Why Is Membership the Only Relationship?

Way back in March at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference, I had the opportunity to participate in an early morning conversation facilitated by Jeff de Cagna. Rob Barnes (at the time of Fitness Australia and now of Aptify) and Bob Rich (the American Chemical Society), Jeff and I debated the member relationship and, more specifically, why membership associations insist on behaving as if membership is the only relationship people can have with us.

I’ve been rolling this idea around in my head ever since then, and even promised a later blog post. Well, this is it.

Historically, associations have focused heavily, even exclusively, on the membership relationship. Makes sense, right? After all, we’re membership associations.

The thing is, we have LOTS of other stakeholders and potential stakeholders, don’t we? Just to name a few: volunteers (committee or ad hoc), subscribers, advertisers, authors, in-person event attendees, virtual event attendees, presenters, speakers, accreditation holders, certification holders, certification students, members of our industry or profession who aren’t association members, beneficiaries of our advocacy work, government officials, legislators (local, state, federal), customers who “just” want to buy products or services from us, our members’ customers, vendors and suppliers who serve our members, and even, in some cases, the general public. And I’m sure there are others.

We have managed to formalize some of these relationships. We offer sponsorships for vendors who want access to our members. We offer non-member rates for publications and events. We track CE credits for our certification holders.

But we also push all these people towards membership. In fact, taking any of the above actions is guaranteed to turn you into a membership lead, who will be pursued relentlessly until she joins or tells us to piss off (or just starts ignoring everything we send her).

Why does everyone have to be a member? Why are we still operating with the “you can have it in any color you want so long as it’s black” mindset? The world has changed to one of mass customization, and we aren’t keeping up with people’s expectations and experiences.

In order to continue to thrive, associations need to figure out ways of formalizing other relationships than the member relationship and allowing space for informal relationships as well. We need to study our audiences far more deeply and extensively, learn about them and what they want, and then become more flexible in our attitudes and offerings in order to meet them where they are, rather than demanding they all fit into the one box we’re willing to provide.


10 thoughts on “Why Is Membership the Only Relationship?”

  • Thanks for posing this question, Elizabeth. This has my mind rolling, and I think I might need to noodle on it some more and possibly respond w/ a blog post at AN next week. But I have a couple initial reactions: I think the reason associations default to membership is because, by definition, associations start as “a group of like-minded people with common interests,” so I think it’s just instinct to want to see people who express some interest in the association as people who ought to be “part of the group.” And I also think membership is the model that best serves the typical association mission. Just like the donor relationship best serves most philanthropic organizations and the customer relationship best serves most profit-driven corporations. But I think your question of why associations reflexively see membership as the ONLY model to pursue is important, because what might be best for a majority of stakeholders won’t necessarily be right for all of them, as you describe. Finding the right mix, and the right relationship for the right people, is the challenge. Thanks again!

  • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Joe. If you do write something for AN, definitely let me know. I think this comes down to the issues associations face around the use of data/Big Data/audience segmentation, or our lack of doing thereof.

  • I don’t think that members are the only relationships associations have. As pointed out in the blog, there are many other types of relationships and interactions individuals or others may have with us. However, I do think associations are remiss by moving away from membership models and forgetting what a huge core of individuals or companies are looking for from associations. As a trade association, we vet our members very strictly and by doing so, there is inherent branding and trust that being part of the association as a member brings. I have found that as we treat those that join the association and get them engaged our member loyalty dramatically increases. What was once about a 88% retention rate! we average 96-98%. Further, we track every way a company (member or non-member) engages with us and again, the more engaged, the higher satisfaction and the higher retention. It may be over-simplifying it, but I feel that there is a movement to move away from membership models. I believe there should be a “both-and” mentality, with membership offering a premium or more elite experience. I believe associations who are abandoning membership models completely may find themselves undoing it several years down the road.

  • Susan, that’s an interesting perspective. I’ve certainly noticed associations, including a number of my clients, considering changing or actually changing their membership models, but none I’ve encountered have done away with membership entirely (at least none that I’m aware of). I wonder how widespread that is?

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