A Membership Checkup for Associations

Leading healthcare associations are working together to craft strategies for better engaging members. Even as the healthcare industry continues to change, a new report offers six recommendations to boost engagement that associations in all sectors can learn from.

It’s rare for someone to be excited about a doctor or dentist appointment. These routine check-ups are good for you, but they interfere with life, and they can be stressful or painful.

If you get cold sweats before entering the exam room, then maybe, just maybe, you can take some satisfaction in the fact that healthcare associations are likely to break a sweat thinking about membership engagement.

“Healthcare associations typically look at membership and engagement as a static solution, when in reality it’s a dynamic problem,” says Dean West, FASAE, president and founder of Association Laboratory, Inc., a consulting firm based in Chicago. “Historically, these associations needed very little modification, but emerging membership models have forced them to change and become more customizable and adaptable.”

At the same time that membership is changing, the healthcare industry is changing too—thanks in no small part to politics, technology, and generational trends. What isn’t changing, West says, are the demands on doctors’ time and attention. “It can be a chaotic and unpredictable environment for medical professionals, which is why associations are putting some serious thought toward their membership engagement strategy,” he says.

Whether you’re in the healthcare space or not, there are probably a few lessons to be learned from Association Laboratory’s recent whitepaper, “The Future of Healthcare Membership and Engagement” (ASAE log-in required). The report cites six common strategies that healthcare associations are using:

  1. A robust market understanding
  2. Customized engagement models
  3. Integrated and sustained experiences for members
  4. Community outreach and development
  5. Sustained engagement throughout the membership lifecycle
  6. Adaptive governance, staff, and operational systems

Nearly 50 healthcare trade and professional associations were analyzed for the study. The findings are helping organizations, like the American Dental Association (a study participant), to evolve their strategy.

“One thing about this report that I found interesting was that we all seem to have the same struggles, yet we don’t compete directly with each other,” says Bill Robinson, vice president of member and client services at ADA. “Associations go after different market segments, based on their profession, which is why I’m convinced that we have to solve membership engagement challenges together.”

Getting associations talking is the first step in the right direction, West says. ADA is using an adaptive strategy that’s currently being tested and piloted with membership.

It includes upfront engagements with dentists at the beginning of their career. ADA has a membership partnership with the American Student Dental Association, and it’s piloting a program where student ambassadors coordinate membership events between national and state-based dental associations.

“We also have strategies that target first-years coming right out of dental school,” Robinson says. “That transition—when someone is starting their career—is arguably when an association can be the most helpful.”

Thinking ‘Community First’

Usually when associations think about their engagement experience, they immediately think about their member first. But really, associations need to be thinking in broader terms, West says. They should be thinking about their members’ community and content understanding. By looking at membership in segments, associations can target each group’s unique challenges and needs.

One of the membership societies that West studied, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, traditionally relied on conference tradeshows for revenue.
Under the leadership of President and CEO Stephen Lieber, HIMSS changed its focus to a “community first” model, creating and delivering content to specific membership segments when they needed it the most.

As a result, the association’s credibility and influence within the healthcare technology sector has increased, and revenue has grown by 765 percent in the last 15 years. Even today, HIMSS continues to grapple with the question: What are the resources and information that membership segments need at any given moment?

“You reverse-engineer your strategy, based on the audience and their needs, not on you and your organizational structure.” West says. “Members’ challenges are dynamic and evolving throughout their lifespan. If you don’t understand your community, then you can’t define a solution for each individual members.”

In some respects the healthcare association space has been immune to change. Senior leadership and the “cultural tailwinds” theory—the notion that medical school students will automatically join an association because of institutional forces—don’t challenge some associations to think differently, West says. “While much of that culture remains, there are new avenues for healthcare professionals to solve some of their biggest challenges and issues today,” he says.

For example, ADA is keenly aware that student debt is a primary concern for younger members, especially those just exiting dental school. ADA targets new members with debt consolidation services, as way to save members money. But ADA is also competing against a widening field of services, including online debt consolidation companies, which have grown in size and popularity in the last few years.

No ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Approach

One of the biggest advantages and challenges for ADA when it comes to membership engagement is its tripartite structure: Enrollment guarantees membership at the local, state and national levels. But the membership experience can vary, particularly for state and local dental associations. Bigger states have more resources to engage their members than smaller states. For ADA, technology tools can help to level the playing field a bit.

“We think technology will help to tackle the variability in membership experiences,” Robinson says. “It’s not going to be a one size-fits-all approach. We want members to be able to select their levels of engagement with us.”

Right now, ADA is in the process of selecting a technology firm that will help to expand its digital footprint. The hope is that communications and online services can be tailored to members, regardless of where they live.

In many ways the six key findings in the Association Laboratory report can serve as a routine checkup for all associations to take, regardless of their industry or focus.

What problems does your association face when it comes to membership engagement? And, what strategies or tactics are you using to solve them? Post your answer in the comment thread below.

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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