Disrupting the Traditional Association Membership Model

Professional and trade associations have served as the epicenter for U.S. workers to learn, connect and lead their fields for many years. Indeed, associations continue to provide these essential career development opportunities, but they 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 workers seeking these services and the means to create new service delivery methods that appeal to professionals’ changing communications preferences. For-profit competitors also succeed by offering á la carte options that associations are hesitant to provide without membership dues.

A recent survey conducted by Rockbridge explores the current state of association membership, members’ current technology usage and their preferred communications channels when interacting with their association, as well as the depth of the threat to the sector by for-profit providers. The purpose of the survey is to help raise awareness and encourage associations to plan future strategies to address rising competition.

The Current State of Membership
A small minority of Americans are members of a professional association, with nearly one-in-ten (9%) stating they belong to a work-related association to help further their careers. Many of these Americans (42%) belong to more than one professional association, showing they may not feel they can fulfill all of their professional development needs from a single organization.
Association members feel strongly about their participation in their associations which is a positive sign for retention. Two-thirds (66%) are “very” or “extremely” satisfied with the association they belong to related to their work or profession. Perhaps more importantly, a full 70% believe the value they receive from the association is “very good” or “excellent.” Their overall positive assessment of their membership is evidence that associations continue to be relevant to members.

How Association Members Use Technology
Associations continue to rely on “traditional methods” of delivering their services, such as in-person, by phone, or mail, but are also taking advantage of technology-based methods. Our survey looked into the different methods used by members to access benefits and services, including learning, networking, advocacy, and certification. The area most transformed by technology is networking, where the trend is towards online member communities and other innovative tools to foster interaction between members. Slightly more than half (51%) have participated in a networking opportunity through a traditional method, but almost as many rely on technology-based methods offered by their associations, including online/web-based (46%), social media (24%), and smartphone platforms (16%). No area is untouched by technology. For example, many association members have participated in association advocacy efforts and certification programs using technology platforms. The majority of members still rely on a traditional method, such as an in-person course or conference, for learning (62%), but a third (33%) rely on an online/web-based platform.association-benefits-access2

How Association Members Would Prefer to Use Technology
If association members were offered methods they most prefer (rather than what their associations offer), they may engage more using technology based platforms. For every benefit/service area we examined, more members indicate a preference for a non-traditional method (online/web, social media, or smartphone) than a traditional non-platform method. In fact, more members prefer online/web-based platforms to traditional methods for two areas, networking and certification. More members continue to prefer traditional methods for other areas, including learning and advocacy, than any single non-traditional method, although at least three-in-ten prefer online/web-based delivery methods in these areas.

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The Competitive Threat of For-Profit Companies
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. Two-thirds of professional association members (67%) have used a for-profit company for an activity traditionally provided by an association.

Technology appears to be driving this threat, as it enables business to be done differently than traditional models. The service areas that members most prefer technology-based delivery (i.e., networking and certification) are the same areas that many members feel for-profit companies can do a better job providing than associations. The most vulnerable area for associations is networking, as nearly a quarter (23%) of members believe for-profit companies do it better, and 38% believe they do it equally well.association-leaders2

There are many examples of for-profit online professional communities that provide networking, along with other professional development services, that are in direct competition with traditional membership associations. MarketingProfs.com, which provides “real-world education for modern marketing,” has articles, training courses, discussion forums, 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.

These for-profit companies defined by technology are challenging associations to think differently about what it means to be a member 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 make sure you understand your members’ technology needs and evaluate your own organizational Internet Technology Maturity. Rockbridge has developed a series of tools for the American Society of Association Executives as part of the Technology Success Study; you can access resources that will help you assess your membership and benchmark your organization’s IT Maturity as a first step in evaluating your approach to delivery of member services and benefits.

About this Study
Rockbridge surveyed 99 members of U.S. associations from a national online panel. The results were weighted to match the demographic representation in the U.S. Census. The margin of error on the findings reported here is plus or minus 12 percentage points. Rockbridge is a custom market research firm specializing in technology issues and research for services firms, associations and government.


Written by: Gina Woodall, President