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Why associations should ditch traditional membership models


Why associations need to ditch traditional membership models if they want to build an engaged and grateful community… 


Associations cannot continue with the traditional “one size fits all” approach to membership. For decades, associations have maintained a very traditional approach towards membership. 

However, the time has come for organisations to catch up with the realities of today’s consumer habits and reconsider how and why people around the world engage with organisations. Like them, your members want to enjoy a customised, personalized experience – and on their terms. Fundamental to this shift is the recognition that value is defined by the customer (the new member) – not by the association. 


Members, customers, or community? 

Many associations have large numbers of ‘customers’ who pay valuable sums of money to the organisation for multiple personal and professional reasons. These customers are interested in your association’s offerings, products, programmes, body of knowledge. 

They buy your publications and journals; pay to attend your congress, virtual meetings, or training courses; adhere to your standards; and follow your certification or accreditation programs. But they are not interested in – or do not see the relevance or value of – the bundled package and price point you call membership, so they will not become members under today’s traditional approach. 

And yet, many associations overlook these customers and consider them low priority. 

Some do not even collect data or intelligence or try to engage with them. Why? Because they are not members. 

Instead of building membership through the traditional approach only, associations should adopt the mindset of building community and considering their organisations as open professional communities rather than closed membership organisations. Every customer has a role to play and contributions to make and should be considered a valued member of the community, particularly as they are willing to spend money with your organisation. Why not let professionals engage with your association at the 

specific, personalized level that is relevant for them and adds value, personally and professionally? Why not consider anyone who engages with your organisation – at any level, in any capacity, at any price point – a member of your association? 


Evolving membership models 

Practically speaking, your multiple-choice approach to membership can be as creative as you want, but you must address your target audience’s needs and use technology wisely. Some simple examples: 

Special interest group/communities of practice member

Instead of making this a subcategory of Full Membership, why not allow professionals to engage with your organisation for a modest fee to access their specific area of (sub)interest. They soon will discover other areas of interest within your association and increase their engagement. 


Participant member 

Why not consider all those valuable participants at your annual congress or meeting (be it virtual, hybrid or physical format) as Participant Members whose only benefit is the event? When they register, welcome them to your association community as a valued Participant Member; you have given nothing away and they have paid nothing extra, but you have engaged with them. Imagine the boost to your influence and authority as the association of choice if you are one of the many international healthcare associations that attract tens of thousands of congress participations thirsty for your content but struggle to interest even one thousand members? 


Training member

Allow professionals to become a training member of your organisation, providing them with access to one or two online learning modules and face-to-face courses. Anything outside of their member category is extra, and payable on demand.  


Corresponding member 

Most associations have a free digital newsletter that is informative and provides a “taste” of more in-depth information that non-members must pay to access. It costs your association the same time and money to prepare this newsletter for ten thousand members as it does for one hundred thousand members. Instead of soliciting subscribers to the newsletter and continuing to list them merely as subscribers, why not welcome them into your community as Corresponding Members? Some associations call this Free Membership (as typically there is no fee to “subscribe” to the newsletter), but this undermines the whole principle of allowing a multiple choice towards engagement and belittles the value of other categories. You will not provide any other services to these Corresponding Members, but you will value them as part of your member community and will increase your sphere of influence. 


Virtual/digital member

Many associations have added this category to offer a lower membership fee while minimizing their costs. Typically, this member has had access only to restricted digital content. With the “new normal” caused by COVID-19, and the transformation of many association physical meetings or congresses into new virtual learning experiences, this Virtual Member category now represents a wealth of possibilities, value and benefits. For both the association and the Virtual Member. 


Customized member

Allow your members to choose from a menu of pre-defined products/benefits and compose their own membership package—like à la carte shopping. Eventually, these members will realize that the Full Member deal offers better value, but they won’t forget that you allowed them in at the content and price point that was of interest to them at the start of their engagement with your association. 


Full member

This category will not go away and indeed will remain at the core of your association’s activities. The traditional association model asks professionals to engage with an association as a member, to adhere to a code of ethics, in many cases to prove their eligibility for membership, and to buy in to a set of pre-established benefits, which often are available to non-members but at a slightly higher price. 

In return, the member can vote and become actively involved in the life the association, participating on committees, influencing policy, and eventually assuming leadership positions. However, the membership numbers under this approach remain limited. The new member categories do not undermine this, nor do any of them allow the full engagement privileges that go with Full Membership. Perhaps this member category should evolve into something more elevated, such as VIP or Premium Member? 


Nikki Walker - nikki.walker@wearemci.com

Nikki Walker - Global Vice President Engagement Associations & Communities