Looking at membership in a new way means being inclusive at every level and reimagining what a member is—and needs. Definitions and outdated molds need to be redefined and recast for a sustainable, holistic, and realistic membership strategy.
The future came a lot faster than expected in 2020 when innovation kicked into high gear out of necessity amid a global pandemic. Associations shifted to triage mode, responding to the greatest needs of members first. Now that everyone has taken a collective deep breath (sort of), it’s time to plan for the future of membership.
What does that look like? According to research, experts, and recent experience in a variety of associations, the outlook is mixed, but largely promising.
Earlier reports this year about the state of associations did not have great news, but it wasn’t all dire. McKinley Advisors’ 2021 Association Viewpoint report showed that the number of associations reporting membership declines nearly doubled in one year, with professional associations being particularly hard hit and trade associations faring slightly better.
The upside? According to Marketing General Incorporated’s 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 45 percent of association professionals surveyed said membership’s five-year trend was still positive, even though the one-year trend was down.
“We had a bump in the road, but overall, there has still been a tradition of positive growth for association membership,” says Tony Rossell, MGI’s senior vice president and coauthor of the study.
Evidence of that optimism can be found in the American Chemical Society’s new plan—Membership 2.0—which takes membership to a more accessible, affordable, and diverse level. ACS, like many associations, had been struggling with declining membership and was looking for ways to reverse that trend.
In 2018, ACS began developing a strategy to transform its membership model with the goal of growing membership, increasing the engagement of its industrial members, and better connecting with global constituents and underrepresented communities.
We always see a strong correlation between organizations that have a strong value proposition and their likelihood in seeing an increase in membership.
“Thinking outside the box is critical for organizations to think of diversity in the broadest terms,” says LaTrease Garrison, ACS’s executive vice president of membership and education. “It’s important to consider whether the organization has been catering to a broad population within a professional discipline or limiting itself to certain segments.”
By taking a deeper dive into its processes, the ACS team realized the organization was focusing on the daily acquisition of members to reach growth targets, but without a clear rationale beyond growth for growth’s sake. They decided to work toward creating a model that would attract and engage members more organically. If they could do that, they could focus more of their resources on engagement and a better value proposition more tailored to members. Overall, Garrison says, ACS’s primary value for members will continue to be the networking it provides and its “power of convening.”
A robust value proposition is essential. In MGI’s 2021 report, association professionals said they felt much more strongly that they were providing an essential value to members, Rossell says. Nearly eight in 10 respondents said they did so by introducing new products and services to better serve members.
“We always see a strong correlation between organizations that have a strong value proposition and their likelihood in seeing an increase in membership,” Rossell says.
The strength in value is also a good sign because, while associations have lost members over the past year, those losses tended to be more about pandemic uncertainty, worry about the economic situation, and a loss of jobs.
“It’s a problem when people say there is no value at an association,” Rossell says. “But if people leave because of an economic disruption, it’s much more likely those people will come back.”
Pillars of Strength—and Innovation
ACS’s Membership 2.0 model is being constructed by five work teams, made up primarily of membership staff, that are each dedicated to a pillar supporting the overall structure. Each team has individual objectives and specific targets. The pillars are:
A new membership model that will provide flexible and scalable membership offerings to stay current with member demands and increase member value.
Smart growth and member value to remove barriers to entry, identify new markets, and develop a structured process for new benefits.
Member engagement with personalized experiences to add elements of personalization to member communications, events, and online platforms.
Data for better insights to better assess how members are making decisions about ACS membership.
A win-win culture focused on a unified goal to be more member-centric by keeping the member experience at the center of every business decision.
ACS began the process three years ago, but the pandemic amplified the importance of a revised model. “It demonstrated the need to communicate with our members differently and look at how they engage with the organization to make sure we’re presenting a diverse portfolio of opportunities for them to engage with us,” Garrison says.
That kind of innovation is a positive indicator for associations, Rossell says. Over the years he has observed that groups with an innovative culture “are much more likely to see their membership grow.” MGI’s 2021 report showed that 29 percent of respondents said their associations were very or extremely innovative in 2020, up from 20 percent in 2019. “It is an encouraging sign for associations in general, but also for membership,” he says.
ACS staff worked with consultants on research to gauge the best places to focus resources and talent. It was a collective effort that reviewed the landscape of the association world and membership organizations to make sure the group hit the right targets. ACS’s membership committee was involved in the process and helped guide final decisions about what direction to head in.
“Knowing the audience is going to continue to be a very important factor for associations to consider as they think about their membership growth opportunities and where they may need to make changes,” Garrison says.
Meet Members Where They Are
ACS’s new membership model will ensure that members can choose how they want to participate instead of having one menu of options with one price. ACS will now offer three distinct packages, including a free membership option with no prerequisites for people who have an interest in chemistry but who don’t need the full suite of benefits available to practicing chemistry professionals. The other two options are a mid-point membership for those who do not find value in full membership or are transitioning between careers, and a full membership that provides access to all member benefits.
“Providing that menu of opportunities is going to make things more flexible for the individual as they come to ACS,” Garrison says. “We are going to be able to better meet people where they are.”
Garrison also hopes the new model will bring in more diverse members by indicating that people who work in chemistry don’t have to have a Ph.D. to be successful—or to be a member of ACS. A lot of people assumed that without a Ph.D., they weren’t welcome at the organization, she says. The new model will open doors for new people to participate when the time is right for them.
You have to have a future-forward outlook. I’m hoping this causes us to stretch and be more inclusive in the broader sense.
Garrison also anticipates it will create a better pipeline for future leaders who can access the organization at a lower tier but still have exposure to how ACS operates and what its governance cycle is like. When they are ready to get more involved, they will be comfortable taking on a volunteer role within the organization.
The potential for new volunteers is promising. “Our membership, especially our local chapters, is going to get great value, because now they can reach out to their local chemists, chemical sciences students, and really pitch ACS in a different way for them to come and join,” Garrison says.
ACS also looked at how to better engage with the younger generation—both undergraduate and graduate students. Younger members have always been engaged in many of the programs, products, and services ACS offers. The group has had undergraduate chapters since the 1930s, but in 2019 they started graduate student chapters. But better aligning undergraduate and graduate students and not making such a distinct difference between who they are and what benefits they get will teach them about teamwork, Garrison says.
“It allows them to see ACS as a community,” she says, which will help keep them aligned with the organization for the long haul. “Our philosophy around membership and how we’re changing is really going to help us to do that.”
Garrison says Membership 2.0 is about more than offering different membership packages. Such a large structural change requires knowing how you’re going to communicate differently, if you have the right systems in place, and what the financial investment will be.
“You have to have a future- forward outlook,” she says. “I’m hoping this causes us to stretch and be more inclusive in the broader sense.”