This is a broad question for what may be an even broader audience given the wide breadth covered by associations in our economy. Still, I think one issue looms large for any association — society or trade — in the coming year, especially considering the economy facing all association sectors. That dominant issue is the value proposition for members.
I can’t think of a study that examines how associations respond to economic shifts. There are plenty of anecdotal reports, but nothing rigorous. Yet, what association veterans have observed over the years is that association tend to lag markets by 12 to 18 months. On the face of it this makes sense. Association memberships are typically paid a year in advance. Therefore, it’s typical for members who view belonging to an association as a non-critical cost to let an existing membership stand and not renew if a downturn in their market or profession persists when the next renewal period arrives. An organization’s activities may slow down within a bad year, but the membership picture may not change until renewals are due.
In these circumstances, the membership value proposition is king for two simple reasons. First, those organizations with strong membership propositions have a better chance of retaining current members, especially if that member value is critical to the member’s profession or line of business. In other words, continuing membership may be essential to weathering the difficult economic climate.
Second, when constrained resources require making choices about which memberships to maintain, the ones with strong value propositions will win out.
The take-away here is that the best defense is a strong offense. Maintaining a strong membership value proposition during the good times will pay dividends when the economy turns downward. Resist only counting membership dues revenue as the single measure of membership value proposition. Survey members to understand what they value about their membership and find out what they will likely value in the coming year or two.