From the Corner Office

John Graham, CAE, Then and Now

By Association Adviser staff • August 25, 2012

John Graham, ASAE
John Graham, CAE, FASAE, American Society of Association Executives

We caught up with ASAE President, John Graham, CAE, at last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Dallas to get his take on the game changers and drivers impacting the association world. We originally spoke to Mr. Graham in 2010, and thought it would be fun to see how things have changed over the last two years from his point of view:

Association Adviser: John, what are the biggest changes you’re seeing since we last talked in Los Angeles in 2010?

John Graham (2012): Clearly the economy is improving, but we’re not back to 2007-2008 and not likely to be there any time soon. Our show attendance is up again this year (seven percent with more than 5,400 attendees and 700 exhibit booths), but we’re operating in a new normal era. Also, the advent of mobile is really impacting member behavior. With mobile, the user (i.e., your member) creates the experience; we as associations don’t create it for you. For example, look how many people are using their tablets here as a core part of their show experience.

JG (2010): The biggest game changer has been the advent of social media and mobile technology. This will alter the association landscape in ways we haven’t been thinking about yet. Also, we’re still digging ourselves out of the worst economic downturn in a generation. Associations are generally lagging indicators of the economy. We’re not out of the woods yet.


  • With mobile technology, the member creates the experience with you. You don’t create it for the member.
  • Communication clutter continues to be a big challenge for associations. You have to be relevant and highly selective about what you send to members and the format in which you send it.
  • The traditional one-size-fits-all membership is a challenged model that’s going away. Look for lower priced introductory memberships with more a la carte options.

AA: What is the next “big thing” you expect to see on the association horizon?

JG (2012): It’s all about content distribution. By that, I mean distribution over multiple platforms – especially video content and virtual meetings.

JG (2010): There’s been a continued migration from print to digital content and distribution. The last recession combined with amazing advances in technology is really driving members (and advertisers) online.

AA: How would you describe the association membership model in this “new normal” era?

JG (2012): The traditional one-size-fits-all membership is a challenged model that’s going away. Now you’re seeing lower-cost introductory memberships with a lot of a la carte options depending on the members’ needs and preferences.

JG (2010): For many years, you could assume a membership renewal as long as you were showing some kind of ROI. Now you can’t assume anything in this era of mass customization. You’ve really got to work that relationship value piece and do it every day.

AA:Several association leaders have told us that the word “join” doesn’t mean the same thing to the younger generation that it does to older generations.

JG (2012): The new word is “engage,” not join. Ask yourself how an individual engages with your organization and how you go about monetizing and pricing that engagement. How readily available are your resources and information from other widely available sources? To a certain extent, you’re competing with Google and YouTube. What you have to do is package the widely available resources with your own stuff. You have to help members understand what’s really important and why it’s important, instead of just aggregating information for them. Lots of others can do that.

JG (2010): We live in an instant gratification “experiential economy” to borrow a phrase from author James Gilmore. Younger people are not blindly jumping in to join associations when they have so many other ways of networking with their peers and obtaining information about their profession.

AA: So, associations should start thinking like curators?

JG (2012): Exactly. Curating for members and doing so from a trusted source (i.e., your association).

AA: With so much information out there, what is the biggest communication challenge that associations wrestle with today?

JG (2012): Communication clutter. People are receiving so much information – both stuff they’ve requested and stuff associations think they should be receiving – that it can be overwhelming and off-putting if you’re not careful. You have to be relevant and highly selective about what you send and how you deliver it.

JG (2010): Technology is really splintering audiences into smaller and smaller communities. You can’t get by with a one-size-fits-all communication mentality, and that’s hard for many associations that serve large industries or professions.

AA: Last time we talked, you described it as, “They want what they want, when they want it and how they want it.” Is that still true?

JG (2012): You can add at the end: “and not what they don’t want” (laughing).

AA: So, what will the association marketplace look like five years from now?

JG (2012): A large number of Boomers will be retiring, and there won’t be as many mentors around. The next generation is smaller and less likely to join just because their bosses and peers did. On the flip side, they’re more likely to engage with your organization if they feel you really have something of value to offer. Thanks to social media, it’s a lot easier for them to spread the word to people they trust.

JG (2010): It’s all going to evolve, with technology and Washington policy being two of the key drivers.

AA: Will it be tougher to recruit and retain younger members than before?

JG (2012): First let’s be clear about one thing: Younger people never really joined association at the very start of their careers. It’s usually when they’re a little further along, and that hasn’t changed. It’s just when they are ready to join – I should really say engage with you – it’s not going to be on an all-inclusive full membership basis. It’s going to be a lower-cost basic membership with additional fees for selective things, such as attending certain meetings or for professional development, mentoring and career advice. Career advancement is highly important for the younger generation.

JG (2010): They’re pickier and they really want to customize the relationship they have with you and it has to be on their terms.

AA: What’s keeping you up at night?

JG (2012): How are we going to find a sustainable membership model and how are organizations like ASAE going to figure out engagement. It’s no longer about getting membership dues and more non-dues revenue. It’s about getting more engagement revenue.

JG (2010): It’s anybody’s guess how Washington policy is going to affect the tax-exempt status of many associations. But with all this technology and pressure for non-dues revenue, we’ve still got to keep our core competencies top of mind. How are we going to keep educating and serving members and helping them connect? I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the days of assuming and automatic dues renewal just because you dent out a nice magazine and put on a few conferences.