RejectedThe email subject was “Final Notice: [Insert your favorite Association name here and henceforth] Membership Expiration” and the pitch was perfunctory. “Thank you, you’re about to be terminated, here’s the annual membership fee, renew today and save 5%.” Then came a list of the usual association benefits: e- and print publications; access to research, courses and events; a listing in a directory that would allegedly be a marketing opportunity for me; and a mobile app that (surprise!) was all about push notifications from [Association]. Thanks for the reminder, but really, so what? My reaction to your old-school email is, simply, underwhelming and unimpressive!

[Association]’s message screams “LOOK AT ALL THAT WE OFFER YOU.” In my about-to-expire first year of membership, I found that the benefit list came with a lot of price tags attached. Want to attend local monthly events? Pay $X, The annual meeting? That will be another hefty $X. Want any of the research or publications advertised? Add even more $X.

This association—like so many others—is operating with an archaic business model with little relevance or value for members in a mobile app-enabled, a-la-carte world. The CEO and board of [Association] need to get the memo—your members want access to what they want, when they want it, on the device of their choosing. They do NOT want to pay for the parts of your package they don’t use.

No one needs to pay your annual $X to get access to relevant content or community. So what’s your competitive differentiator? That obsolete model may continue to work for a while, [if most of your members hold lofty jobs at prestigious companies that cover the expense of every invoice sent down to Accounts Payable with a purchase order. But here’s another memo, [Association]. Today few companies rubber-stamp invoices without proof of value, and many of your target members—highly experienced, executives —live and work in “Free Agent Nation” where we pay out of our own pockets for everything from our advanced business degrees to our association memberships.

It’s not the price of any of your robust menu of member benefits, [Association] that annoys me—it’s that you have not, over the year I’ve been a member, managed to make me FEEL (rather than simply be told of) the value of what I’m paying for. If you had exceeded my expectations with a truly awesome member experience over these 11 months and 24 days, if I had FELT you fueling my personal and professional growth, I’d have sent my check by now. (Or more likely, digitally opted in via your state-of-the-art app). But you didn’t, and you have come closer than you know to losing me as a member. Tell me, [Association], how many years has that same message gone out, without considering how completely the landscape of membership associations has changed?

I offer this open letter to the Executive Director/CEO, and the volunteer Board who have been charged with the stewardship of [Association]:

Thank you for your recent membership renewal letter. I found it to be incredibly boring and all about you. Have you forgotten that members like me are the sole reason you’re in business? I can only assume that your association values tradition over innovation. Given the current market demands for my time, attention, and limited resources, your outdated thinking and myopic leadership will not suffice. I’d like to be part of the solution as well as part of your problem, so here are a handful of challenges I see with your antiquated association model:

  1. You DON’T know me!
  2. You’re NOT meeting my needs, much less anticipating them!
  3. You certainly DON’T have the market cornered on content, community, or credibility!

But I don’t want this letter to alarm you, so let’s look at what you do have going for you:

  1. I did get some value from your last annual meeting.
  2. I met some sharp people at your event and we’ve been getting to know each other.
  3. I feel like I can continue to grow personally and professionally through your organization.

If you keep taking me for granted—keep expecting your outdated membership and revenue models to sustain growth—not only will you lose me at the next renewal, you’ll struggle to attract anyone to join your horse-and-buggy operation. They’ll be punching their professional development ticket aboard some more responsive association’s high-speed train.

Membership models reflect an association’s value proposition. An association’s membership model is the vehicle through which it engages with its market. [Association], your vehicle is obsolete and your leadership needs to be held accountable. You need innovation and you need it NOW. If you’re genuinely interested in transforming to a member-centric model, give me a call. I’d be happy to give you the benefit of my 20+ years’ experience studying how strategic relationships drive organizational results.

What is membership but the single most important relationship asset in any association’s portfolio?

Nour Takeaways

  1. Associations must build their value proposition around what members WANT, not what they OFFER.
  2. Associations need to assure that members FEEL THE VALUE they receive, not just tell them about it.
  3. Association leaders must champion innovation to become much more member-centric, and settle for nothing less.
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