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Executives of membership-based associations are painfully aware that many of the basic roles their organizations have long played can now be handled over a smartphone – without them.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that new digital platforms launched by for-profit technology companies ­­threaten to displace and erode the value propositions that trade and professional associations have long counted on for membership retention and sustainability.

“Even though most members see the value in their association membership, for-profit companies are succeeding in capturing membership dollars by filling perceived gaps in offerings,” concluded Rockbridge Associates, Inc., a market research firm based in Great Falls, Va., in an August 2016 survey of association members’ attitudes about technology. Among their findings: “Two-thirds of professional association members (67%) have used a for-profit company for an activity traditionally provided by an association.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Associations should instead be rapidly incorporating these third-party tools and platforms, using them to supercharge their powerful databases of unique content and member information – and adding continuous value to their publications, advocacy, thought leadership, meetings and events.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Nonprofits are typically behind the technology curve. Organizational cultures are often stuck in departmental silos. Their product development process is anything but rapid. Boards are reluctant to make bets on the future until they see an inspiring, but realistic and achievable, plan for making much-needed digital investments.

How can membership-based organizations stay relevant and sustainable in an age of digital disruption? It all starts with an understanding that the entire organization needs to transform: from the technology stack to an organizational culture that values rapid product development, a robust data environment and a fearless loyalty to user needs.

In our work with nonprofits of all sizes, we hear executives ask many of the same questions about their organization’s digital future, including:

How do I position my association to remain relevant and valuable to my members and the industry? 

How can my association provide a personalized experience that will delight my members? 

How can I make our conference and events more relevant in a market with so many new choices for networking and staying up to date? 

How can I ensure my association remains the place where professionals can come to advance their careers? 

Our guidance to for-profit and nonprofit clients, alike, typically centers on the following basic principles:

  • Understand the distinct needs of each type of user, through persona development and user-needs research.
  • Strive for a 360-degree view of each customer’s interactions with the organization, and try to make each touchpoint easy, efficient and enjoyable.
  • ­Structure, tag and present digital content in a way that allows users ready access to all association news, information and materials.
  • Work toward a web services technology architecture that allows all data to be searchable and indexed in a common database, independent of various applications, including third-party platforms, that use the data.

Professional and trade associations will continue to play a uniquely valuable role in educating, advancing and representing their members and their interests. But to succeed, they will need a coherent, incrementally achievable plan for transforming their digital presence.

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