Sharing With Nonmembers: A Glass-Half-Full Perspective

The optimistic view on members-only benefits shared with nonmembers: If it's worth sharing, it must be great. The trick is to bring those nonmembers into the fold.

Here’s another deep question for association membership professionals: Would you rather have 100 happy members enjoying your association’s member benefits, or 100 happy members plus 20 other people trying steal those benefits?

Fending off 20 thieves might sound like trouble, but there’s a silver lining: If people want your product enough to try to steal it, then it must be valuable.

In discussions about members-only benefits, it’s easy to get derailed by concerns over security of access while ignoring the potential value of extra exposure.

Last month, on a publishing-industry discussion group, a user asked whether publishers were worried about subscribers sharing online magazines with nonsubscribers. This is a familiar concern to anyone in associations who has given any thought to what content should be members-only or open to the public, and it’s what got me thinking about the upside of 20 thieves.

In any discussion about members-only content or benefits, it’s easy to get derailed by concerns over the security of access while ignoring the potential value of extra exposure of the product. I was glad that a couple respondents in the discussion voiced this perspective. As one put it, “Sharing it is the ultimate compliment, but [electronic sharing is] no different than someone sharing a printed magazine with other coworkers. Pass-along rates are a good thing.”

But let’s play out the concern over too many nonmembers gaining free access and not enough joining. Why aren’t those people joining? Because, to them, the membership costs too much. So, you have two options to get them to stop freeloading: Make your benefits harder to steal, or make them easier to buy.

The trouble is you’ll never win at the former. It’s just too hard to secure access 100 percent. (Even the NSA can’t do it.) But the latter could be a source of opportunity, and it doesn’t have to mean lowering prices.

Maybe it means you do some unbundling. Or, maybe you convert a benefit to a fully open product that attracts new leads for your organization overall. Or, maybe you go halfway, with a sampling mechanism that grants limited free access in exchange for an email address. Any of these options turns “thieves” into customers or known prospects. They take negative energy and turn it into a positive opportunity. A little business jujitsu, if you will.

Call me an optimist, but I believe that the majority of people who consider “stealing” or freeloading on your member benefits don’t want to be cheaters and would be happy to pay a price they saw as more reasonable. Think back to 1999: Napster made it easy for people to download music files. The recording industry responded, for the most part, by trying to make it harder to steal music. Apple responded by making it easier to buy music—just 99 cents and one click away. Ten years and 25 billion songs later, who’s faring better?

How has your association balanced securing access to member benefits with attracting potential new members? Where do you draw the line between members-only and open content, and how do you decide?


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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