Current Affairs

Reinventing the Association Wheel

27th April 2020

The global business spotlight has been focused on the quote “never waste a good crisis” over the past few months. While the Covid-19 crisis for many businesses was sudden and unforeseen, a crisis of a different kind has been looming over associations for the past decade.

Words Juanita Vorster

Historical Value

Membership associations traditionally justify their existence by an ability to bring like-minded professionals together. As associations evolved over time activities grew from building a professional network, to sharing technical information and ideas, to advocacy and lobbying. Some organizations advanced to becoming professional bodies that offer designations based on structured professional development and proven experience. Some even gained a statutory component that authorises them to apply relevant legislation on behalf of a country or state.

These changes all served member and industry needs that evolved naturally as the organization and relevant profession matured over time.

The past decade however saw an increasing threat to the sustainability of the old business model of associations as developments in technology and society leapfrogged from obscure to globally dominating. The severity of this threat was – and is, to a large extent – obscured by the ongoing support from members already familiar with the value proposition of the association. It only becomes more obvious when the acquisition numbers of new members from younger generations are viewed in isolation.

To earn a place in the lives of the new breed of professional, associations must be courageous in imagining their new future.

Current & Future Trends

Anyone with an internet connection can now access the latest global industry research within seconds of publication. Anyone with a social media account can advocate or lobby for any cause. 

Then there is the growing trend to move away from basing recruitment and career progress decisions primarily on qualifications and designations. This puts pressure on professional bodies to justify the effort and expense that goes into obtaining – and maintaining – a professional designation.

In short, with the aid of technology like-minded professionals are now able to self-organize, network with more ease and greater results, and shape their career paths based on their own needs and aspirations; all without the costs and constraints of physical locations or course materials.

The golden egg of many associations is often its database: its easy access to like-minded professionals from competing companies. The shine of this golden egg is however fading fast. With a rise in free gated content – where you complete your contact details before you can download the document you’ve requested – private companies are building their own databases as lightning speeds. And they’re often much better than associations at selling their products and services to their database. This forces associations to compete with value offerings driven by budgets that dwarf those of most association.

Competing with these massive resources is not sustainable. A complete reinvention of the trusted association wheel is needed. Associations must proactively prepare to become a version of themselves that the founders never imagined possible or necessary. In this bright new unchartered future, it should be less about administration, membership, training and events as core activities. 

Juanita Vorster

Designing the Future

It could be pushed as far as an association generating significant income from selling hyper-personalized ad space. While this goes against the grain of many associations, the member database of an association is still its golden egg.

Hyper-personalized advertising is based on a model of delivering advertisements purely relevant to the recent behaviours, requests and permissions of a specific individual. Advertisers only pay for ads delivered, making it a more cost-effective option for them and also enabling associations to charge a higher premium.

The benefit for members in this model is that they receive highly relevant information tailored to meet their exact current needs. Their association therefore becomes their first port of call for any type of solution as they know whatever they receive has been carefully curated and based on their exact current needs.

To position itself as the owner and protector of a valuable database that can sell hyper-personalized ads an association needs to have a squeaky-clean database. This database should be housed in a tool with fields and functionality that allow it to be sorted in the finest detail based on how members interact with association content.

The second area where associations can maximize the value of their golden egg – their membership database – is being a trusted independent crowdsource enabler that connects researchers, media, government agencies and other data collectors with verified industry professionals. Crowdsourcing in this context consists in asking members specifically to contribute information and insight that the association can use for their own purpose but with the mutual benefit for contributors of the sustainability of their own profession or industry.

“When managed by an ethically responsible party – in this instance an association – crowdsourcing has the dual benefit of providing information and insight that is truly independent and represents a variety of perspectives.”

When managed by an ethically responsible party – in this instance an association – crowdsourcing has the dual benefit of providing information and insight that is truly independent and represents a variety of perspectives.

This type of crowdsourced information will soon be valued at a high premium as the sheer volume of one-sided narrative-driving content from private sources continue to lose trust. Associations must enable themselves to be the first ones to be asked for independent crowdsourced insights. They will only be able to do that if they can manage to become incredibly fast at asking for, collecting, packaging and delivering the crowdsourced information. 

Practically this will mean more robust communication mechanisms and great expertise in designing insight collection tools. These skills will revamp the current slow process of generating member participation from a large enough sample size.

To be very clear: the value here is not in having resident technical experts that can produce content based only on their expertise. The value here is to be a trusted resource with quick access to a verified group of professional willing and able to share their expertise without wanting individual recognition in return.

The final area – for the purposes of this article – for potential pivot is associations becoming the go-to source that can secure a percentage of human assurance in any content produced by Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

In its simplest form AI uses raw unsorted bits of data to feed algorithms that are set up to sort through massive amounts of data and spit it out in a format that enables decision making. An algorithm can at this time however not provide end-user context, experiential insight or meaning; this remains a skill unique to humans.

In projects where human intelligence is needed to balance artificial intelligence an association can play a critical role. As algorithms can be set up to include or ignore confidential data associations can also – through member participation – provide the bits of raw data that provide a balanced representation of the profession or industry.

From a practical point of view this might mean that the association has a panel of technical experts that can move fast and give their answers to questions answered in AI-compiled content. These answers will then verify or question how well the AI-generated content aligns to the intended outcome. Speed will be of crucial essence here and that challenges the current volunteer-based model of completing tasks “when we get to it”.

While the value of the association of the future might well be based in its ability to represent humans in a world of work driven by Artificial Intelligence, it has to do so in a way that still makes sense right now.

Key Relevance

The key to balancing historical value with future trends is relevance. This is not determined by what an association can easily offer. Relevance is determined by the role members want the association to play in their personal and professional lives.

Juanita Vorster is an international business speaker that regularly guides business leaders in the fast lane to future success, with a specific focus on doing better business, better. Her career experience includes working closely with several top South African associations for a substantial number of years. Juanita is a successful business owner and holds the designations of Certified Director (SA), Certified Ethics Officer, and Chartered Public Relations Practitioner. (International Speaker &  The Next CEO Expert

While keeping potential future capabilities in mind the main focus of any association should be to keep up with members from all generations and walks of life. An association should already have the capability to accurately know – not guess – what each one of their members need. An association should have a product or service that addresses that need in a world-class manner in a mechanism that delivers it in a way that is convenient for each individual member. 

For most associations the above capabilities are however completely lacking or not nearly robust enough. It is daunting task to get it all in place, but it is what will keep the association from increasingly having to duck the question: “What’s in it for me?”. This question is traditionally answered with a bulleted list of items a member gets in return for their membership fee; the membership value proposition. And it is the items on this list that is increasingly being offered better or cheaper or quicker through alternative options.

“The most valuable member benefit in the future will be the representation of humans in a world of work that will increasingly be shaped around decisions influenced by information collected, analyzed and packaged by machines.”

The most valuable member benefit in the future will be the representation of humans in a world of work that will increasingly be shaped around decisions influenced by information collected, analyzed and packaged by machines.

Everyone working for an association – on a paid or volunteer basis – should ensure that everything they do now positions the association to being a provider of high value access to independent human talent and intelligence.

Association leaders now have a more complex responsibility than ever before. They should stay on top of the latest developments in the relevant profession or industry so they can be the first to advise members on how to prepare and pivot. Simultaneously they have to ensure that all staff members and volunteers are laser focused on being the bridge between the past and the future; not an anchor to the past.

Changes this significant will only be possible if associations hire for different positions than they traditionally have. These positions might include data analysts, visual communication specialists, future-savvy CEOs and board members that serve for a greater purpose, not politics and pride.

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