Membership Wakeup Call for Associations

By Hank Berkowitz • April 8, 2013

As we go live with this issue, the stock market is near its all-time high, housing prices are rebounding in most parts of the country and the jobless rate has significantly improved since we launched Association Adviser in March 2010. Many associations tell us their membership is back to where it was before the 2008-09 downturn, perhaps even a bit better. So why aren’t we popping the champagne corks? It’s cautious optimism at best. Here’s why.

  • You can’t compete in a 5.0 world on a 1.0 platform.
  • Associations must adapt to shifting demographics, new communication platforms and changing member preferences.
  • High performing associations anticipate member needs before the member has to ask.
  • As technology becomes more pervasive, don’t forget the personal side of the member experience.


Michelle Mason
Michelle Mason, CAE

If you look back at our most popular reader polls of the past three years it’s interesting to see how your peers’ concerns have shifted from strategy (2010) to communication and innovation (2011) to tools and technology (2012). It’s clear that associations are becoming faster and more agile, but are they agile enough to keep up with what ASQ managing director, Michelle Mason, called the “accelerated pace” of change? The jury’s still out on that one.

Sometimes things are changing so fast around you that you don’t even realize it. As former Eagle Joe Walsh sings in his self-deprecating video about being an aging rock star, “It’s tough to handle this fortune and fame; everybody’s so different, but I haven’t changed.” If you’re over a certain age, you’ll notice some 21st century upgrades to Joe’s original lyrics from 1978.

But we have changed, Joe. And we better get used to change since it’s tough to compete in a 5.0 world on a 1.0 platform, observed Mason.

See Corner Office profile of Mason.

A look at how times have changed in just three years:

Biggest changes since 2010

Renee Lewis, director of event services for the American Concrete Institute observed that the line between non-profits and for-profits is blurring. “Associations are operating more like corporations. They are more proactive, they respond more quickly to change and they are applying innovative approaches to challenges,” she said.

ASQ’s Mason said that because members (and prospective members) can get so much valuable information online for free, associations have to find new ways to demonstrate their value. For instance, instead of claiming to be the exclusive source of important industry information, they should emphasize their role as the most trusted source.

Carol Khoury
Carol Khoury

Carol Khoury, managing director of membership and marketing for the New York Society of Security Analysts (NYSSA) said associations are finally coming to grips with the fact that they can no longer “do business as usual” and hope to survive. “Associations that don’t adapt are simply dinosaurs and not long for this world,” she said.

Khoury also pointed to a “new world order” based on shifting demographics (Boomers approaching retirement and Gen X and the Millennials rising); different modes of communications (virtual and social media); and an “elemental change” in what members value.

Charles Popper
Charles Popper, Naylor Association Solutions

Mobile is one of the biggest game changers in recent years, according to Charles Popper, Naylor’s vice president of association relations. More than 90 percent of interactions between an association and its members are screen-based, according to a recent American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) survey. Of those, nearly two in five (38 percent) are taking place on a mobile device, observed Popper. “That has big ramifications for association content producers, membership directors and advertiser/sponsors,” he said.

Then there’s competition. More than 70 percent of respondents to the ASAE survey said they were experiencing competition from the for-profit world. Dan Stevens, president of video production firm WorkerBee.TV agreed. He cited increased competition, not just from trade magazines, which he said are weakening, but from non-traditional competitors such as LinkedIn blogs, Twitter followers and Facebook pages. “Many of these rivals are moving from connections and into events,” added Stevens, whose client list includes many well-known trade associations.

Alex DeBarr
Alex DeBarr, Naylor Association Solutions

According to Naylor CEO Alex DeBarr, there is a new generation of middle and upper management in every market that takes their information and guidance from multiple sources. Associations that take the time to understand how their members “get and consume information” and then put the right resources behind that new communication equation are achieving success, he said.

What’s on the horizon?

There will probably be a “shakedown,” according to NYSSA’s Khoury. “Associations that refuse to embrace change will disappear” and those that survive will be providing more customized types of memberships that satisfy individuals’ interests and needs. She said customization will foster deeper engagement between the member and the association. But, it will be a challenge to implement. Associations will have to research what members really want and value, and then figure out how to deliver it—”without reinventing the wheel a thousand times,” Khoury said.

ASQ’s Mason agreed that associations have to learn to anticipate member needs before they ask. Like ASQ, she expected

Eric Wulf
Eric Wulf, International Carwash Association

more and more associations to turn to predictive analytics and other membership data analysis tools. Eric Wulf, CEO of the International Carwash Association, is also an advocate of deep analytics. “We’re very big on data and customer intelligence, and we’re becoming more so as our membership is increasingly coming from larger companies,” he said. “Wash Count™ is a tool we developed for car wash operators to benchmark and compare their business results by market, by geography, by type of facility and many other factors.”

Like Mason, ACI’s Lewis predicted that association employees will be less likely to work in silos (departments) and more likely to work in collaborative teams. “This will require hiring staff that have stronger communication and project management skills,” she said. Worker Bee’s Stevens said associations will be investing more resources in being relevant beyond their conferences. “They to need to show value between their live events, and are catering to younger people who are more digital and who want quick access to information in small sound bites,” he said.

How associations are stepping up

ACI’s Lewis believes associations are keeping up with the times. Whereas associations used to be scared off by the price tag of sophisticated technology solutions, she now sees “greater emphasis on investing in technology and incorporating it into the organization.”

The successful associations we work with recognize what they know and what they don’t know, said DeBarr. “The good news is that more association leaders understand that serving member/supplier needs, communicating effectively with members and running an efficient operation is key to achieving relevance and surviving. Relevance is what drives both dues and non-dues revenue.”

As Naylor’s Elsbeth Russell writes in today’s issue, associations are getting more granular in how they recruit new members. They’re not just looking at which sub-groups to target, but which of their current members has the most influence over that target group. Meanwhile, Dan Stevens sees a more open and fluid editorial calendar for association content producers. “By that I mean not all opinions have to be vetted by a committee or two. It still needs to be vetted, but a quicker turnaround of content and an opening to use experts from everywhere.”

NYSSA found that more members than they thought were sole practitioners or were in career transition. Thus, they needed affordable health insurance coverage. In response, NYSSA partnered with a large insurance company to offer group rates to members.

“This appeals to current members and is a good selling point for those who are considering joining,” Khoury said.

NYSSA also observed that members were frequently asking for new types of networking opportunities beyond wine tastings, harbor cruises and other traditional social events. In response, NYSSA started monthly gatherings at local pubs in New York City. No reservations are required and there is no cost other than BYOB. “It was a no-brainer,” said Khoury. “For busy, over-booked Wall Street types like our members, it’s ideal. They like the fact that they can just show up after a busy day at work and make connections in a relaxed atmosphere. We’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from attendees.”

The Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association started MHEDA TV, a popular member video channel to educate and empower members and their members’ businesses. MHEDA conference sessions are filmed and made available at a nominal fee to staff and members who cannot attend. It also created an MVP program for members committed to education, training and skills enhancement and a Forklift Video Series that will be used by dealers to enhance client education, lead nurturing and sales.

Brianna Swartz, director of member services for the California Charter Schools Association, said the rapid adoption of public charter schools in California has made it tougher for her organization to provide the “one-on-one relationships” that its members relished in the “early years.” In response, they’ve become more “intentional” about providing in-person experiences for members” while leveraging email, websites, phone interaction and Webinars to keep members connected to the organization when they can’t meet face to face.


As we enter the next stage of the membership association evolution, Dan Stevens said associations should make sure each piece of content they distribute engages a member, attracts a new member or is somehow monetized. ACI’s Renee Lewis said associations will face change more often and with quicker turnaround times required. “The more we embrace and develop systems to respond to change, the more successful we will be.” NYSSA’s Khoury said it’s simple: “Reinvent your association or face extinction!”

With a new baseball season about to begin, we couldn’t resist this popular malapropism from Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra: “It is difficult to make predictions—especially about the future.”

As rocker Joe Walsh famously crooned: “I keep on going, guess, I’ll never know why…… Life’s been good to me {LONG PAUSE}……… so far.” You may not drive a Maserati that “does 185,” but if you stay smart, agile and curious, life should remain good for you and your members, too.

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.