It’s Time to Reevaluate the Definition of Membership — And Find Ways to Connect With Customers, Too

by David, on January 11, 2019

We all belong to lots of communities. We have numbers assigned to us in airline and hotel loyalty programs. We call ourselves members of political parties and religious organizations. We download member-only apps from Amazon Prime and Costco to take advantage of exclusive perks in checkout aisles. But what does being a member of an association mean?


The concept varies among the more than 66,000 associations, society and professional organizations in the U.S. (a figure taken from the IRS Data Book’s 2013 count), but the vast majority share two key ingredients: education opportunities and access to networking events. While are these can be valuable benefits, the era of personalization presents a big challenge for association leaders.

“As a consumer, I’m so used to being able to customize everything,” Max Suzenaar, CEO and CSO of Minding Your Business, said. “Do I really have to pay a general membership fee for certain benefits that might not matter to me?”

Picking & Choosing

Some prospective members may not want to fork over the full cost of an annual membership, but they still matter. Perhaps some of them want to review the latest white paper and trend report your organization recently released. Maybe others want to exhibit at next year’s annual meeting. And maybe others are interested in watching next month’s webinar on how the government shutdown will impact their business. They’re your customers. They don’t want to buy everything in the store. They simply want to pick up the products and services that are meaningful to them.

Suzenaar highlighted that those transactions can play a crucial role in any organization’s strategy. “While annual membership dues provide the comfort of consistent revenue, those individual purchases can create crucial revenue opportunities,” Suzenaar said. “And for some of those customers, they can even lay the foundation toward becoming full-fledged members of your organization.”

Putting Value Under the Microscope

Let’s go back to those primary benefits of being a member: learning and networking. When it comes to education, consumers have no shortage of options with a low price tag. From Harvard- and MIT-level courses on edX to tutorials from experts on YouTube, they don’t have to come to your website or your annual meeting to gain new knowledge. And on the networking front, nothing is standing in the way of a connection-hungry individual with a LinkedIn account.

With all those opportunities, associations can no longer simply rely on traditional benefits. Instead, they must take a close look at each of their assets — their webinars, their email newsletters, their social communities, their annual meetings and every other activity and piece of content available. That evaluation can distinguish the unique benefits that really resonate with prospective members from the assets that no longer need to be in the budget.

“Put everything about your association under the microscope,” Suzenaar said. “And then, put yourself in your prospective members’ shoes. What would entice you to become a customer first? And what might eventually get you to agree with the ‘Reasons to Join’ page on the website?”

Looking for more information on membership models?

Not all models are created equal, and today's membership model is in a state of metamorphosis. It's not a question of "should we have a membership model or not?" It may be time for a hybrid-model.

Join host Max Suzenaar, CEO of Minding Your Business, Inc., along with President, John Folks, for this 30-min conversation about "The Membership Model of the Future."