If They Don’t Want to Be Members, Give Them Something Else to Join

With the launch of a free online community for plant science, the American Society of Plant Biologists is looking beyond the scope of traditional membership to form relationships with its nonmember audience.

At first glance, the American Society of Plant Biologists’ new online community site, Plantae, looks to be just another niche social network for one association’s members.

Except it’s not just for ASPB members. Anyone in plant science can join, for free. And it’s more than just discussions. It’s home to content like career advancement, research, continuing education, and funding opportunities.

Launching Plantae, as with any association community platform, was a significant investment. ASPB hired a digital strategist, consulted with another, and engaged an analytics firm in the course of building it. And all the while, ASPB membership has been on the decline.

So, why would an association hurting for reasons to join embark on a massive project to develop something that isn’t even a member benefit?

What to Do With Nonmembers?

To answer that, let’s step back first. In serving entire industries or professions, associations must cater to a variety of purposes. You might group their various types of benefits and services into three C’s: cause, content, and community. The struggle, however, has always been that bundling all three together into one membership package leaves a lot of people outside the member wall—the ones who only want one of those C’s and would rather not pay for all three.

It would work against the whole mission of the organization if we said only ASPB people can play in this space.

And so most associations have a large pool of nonmembers, and they call them customers or prospects. The traditional approach to that audience segment has been to sell them resources outside of membership (marked up, of course), or to get them to subscribe to publications, or to just sell them membership even harder. But there’s little to no relationship established or loyalty built between associations and nonmembers.

ASPB decided the traditional approach wasn’t going to work anymore. “Essentially what we’re doing strategically with this whole concept around Plantae is we are separating the strategy around how we engage and grow our audience,” says Susan Cato, director of digital strategy and member services at ASPB. “We’re separating that from ASPB membership.”

Four years ago, ASPB began to examine its future, knowing that the open-access movement could soon threaten its academic journals, the organization’s primary source of revenue and relevance. It hired innovation firm IDEO to help it think big about its mission to serve the plant science community, and, with a bevy of ideas developed, it was time for ASPB to expand its footprint, Cato says.

“We figured out who our audience was, and then we said, OK, we’re really talking about 35,000 people,” she says. “They don’t necessarily call themselves ASPB members. Does that really matter at this juncture or not? Our goal really is and our mission is to support the whole plant science community globally, and how do we best do that and provide the platform within which we can deliver or sell or engage people around these tools that IDEO came up with? And that’s when Plantae was born.”

Plantae, a platform for plant scientists built by the American Society of Plant Biologists, is like a hybrid between a typical website and an online community.

Something Else to Join

ASPB identified the 35,000-person market with help from Bear Analytics, which dug through past engagement and transaction data to clean up a database of about 160,000 records and distill it down to an audience of medium and highly engaged people in the plant science community. Maddie Grant, digital strategist at Culture That Works and WorkXO, collaborated with ASPB to conceptualize how it could establish a relationship with that broader community of people, beyond its existing membership model. “They never started with a membership strategy to begin with,” Grant says.

Instead, they thought about simply providing value. “We believe that, strategically, the only way this is going to work is if people are using it in a context that helps them do their jobs, do their research, learn something new, solve a problem,” says Cato. “So, we worked very, very hard to think about not just the kind of content that would be put on it—though we do a lot of thinking about that, don’t get me wrong—but how people need to use it.”

Hence the breadth of content offered in Plantae, focused on careers, research, education, and funding, in addition to community. It’s more like a hybrid between a typical website and an online community. To Grant, this was a crucial step.

“The priority was to provide value for the people who would come in here, and I think that’s a huge differentiator from community platforms that assume that users will generate all the content and will interact in groups, and all you have to do is create the bones of it,” she says. “A lot of associations wonder why there’s no activity [in their online communities], and it’s because they’re expecting all of their members to do all of the work and then maybe half a staff person to community-manage it.”

Among other features: ASPB publications are being integrated into Plantae, a tool for annotation of research experiments is on the way, and engagement earns users “Grow Points” that can be cashed in toward purchases or given to others.

Plantae membership is free to anyone in plant science, no ASPB membership required. Users can also pay for a premium membership, which offers enhanced access to certain resources. Anyone who joins ASPB gets a premium Plantae membership, and vice versa.

At the very bottom of the Plantae homepage, it notes that the community is “powered by ASPB.” What shows up as subtle branding, though, represents a significant departure from the norm for a 90-year-old organization.

Bigger Than Membership

“We realized that, in order for this to be successful, we could not go it alone,” Cato says. “It would work against the whole mission of the organization if we said, you know what, only ASPB people can play in this space.” ASPB has partnered with the Global Plant Council in launching Plantae, and additional partnerships are in the works, Cato says. In the fourth quarter of 2016, Plantae will introduce an e-commerce function modeled on Amazon’s Marketplace, allowing other plant-science organizations to deliver content, sell resources, or even host their members online via Plantae.

Today, ASPB owns Plantae, but the platform is in “incubator mode,” Cato says. What it might grow into is yet to be determined, but hopes are high. A Plantae advisory board will soon be formed, 60 percent of which will consist of non-ASPB members.

ASPB will continue with its existing membership model, though with a greater philanthropic focus, for plant scientists who want to support research, scholarship, and science policy, Cato says. ASPB membership may go down, while Plantae membership goes up, and Cato says the organization is learning to embrace such a future. The hope is, if it can attract those 35,000 nonmembers to Plantae membership and earn their loyalty, ASPB’s capacity to generate and deliver resources to the plant science community will thrive.

“The more we grow, the more visibility we get, the more value the community is getting from us and from this ecosystem, hopefully we’ll be able to connect them with the research, the activities, and the tools that are available in a better way,” Cato says.

At ASAE’s 2016 Great Ideas Conference in March, Cato, Grant, and Bear Analytics CEO Joe Colangelo led an Idea Lab about the Plantae project titled “Turning Membership Inside Out,” which my colleague Ernie Smith mentioned in “A Few Great Ideas From Ideas 2016” and Grant recapped on the SocialFish blog a week later. “Inside out” is an apt metaphor; while the traditional membership model is to sell membership, get people to join, and then provide value, the approach ASPB has taken (along with myriad other companies embracing the freemium model) puts it in reverse: provide value, earn a loyal audience, and then sell—memberships or other resources, events, and so on.

Still in beta, Plantae is just beginning to sprout, but the strategy by which it is taking root is one Cato believes will be the way of the future for many associations.

“Professional societies need to take a long, hard look at how they’re providing value to the community outside of membership,” she says, “and stop getting stuck in the are-they-a-member-or-not mentality.”

Has your association considered opening its community platform to nonmembers, or have you considered other variations on the freemium model? How do you work to serve and engage your entire nonmember audience, beyond just your realm of paying members? Share your thoughts and experience 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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