Despite the challenges associations are facing, they are still evolving, shaking off barriers to innovation, and improving messaging and internal efficiency to meet member needs in a more responsive—and empathetic—way, according to a new report on the economic outlook for associations.
Marketing General Incorporated’s second Association Economic Outlook Report, released this month, reflects—not surprisingly—a lot of hardship among associations.
Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they expect their membership to decline, 78 percent have canceled or postponed their in-person meetings, and 20 percent said they have cut salaries or hours for employees or laid employees off. Despite these challenges, Tony Rossell, senior vice president of MGI and the report’s co-author, said he sees a lot in the data to be optimistic about.
“Don’t waste your association’s hardships,” he said. “Use this time to innovate, to re-engage members, and make the changes you’ve perhaps been putting off for a long time.”
Responsive Messaging and Expediency
Ninety-three percent of respondents said they had made quick changes to their messaging, and 90 percent focused on sharing crucial information with members. The change is directly in response to the pandemic, as associations moved to provide practical guidance to members on how to handle the crisis. And members clearly needed the information. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they had seen a marked increase in the level of member activity and engagement.
Barriers to change are also crumbling. In MGI’s 2019 research, 31 percent of respondents said that the barriers to change were institutional resistance to risk. When asked the same question for the 2020 report, only 22 percent said that it was a barrier, and respondents who said the slow pace of board and senior executive decision-making were obstacles dropped from 31 to 19 percent.
The lack of agreement among board members as a barrier dipped from 25 in 2019 to 13 percent in 2020, which points to more consolidation and expediency in decision making and less fear of risk. This is a promising sign that associations are becoming more agile and responsive and less inhibited by impediments that have held back change in the past, Rossell said.
Another key shift is happening in the area of association professional development. Research for MGI’s 2020 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, which was conducted just before COVID-19 hit, found that job services and career boards had low levels of member engagement. Fast forward more than six months into the pandemic, and that trend has reversed dramatically, with professional development services now in high demand. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they plan to increase virtual professional development opportunities for members, according to the new report.
Associations have an important role to play that goes beyond connecting people with jobs, Rossell said. “Members like to hire members,” especially members who have been certified through their professional association, he noted.
Membership Is Key
Lots of hardship, lots of adversity, and yet 47 percent of respondents said they are confident their organization will weather the storm by continuing to adapt in 2021. What accounts for that optimism? Rossell credits the staying power of associations, many of which have been in business for 50 to 100 years—and more—and the advantage of embedded membership.
“The beautiful thing about membership is, it’s a continuity product,” he said. Members pay at the beginning of their membership year, and the median membership renewal rate is 84 percent, according to MGI’s benchmarking report.
In comparison to many other businesses, which are mostly transactional and much more vulnerable to economic disruptions, “[association] membership is a wonderful insurance policy and income stream that many businesses don’t enjoy,” Rossell said.
We Are Family
For the first time, MGI included a question in the survey about empathy—not a word often associated with business (at least not in my experience). Notably, 73 percent of respondents reported empathizing with members.
“Most association executives care about their members. They have personal relationships with their volunteers, and so they feel their pain,” Rossell said. “It’s now more of a family approach instead of a business approach in many cases.”
The picture is complicated, but not entirely dire. “It’s certainly wise to anticipate a decline in your membership,” he said. But he predicts a rebound as lapsed members realize they need the community, resources, and professional development opportunities associations provide.