Reflections on Membership From #ASAE15

The 2015 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo had no shortage of ideas and opinions on the current state of membership in associations. Here are four takeaways that stood out, including the definition of engagement and the next big threat to membership stability.

The dust is still settling from another ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo. In my five days in Detroit, I heard a litany of ideas, questions, and discussions about association membership, both in Learning Labs and in informal conversation.

Every member has unique reasons for engaging in an association and preferred methods for doing so.

It was clear that association membership pros have a lot on their minds. In the coming weeks, I will likely revisit some of the stories and ideas I heard to share them in detail here, but, for now, while many of us in attendance are in the midst of returning home, here are four reactions from some of the ideas that caught my ear:

Members define engagement, not the association. Tuesday’s Learning Lab “Engagement Is More Than a Buzzword” was one of the best deconstructions of a single association topic I’ve seen in a long time, and engagement is certainly a term in need of clarity. Presenters Joe Vallina, CAE, of the American Nurses Association and Maddie Grant, CAE, and Jamie Notter of Culture That Works described the process they’ve taken to define engagement at ANA, but the most crucial insight they said associations must come to understand is that members define what engagement means, not the association.

In other words, each and every member has individual and unique reasons for engaging in an association and preferred methods for doing so, they said. The association must work to understand what those definitions are and aim to serve them, but it doesn’t get to determine the stakes of the game. That’s an important shift in mindset.

Content strategy is more important than ever. Monday’s Learning Lab “Using Content Marketing to Engage Members and Grow Your Organization” was at near capacity in one of the bigger breakout rooms at the Cobo Center. Associations are definitely getting on board with the need to apply new methods of organization and distribution in a rapidly evolving media landscape. Presenter Michael Clarke of Clarke & Company opened the lab by pointing to last week’s article by Todd VanDerWerff at Vox, “2015 is the year the old internet finally died.”

Unlike many for-profit companies, associations are actually awash in content, but their challenge lies in leveraging it to move members purposefully toward deeper engagement. As consumers absorb content on the web more and more through third-party apps and not dedicated niche sites (like association websites), that challenge will grow more complicated and require more sophisticated tools, skills, and measurement.

Trade associations and individual membership organizations can learn a lot from each other. Marketing General Incorporated’s latest “Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report” shows that hybridization of membership models appears to be on the rise, with the percentage of associations offering both company and individual memberships more than doubling, from 13 percent to 29 percent, between 2011 and 2015, and sure enough I heard a few cases at the conference of one type of association borrowing from the other.

In “Successful Practices for Engaging New Members” on Monday, attendee Rene Chapin of the National Association of Dental Plans shared that, whenever the lead contact at a member company changes, NADP treats the new lead contact like a brand-new member, even if the company has been with the association for years, because the individual relationship with that person and the association is so important. In a Tuesday Learning Lab, meanwhile, Nancy Hammervik at CompTIA (also a trade association) shared how the organization has created an open-access model for individual users, which added more than 50,000 people to its community of 2,000 member companies in a year. And these followed Sunday’s announcement in the opening general session that ASAE, historically an individual membership organization, will introduce an organizational membership option beginning in 2016.

Data security. You might be inclined to think this is an issue more for your colleagues in business operations, IT, or legal, but consider the potential fallout from a breach of your member data. Membership is an ongoing relationship built on trust. How can you ask members to continue to place their trust in you year after year if you can’t adequately protect their personal information?

Jeff Glassie, partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, showed me the light in his “Help! I’ve Been Hacked!” Learning Lab. He urged associations not to live under the illusion that associations aren’t potential victims of cyber threats. “Everybody’s going to have a breach. Everybody’s going to get hacked,” he said. “Associations are not immune to this problem.”

If you were at the Annual Meeting, what ideas are you eager to share back at the office? What are you thoughts on these themes above? 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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