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Thought Leadership

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. So said a teen icon back in the 1980s, when your PC had 128kb of RAM, and most mobile phones needed a car battery for power. How we laugh. Our teen selves had no idea what was coming.

Since then, the pace of change has increased, and the failure to recognise its implications and introduce innovations has seen the slow decline and even death of brands such as Blockbuster, Woolworths, HMV, Toys R Us and Kodak.

For membership organisations, some of which have been around for so many years and rely on human investment, understanding the developments and recognising their implications has taken on a new urgency.

So, what are the developments in our society that have impacted membership associations and what are the implications?

The digitisation of society

It stopped being the elephant in the room a long time ago, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that every aspect of our lives, from daily rituals to industrial processes, is populated and connected with computing technology.

Information itself and access to it is more freely available. Sharing knowledge and information has become a social norm. The paradox is that privacy has become more of an issue, although probably not as much as the press would have you believe.

Social media usage is widespread. It has created new ways of exchanging and sharing information and is having a lasting impact on consumer behaviour, social values and cultural expression.

With this background, the challenge for membership organisations is to ensure that as a basic hygiene factor, their offering is technology-driven and distributed. Content must be created with a view to being authentic and highly valuable, not just something to fill the gaps.

Changing culture and values

These are partisan times. Globalisation and migration have brought social and cultural disparities into the spotlight, heightening sensitivities to many forms of identity. As a reaction to globalisation, regional and local interest groups have begun to shout more loudly. These are communities of interest, existing both online and offline, that have agendas driven by specific local demands (eg, sex education in schools).

Society is starting to hold business to account. Companies are, rightly so, much more aware of the impact of their operations on the environment and human health.

Consumers want a voice and a more direct input into the activities of your community, so membership organisations need to co-create the boundaries of membership with members. This will engender greater loyalty and point the organisations’ activities in the right direction for future growth.

Consumer behaviour

The traditional models and concepts of ownership are changing. Consumers are increasingly looking for more integrated services rather than specific products, and for products that provide an experience as part of their product offering and a greater degree of personalisation.

So, for membership organisations, business and pricing models need to be reconsidered. PAYG needs to be properly costed. Are the component parts of your offer strong enough to stand alone? Face-to-face communication is becoming something of a luxury in the digital age. Building experiences for members that facilitate more emotional and intimate connections should be viewed as a key membership strategy.

Changing workforce culture

It is said we spend around 25% of our lives in paid employment, but the long-term forecasts are for fewer working hours. Either way, the nature of our employment is changing, and membership associations are impacted.

Employment life for those just entering the workforce looks more like multiple jobs with multiple employers. Working practices are moving towards more open patterns of work and collaboration, driven by the increasing difficulty of finding staff skilled with the requisite experience in a growing number of areas.

Working practices are also becoming more dynamic and flexible. Advances in technology is reducing the need to travel so frequently but making it possible and indeed necessary to have your ‘office’ on tap 24/7. These flexible practices will also help to ensure that the knowledge and experience from an ageing workforce is not lost.

Professional associations need to re-evaluate their role and service offering. With the boundaries blurring between many job roles, it may be imperative to consider the merging of some professional bodies or rebranding to reflect a more diverse work culture. Work/life balance is the mantra, and yet for many there is a decreasing distinction. Content needs to reflect the needs of the employee beyond the office.

Groups form to reflect the society in which they exist. The key takeout from all this postulating is that things change. The biggest challenge for any membership organisation is to remain relevant to its members and continue to evolve and deliver a service that is needed and not just nice to have.

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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.

Download our full white paper here.