Thinking of a Tech-Minded Benefit? Put Utility First

If you’re looking into building an app or digital service for your members or even the public, a key goal should be to create something that’s worth going back to. Build utilities, not novelties.

Whether your members are solo entrepreneurs or massive businesses, they all have difficulties that can prevent them from being as effective as possible.

And these issues can vary wildly, but when it comes down to it, they turn to you to help solve some of their biggest problems—whether in terms of messaging, networking, or simple reach.

Increasingly, that might come in the form of software tools, as well. Maybe they look like apps designed around certification. Maybe they help HR departments figure out whether a candidate has the skills they say they do. Maybe they help parts of the public affected by an issue you work on in a unique way. Or maybe they help make a case for a broader advocacy issue your organization is intently focused on.

But the connecting tissue is that software is involved, and that software helps solve a problem, big or small. Often, these tools are free, or free with membership to your association.

The best of these tools have a sense of stickiness to them, to ensure users keep coming back for more. There are a lot of good reasons for this, including the fact that they keep your organization out there.

There’s a general concept at play, something called “brand utility,” which plays off the idea that assisting consumers in a noncommercial context is often a better form of marketing than simply trying to sell them something.

It’s not like offering a carrot with an attached stick so much as merely making the carrot available and letting memories of the carrot help drive future business.

“Being there for a consumer in a non-commercial interaction can build brand engagement for subsequent commercial interactions,” University of Oregon marketing professor T. Bettina Cornwell told Forbes in 2018.

By offering a service to the public that they can actually use, they have the momentum to return to you later when they actually need something from you.

It especially matters when the desired audience is one that is vital to your success.

Winning Over a Desired Audience

Perhaps a desired audience for a free utility touches on a small niche that carries high strategic importance.

In 2015, for example, Microsoft started offering a code editor to developers called Visual Studio Code, which effectively makes it easier to program for different devices, for free to the public—and not just on Windows, either. The company develops versions of VS Code for Linux and MacOS as well.

There is no explicit incentive that what you build with the tool has to work with Microsoft’s software—in fact, you can develop whatever you want, with no concerns about whatever Microsoft thinks. To underline that point, they even open-sourced it!

In the ’90s, Microsoft would charge developers hundreds of dollars for equivalent tools. But even though it’s slashed the price to free, the company still puts a lot of work into the tool in part because it burnishes the company’s reputation with a community of users it has strong incentives to keep happy. And that success has even given Microsoft incentives to acquire companies that sell things to that very same audience, such as GitHub.

This approach reflects an understanding that, sometimes, the utility of a tool sometimes has more value when it’s free than when it makes money on its own.

Going Free to Paid

But what if a utility is targeted at the primary audience you’re trying to reach? Well, with a little thinking and some proper structuring, a utility can help set up a backdoor into a fresh nondues revenue stream.

Last year, the freelance marketplace Fiverr (named for the fact that, at the time of its launch, many of its freelance options came at a bargain-basement price of $5) did something that I thought was pretty cool: They bought a complementary service called And Co, which was designed to make it easier for freelancers to invoice their clients. And, at least initially, they made the service (developed partly in partnership with the Freelancers Union) free for users.

The reason the company stated after the merger was essentially this: “Even still today, 97 percent of freelancing is done offline, and we believe those freelancers should also enjoy access to these premium tools, and it shouldn’t have a cost associated with it.”

But just because they made the basic product free after the merger didn’t mean there wasn’t room to start selling something to its intended audience. During the first year under Fiverr’s ownership, And Co was further improved thanks to the additional resources they had under a larger organization, and last year, the service received a new “pro” offering. The base service remains free—you can use all the features of the service with a single client at a time—but if you need to manage multiple clients at once, it’s $18 a month on a yearly contract.

Offering something for free now for utility purposes doesn’t mean it always has to be free, and it might offer up just the right amount of kibble to draw in the people who might be willing to eventually pay for that service.

Ultimately, associations have their own reasons for targeting an audience with a free tool of some kind—whether as a member benefit, a type of public awareness, or as a strategic play.

But at the center of your approach should be utility. Don’t just create something clever. Solve a problem.

(zabo69005/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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