What Does Member Mean to You?

The future of association membership models is a question of both business philosophy and language. We pack a lot of meaning into one little word.

Like any profession, association management has a common language. We all use words like board, volunteer, member, meeting, chapter, and so on, and we all roughly understand each other. But in the past week I’ve been thinking about the word member and I’ve realized it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

A couple comments to my blog post last Wednesday started it off:

  • From Jeffrey Cufaude: “A mailbox member presumably believes in the purpose of the association s/he joined and values being associated with that community, even if their level of engagement is limited to consuming content.”
  • From Maggie McGary: “I think that there are some ‘mailbox members’ who just pay for content, but I’ve also heard the term used dismissively to apply to members whose main interaction with other association members is via the org’s listserves or online community.”

Member could mean someone who joins for free or someone who joins for $10,000. That’s a big difference in possible meanings for one little word.

So there’s just a couple different interpretations of “mailbox member,” which is of course just one type of member. More broadly, member could mean someone who joins for free or someone who joins for $10,000. That’s a big difference in possible meanings for one little word.

My response to Jeffrey zeroed in on the difference between members who join to belong to a community and members who join to simply subscribe to a publication. I stumbled over wording at times because I had to repeatedly specify which type of member I was referring to.

All of this semantic imprecision brought me back to a fundamental question I posed—and am still struggling with—last fall on Acronym: “Is the future of the association model more niche or more broad?” The same issue has been posed most clearly, in my opinion, by Shelly Alcorn, CAE, in her Provocative Proposals for Future Change ebook, in which she interviewed about 200 association executives. Among her findings:

“The definition of membership is in flux, yet two divergent philosophies are emerging. One philosophy sees associations collapsing inward, becoming focused on a smaller audience and developing a more transactional relationship with individual members based on perceived value. The other sees associations expanding outward including establishing much broader membership categories and asking all members to become engaged in efforts to improve the industry, profession and society at large.”

So, to me, this question of what member means is one of both language and business models. It matters what we call our stakeholders: Are they all members, or are some customers, subscribers, users, or partners? It also matters to whom an association chooses to deliver value: only a core set of members, or all people who are willing to pay to be members, or to a broad community that extends well beyond the member wall? Our choices in each of these regards is intricately intertwined with the other.

I genuinely don’t know the answer to what member should mean. I see value in both perspectives, in a narrow focus and in strength in numbers, but I have a hard time reconciling the two while also fitting them within the contraints of a six-letter word.

I’m curious for your thoughts. What does member mean to you? Is the connotation of belonging most important? Or is a member simply someone who buys a membership? How does your association define members and how does it describe (or not) different types of members and stakeholders? I’m also interested in examples of tiered membership models, which strike me as an attempt to apply careful definitions to various strata of member. If you know of any, please share in the comments.

Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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