Have It Your Way

cheeseburger with all the toppings

Almost 14 years ago, I addressed a question first raised by Jeff Dc Canga:

How will we manage the change from a pre-set package of options (membership) to an individually negotiated exchange of value?

In that original post, I addressed issues of consumer expectations around mass personalization and customization, the concept of “cafeteria” membership, deciding whether or not to gate content, and the necessity of the occasional sacred cow barbecue.

As a commenter on that post put it:

Figuring out the balance between revenue needs, information sharing and the value proposition for membership is key to a vibrant association.


This topic seems to be at the fore again. I’ve recently had several inquiries and some new clients all looking to address their dues structure and value proposition.

I suspect this is another lingering effect of the pandemic. During the pandemic, many associations held the line HARD on dues increases while at the same time adding a bunch of new “included with membership” benefits. Which is totally logical: We were in a MASSIVE economic crisis, particularly in that first year, when then-president Donald Trump was badly mis-managing every single aspect of the public health emergency AND the economic emergency.

However, in the past four years, the situation has improved. Dramatically.

The US economy is now so strong, it’s literally propping up the entire global economy. The rate of inflation is up significantly, something we all feel every time we buy groceries, but job creation is at historic highs (as is the stock market), unemployment is at historic lows (particularly for people of color), and wage gains have outpaced inflation for more than a year.

Meanwhile, many associations are still, from the perspective of what we offer members and customers and what we charge for it, operating as if it’s April 2020.

Admittedly, it *is* hard to start charging for a benefit that’s been included with membership, particularly when that’s been the case now for several years. It *is* hard to raise dues appropriately when you’ve left them alone while inflation is up more than 20%.

All of this, to me, strongly indicates that it’s time, maybe past time, to examine your membership model.

  • Are your dues structured in a way that makes sense for your profession or industry, not as it was in 2019, but as it now is?
  • Should you shift your basis of dues calculation?
  • Is your basis of dues calculation equitable within your profession or industry?
  • What is your current cost to serve? Are your dues adequate to cover it?
  • What *else* are you expecting dues revenue to cover? Is it appropriate to require members to fund those programs, products, or services as part of their membership?
  • What are your “loss leaders”? Are you confident that’s the right approach for those particular programs, products, or services?
  • What do your members most value and use? What *don’t* they value or use?
  • Should your “included with membership” benefits change?
  • Do some programs, products, and services need to move from “included” to “optional” (with fee)?
  • Have some programs, products, or services outlived their usefulness? Is it time to take out some of those sacred cows?
  • Did you discover some new programs, products, or services as a result of the pandemic economic crisis that were initially intended to be temporary, but have proved so valuable they need to be made permanent? If so, what infrastructure or process changes do you need to make so you can move from “making do” to “this to core to who we are”?
  • Did new audiences find you during the pandemic? What are you doing to learn more about them and their key goals and biggest problems, so you can provide the solutions that generate long-term loyalty?
  • Are you being intentional about what’s available only to members, what’s freely available to everyone, what’s included for members and offered at a fee to customers, and what’s offered at a (differential) fee to both members and customers?
  • Are you still offering a “you can have it in any color you want, so long as it’s black” membership model? That may still be appropriate to your profession or industry. But maybe not.

As I concluded that original post 14 years ago, I don’t have THE answer to these questions. There isn’t ONE answer that fits for all associations (of course, I am available for hire to help you find the answers for YOUR association). But I do know that we need to figure out how to let our audiences have it their way in a way that makes sense for them, meeting their goals and challenges, and also for us, providing the financial stability we need to create those solutions for them.

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

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