Disrupting the Traditional Association Membership Model

Professional and trade associations are the epicenter for professionals and organizations in the U.S. to learn, connect and show leadership. Associations continue to provide these essential career development opportunities, but face increasing pressure from for-profit companies encroaching on their core competencies. Enabled by technology platforms, these companies see an opportunity to provide specialized professional development, certification, conferences and events, and advocacy services that rival those of traditional associations. As examples, MarketingProfs.com, serving marketers, and OfficeNinjas.com, catering to administrative professionals, use digital tools and online communities to provide professional development to professionals in their fields that is in direct competition with more traditional membership association services. Change.org, a for-profit company that describes itself as “a mission driven social enterprise,” provides an online platform that enables individuals to engage in their own advocacy efforts by launching petitions through a robust platform and online community. Online technologies have given these disruptive organizations easy access to professionals and organizations seeking these services and offered the means to create new service delivery methods that appeal to changing communications preferences. For-profit competitors also succeed by offering á la carte options that associations are hesitant to provide without membership dues.

The Competitive Threat of For-Profit Companies

For-profit companies are succeeding in capturing membership dollars by filling perceived gaps in offerings. Based on a recent survey of association members conducted by Rockbridge, nearly two-thirds of professional association members (63%) have used a for-profit company for an activity traditionally provided by an association, such as learning and development, certification, networking, or advocacy efforts. This is occurring despite the fact that six-in-ten association members (59%) believe the overall value they receive from their association is “very good” or “excellent.”

The most vulnerable area for associations is networking, as more than half of association members believe a for-profit provider can meet the need better or equally well compared to associations. Certification services, as well as learning and development, are also threatened with similar numbers of association members feeling for-profit providers are better or equally capable of providing these fundamental services.

There are many examples of for-profit online professional communities that provide networking, along with learning and development services, that are in direct competition with traditional membership associations. MarketingProfs.com, which provides “real-world education that is practical, hands-on, and approachable, designed to meet the most in-demand skills” has articles, training courses, webinars, podcasts, tools and strategies for professional marketers. OfficeNinjas.com is a hip online community of administrative professionals offering both online and offline networking, learning and events. For-profit organizations like these may offer membership for free, making it risk-free to join, and then charge for professional development offerings, such as attending events, webinars, and certification, allowing members to pay as they go.

The success of these for-profit companies in leveraging technology, as well as pressures wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, are challenging associations to think differently about what it means to a member to be part of a community of professionals. Associations will need to think more broadly about how technology can add value to membership, or perhaps even redefine “membership,” to remain competitive and grow in the future.

The best way to stay ahead of disruptive competitors is to focus on innovation. Gauging success with Net Promoter Scores or Customer Effort Scores is no longer sufficient to stay relevant: you also have to treat innovativeness as an organizational priority and a fundamental KPI.  Rockbridge can help in this regard by providing the tools to measure and benchmark your association’s innovativeness from the member perspective, mapping the new competitive landscape, and identifying member needs in a disruptive environment.  Another suggestion is to assess your members’ technology needs and evaluate your own organizational Technology Maturity. Rockbridge has developed tools for the American Society of Association Executives Foundation as part of the Technology Success Study which are worth investigating. The bottom line is that it is perilous to be complacent, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerates the impact of competition and technology.  It is time to ask and answer critical questions about your association’s competitiveness and plan for the world that will emerge after the pandemic is behind us.

About the Study: The National Technology Readiness Survey is conducted by Rockbridge Associates, Inc. and A. Parasuraman, and has tracked technology and e-commerce trends since 1999. The survey is co-sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Service at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. The most recent wave was conducted in March 2020 and is based on an online survey of 1216 U.S. adults sampled at random from a consumer research panel. A total of 55 members of professional and trade associations were included in the sample.  Results are weighted to match census characteristics. The margin of error on the findings reported here among association members is plus or minus 12 percentage points.

Learn more about Rockbridge’s association practice.

Written by: Gina Woodall, President