Big Questions for Associations – Part 3

This is part three (aka “the conclusion”) in the series inspired by Jeff De Cagna’s March breakfast briefing on associations and mobile technology. Read Part 1Read Part 2.

Question 3: How will we manage the change from a pre-set package of options (membership) to an individually negotiated exchange of value?

In other words, we’re moving from “you can have any color you want as long as it’s black” to a world of mass personalization.  And many of us don’t do a particularly good job at the whole “value proposition” in the first place.

This idea has actually been around associations for awhile, in the guise of “cafeteria membership” (if you follow that link, you’ll notice the article is dated 2002).  The thing is, cafeterias generally have a limited set of options.  Is “print journal” versus “no print journal” really a meaningful choice?

On the other hand, we’re also constantly exhorted to focus on our “core competencies” as organizations (often with the implied “and outsource everything else” trailer).  Don’t try to be everything to everyone – just know what’s really important to your audience and do it better than anyone else.

Another thing we have to contend with is the whole membership model – i.e., you have to be a member to get X at all or to get X at a reasonable price.  But what I’m not actually a participant in the profession/industry, and, as an interested onlooker, all I want is X?  Is it really OK to price gouge me?  Or totally deny me access?

This becomes an even bigger deal as associations start promoting what we do through social media channels, with the potential of LOTS more people finding out about the good stuff we offer (positive)…and then not being able to participate (extremely negative).

We recently ran into this at NACHRI, when someone forwarded a potential tweet to that week’s editor about an upcoming webinar that was free, as long as you’re a NACHRI member, but not available at all to non-members.  You couldn’t even see information about the webinar if you weren’t a member.  And it was a topic with potential wide interest, if it “got out.” After a fairly lengthy internal debate, we opted to create a landing page outside our member wall (and notice the fortress terminology there, and don’t pretend you don’t use it at your organization, too) with information, rationalizing that anyone who was really interested enough to register (which required membership) probably had an affiliation with one of our member hospitals anyway.  We haven’t gotten complaints (that I’m aware of), but it’s only a matter of time.

But shouldn’t our offerings stand on their own two feet?  If people want something, they’ll pay for it.  If they don’t want it enough to pay for, then maybe we should stop doing it.  I realize there are limits to this line of thinking (witness all the people who bitch & moan about taxes and the federal government, yet keep using the police, the fire department, public roads and bridges, public water and sewage systems, public education, etc.).  But if a program can’t support itself, unless it genuinely is for the good of the profession, the industry or the public, maybe it’s time to kill it.

The comfortable thing about the membership model – and the reason so many of our organizations are loathe to even consider alternatives – is that, with very few exceptions, it provides a steady and reliable source of revenue that allows us to keep on ignoring those sacred cows.  Thing is, they aren’t going to die on their own.  And this problem is just going to get worse.

I don’t have an answer to this. But I do know that, particularly for individual membership associations (and trades, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re immune), we’re already past time when we need to figure out how to let our audiences have it their way.