5 Ideas for Adapting to Shifts in Your Member Market

As times change, so do jobs and entire professions. If your association is seeing growth in nontraditional members—whether they're freelancers, "paraprofessionals," or something else—consider these ideas for evolving your membership strategy.

In many professions, the nature of work is changing. If it’s not being automated, perhaps the rise of the “gig economy” is shifting the definition of a professional. Or perhaps demographic and generational changes are leading to evolution in workstyles.

Nontraditional professionals will have a different sense of connection to the industry your association serves.

The American Association of Diabetes Educators sees these changing tides—compounded by the continuing effects of healthcare reform—and is planning ahead. I was invited to participate in a discussion at AADE in April with several other association professionals about trends in membership models, as it contemplates potential future strategies. One of the major challenges it faces is the emergence of what it deemed “paraprofessionals” in its market, people who engage in providing diabetes education in nontraditional ways. They might be part-time, or they might integrate diabetes education into other lines of work (such as life coaching, for instance). AADE views the paraprofessional segment as an expansion of its market but also a possible future shift in its core member makeup.

Other associations likely are tackling similar changes. As an industry or profession diversifies, for any of the reasons cited above or others, so too must an association adapt its membership model. AADE didn’t arrive at any specific conclusions that day, but a lot of ideas were discussed among the panel of association pros participating (see sidebar), and many of them were broadly applicable to any association that is seeing its market growing at the edges rather than the core. Here are some highlights:

Understand how the needs of freelancers, part-timers, or paraprofessionals differ from those of your core members. Whatever you call them, these nontraditional professionals will have a different sense of connection to the industry your association serves. Perhaps they only want knowledge or education. Maybe they want it in a lightweight format. Or maybe they’re looking primarily for connections. You won’t be able to shape the right offer to them without getting a clear picture of that first.

Create new entry points to membership or engagement. Tiered membership models take “one size fits all” and replace it with “something for everyone.” In a member-prospect pool that’s growing among people who may be only semi-committed to the industry, a tiered set of benefits packages lets those people find their own fit in your association. I’ve shared the example of AIGA, the professional association for design, here before, but it bears revisiting: Its five-tier membership model offers a package for everyone from someone “just starting out” to “a titan of the design industry.”

Stick to your niche. With potential members coming from other disciplines or fields of study, it may be tempting to try to expand the programs and services you offer to more deeply engage them, but that could be risky. There’s a good chance your association may be a secondary professional association for your nontraditional segment, meaning they come to you for specialized resources while they have other organizations already providing them more general services. In other words, stick to your blue ocean.

Work to advance the profession. The forces leading to a shift toward paraprofessionals or other nontraditional members may be beyond anyone’s control, but your association can contribute to the long-term health of the industry it serves—and thus your member market—through big-picture efforts like advocacy and workforce development [ASAE member login required]. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and if you can generate conditions that create more jobs to be had or more money to be made in your industry, then perhaps more of those freelancers will become full-timers—and more fully engaged members.

Reflect on whether your mission is to serve people or a profession. This is a subtle distinction to make, but it’s an important one. If your association is inclined to cater to a core segment of people, an in-group who all have similar status or qualifications, you might miss opportunities to serve a wider audience that supports your mission or wants to pursue similar goals as your core members but through different means. Recommitting to the mission first, and then redefining who may be a member based on pursuit of that mission, may be just the strategic nudge your association needs to open its eyes to new possibilities.

Has your association grappled with a changing workforce in its industry? How have you changed your membership strategy or tactics to engage people in nontraditional roles? Please share your ideas and thoughts 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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