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Thought Leadership
To future-proof something is to enable it to continue to be of value in the distant future; in essence, to ensure that it does not become obsolete. There are very few things that have existed that become truly obsolete, though – most just change their value, meaning and usage. Candles, for instance, are used for atmosphere now rather than light, and horses have become expensive pets rather than valuable commodities.

So, when planning the future-proofing of membership organisations, we refer to their relevance and meaning, as they will always be with us in some form or another. But when looking at how to mitigate any decline in your particular group, there are a few things you need to consider.

Being relevant has become something of a marketing mantra that lost its power. I’d bet money on the makers of breakfast cereal having the word ‘relevance’ as part of its brand identity. Relevance, in this instance, meaning tasty and not poisonous. For membership organisations, it’s a little more important.

This is about focusing on the customer and understanding your members and prospective members at a detailed, segmented level. Who they are, and – more importantly – what their needs and motivations are in both their personal and work lives. You need to define what it is that is unique and valuable about your organisation that encourages someone to pay for membership and continue to renew it. What, in fact, differentiates your members from non-members.

It may also be time to be honest and remind yourselves of the purpose of your membership organisation that is not simply providing an income to those who run it. You may need to question and redefine its purpose. So, ask yourself, why does this organisation exist? What does it do? And what is the long-term vision?

A fresh approach to member management is also needed. The common method to managing member engagement in many organisations is from the top down: where the organisation sets the agenda and initiates activity – and members are invited to follow.

This approach needs to change to a more fluid model, where the organisation takes a more passive and enabling role. Members should become the main initiators of content and conversation, while the organisation acts as curator and distributor.

All well and good so far, but how do you bring about these changes? Conveying renewed purpose and engaging with your membership require focus in three key areas.

Firstly, it’s about content. This needs to be viewed as your welcome mat. It will inevitably be the first point of contact any prospect has with your organisation and is a space to reassure existing members that they are getting what they need from you.

Be selective about content. Trying to do or say too much is a common pitfall. Once your purpose and vision are clear, focus on these. They will keep you distinctive and help create centres of excellence. Instead of relying on internal skills or experience, find and encourage rising stars in your community. They are the lifeblood of new ideas.

Secondly, there are several ways to think about how to use technology to your advantage. Know your members. Understand their relationship with technology, and design scenarios that will enhance their experience. Use your member data in the same way a supermarket does. Deliver the services and content that people want to buy from you.

Design for mobile and strive for digital excellence in the delivery, but don’t forget that the value of print has increased in a digital-first world.

Finally, stop pretending your mission is altruistic. Remember you are a commercial entity and that most membership organisations need an income to survive.

Relying on members paying a yearly subscription is less sustainable than ever before. You need to consider alternatives, such as products and services related to the relevance of membership (eg, personal insurance for freelancers, commercial data partnerships with industry suppliers).

Move away from one-size-fits-all or bronze, silver and gold standards, and look to develop pick-and-mix options to accommodate a broader range of individual needs – and consider loyalty programmes that reward usage.

Like any business, membership organisations experience times of growth and times of struggle. Perhaps the changes in our notions of membership mean organisations that are directly reliant on it for their survival have most to lose.

There’s a lot to consider, and most of us in the membership space are aware of the challenges faced. But while appreciating that Rome wasn’t built in a day, we need to recognise that people will move elsewhere if we don’t get started.

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