock additional capabilities and features.

Membership organizations can adopt a similar mindset. Community building activities can have both free and premium options, but membership delivers an even higher value. By subscribing to the organization you unlock capabilities and benefits you couldn’t gain elsewhere.

Membership is not dead. Every premium subscriber to MailChimp is a member. This mindset unshackles an association to think differently about its business model and how it serves its members.

Challenge Convention

Saying “membership is dead” is a cop-out.

People will join associations and pay membership dues. If they enjoy the experience and the benefits that come along with membership they will happily pay. It’s that simple.

Membership is only one component of the community. It’s the inner circle.

Membership based organizations that thrive look beyond membership, and connect with members and non-members alike. They build a community that brings people together and provide them a reason to participate. And that community is what fosters the inner circle to grow and thrive.

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