Figuring Out the Future of Associations

12th February 2020

With financial instability, demographic shifts and rapidly changing technology, if associations want to survive, they will have to adapt their traditional model—and relationship with members. Last year, 42 percent of membership associations reported a growth in overall membership volume, and a large part of that was due to increasing engagement. Just as Facebook and Instagram build communities based on engagement, associations can adopt more casual modes of communication that encourage dialogue.

Words Lane Nieset

When planning for the future, what does it look like and how can associations get started? Two key steps to consider: position and purpose. Once you’ve defined your purpose, you can figure out how to position your association and build your community, offering members the most valuable content that’s customized to their specific needs. 

Creating Conversation

No one can predict the future, but we can plan for it. Communication is one of the first steps toward defining a strategy for a strong model that will withstand the test of time. If, for example, you find that association-wide surveys yield low responses, try reaching out personally or holding small focus groups. 

“People always feel valued when asked for an opinion. Ask for input on specific areas through questions on social media, but be sure to monitor and respond immediately,” advises Jennifer Fontanella, director of operations and finance for the International Studies Association (ISA) at the University of Connecticut. Most people just want to be heard, and the more platforms associations use to communicate with our members, the more our members feel engaged. Engaged members feel a sense of ownership and are more likely to give back and help grow, and in the end, the association does belong to its members.”  

It’s also important to provide various forms of communication to connect with and between members. In a recent talk by Debra Jasper, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Mindset Digital, she discussed that the average attention span for professionals is a mere eight seconds. Consider the fact that many people receive news updates by scrolling through their Facebook feed or from a 33-character Tweet. Snapchat is even more fleeting, since messages disappear as quickly as they’re opened. 

“Eight seconds is certainly not long enough to have a formal conversation with anyone, so dialogue has naturally become increasingly informal, as can be readily seen by the leaders of most countries,” Fontanella says. “Now that people have been trained to think and speak more conversationally and casually, associations should target their communications to the audience they are seeking.  Use social media analytics to find which demographic favours their platform and formulate your communication so you can grab those eight seconds.”

Knowledge Holders

Try for a moment and think of people and communities as “holders” of the knowledge your association supports.“Many member organizations are hubs of talent, and if we use the metaphor of being ‘glued’ by knowledge, you can say that the idea would be to move from regular white glue to super glue, and not only benefit from explicit knowledge like reports or books, but also by the large amount of tacit knowledge that lies in the heads of the people who drive our industries,” advises Ebba Lund, CEO of International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (IASP).As opposed to the raw material of the industrial era, like coal or oil, where the more you spent the less there was, in the case of knowledge you have the opposite: the more you use the more you generate—not a bad currency to hold as we support our communities in becoming more inclusive and sustainable.”

By transferring member engagement online, associations can encourage this type of knowledge sharing and networking on a global level. Part of the struggle, however, is getting user-friendly platforms in place. “Online membership spaces shouldn’t be too complex,” Lund says“We need to focus on existing tools and simple, straightforward mechanisms that people can access as easily as opening their social media accounts and find their community there, as well as the knowledge they need to excel professionally.”

Forward thinking

In our daily lives, we’re stretched in so many directions and receive news from a variety of outlets. People are engaging and interacting with the world through both digital and physical presence, which is why many associations are realizing that in order to capture a moment of members’ valuable time, they need to “maximize access to the overall areas our members need throughout their daily interactions,” Fontanella says

“I am seeing associations actively engaging in programming with the exclusive purpose of changing the mindset of their membership from ‘I should belong to keep informed on what is happing in the profession’ to “I need to belong to this specific association, so I have to best access to colleagues in my profession across all platforms.”

Online social networks create links and connections to colleagues across the world who may otherwise be difficult to reach—and they do it quickly and at a low cost. But, as Lund argues, this was once one of the main function of associations. Since members aren’t necessarily after these traditional services and activities, what role does an association have in the future?

This article was written by Boardroom editor Lane Nieset. The right to use it, in parts or in full, has to be granted by the Publisher.

“Associations are in a unique position to see what is happening in many places, by having easy interlocution with many different actors in many different settings,” Lund says. “That should be immediately transformed into knowledge, which can then be passed on to our members and different associated communities. Associations that learn how to do that will become irreplaceable.”

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