Asking different questions: MMCC 2013 edition

by Jeff De Cagna on June 3, 2013

“Is the association model broken?”

“What does ‘member’ mean to you?”

“Do we need a new membership model?”

“Is membership dead?”

These are all interesting questions, and I understand why some people are asking them. Unfortunately, they are not the right questions. Instead of trying to figure out how to extend the life of the existing paradigm, association leaders need to focus their attention on shaping the next one, specifically by building adaptive and resilient, i.e., thrivable, business models that do not depend on membership.

To move the conversation in a more generative direction, then, I want to challenge boards, CEOs, C-Suite executives and other contributors to grapple with three core strategic questions that will require them to undertake an honest appraisal of personal, organizational and industry orthodoxies, as well as pursue a deeper exploration of what is possible for their associations in the years ahead:

+What will it take for your association to thrive over the next decade and beyond?

Every association will need to come up with its own specific answer to this question, but one thing is abundantly clear: associations need to develop new capabilities for co-creating radical new value with their stakeholders. Over many decades, associations have invested considerable time and energy, as well as financial resources, in optimizing the work of selling membership to drive their existing membership-centric business models. As the forces of relentless societal transformation continue to erode the traditional economics of membership, however, associations will need to build stronger platforms for tangible and intangible new value creation that can become a source of “collaborative advantage” with distributed networks of trusted and talented contributors, irrespective of their desire for membership.

+What will your stakeholders need to thrive over the next decade and beyond?

While it can be hard for association leaders to conceive, the membership offer is almost always a better solution to the association’s “problem” than the stakeholder’s “problem.” After all, the association derives the immediate gain of another sale and another buyer it can begin to monetize through both direct and indirect revenue opportunities. Meanwhile, the stakeholder often must wait for access to most of what the association regards as the really compelling benefits of membership, only to discover later that those benefits aren’t really that compelling. To develop a clearer point of view on what their stakeholders will need to thrive in the years ahead, association leaders must nurture an empathic understanding of their stakeholders’ short-term challenges, intermediate-term needs and long-term outcomes to create distinctive value beyond the limitations of the benefits package.

+Why should your current and future stakeholders want to have a relationship with your association?

Membership isn’t a real relationship for the vast majority of association stakeholders, but a one-size-fits-all offer that involves little more than a magazine subscription and a once-a-year credit card transaction. For stakeholders with abundant access to a wide variety of information resources, network connections and learning opportunities that can help them succeed, ordinary approaches are not nearly good enough. To be intentional about building meaningful relationships going forward, associations must engage their stakeholders in deeper and richer value conversations that embrace serendipity, and seek to link purposeful action with the responsible pursuit of profitability.

If you’re interested in joining this conversation and you are attending ASAE’s Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, I will be speaking on the topic, “Why Membership is Killing Association Business Models” from 10:15 am-11:30 am in Room 150B of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. You also may follow Twitter posts from the session using the hashtag #MMCCon LC4. One way or the other, I hope you will share your perspectives!

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