Why It’s Time for a Fresh Look at Your Value Proposition

New research suggests the pandemic changed the needs of association members. Leaders will have to spearhead creative responses.

What do your members and customers value?

That shouldn’t be a scary question: Associations are used to paying close attention to what services people find useful and which benefits people find attractive. But the pandemic has disrupted clarity about that, along with much else.

For example, see the latest edition of Marketing General Inc.’s Membership Marketing Benchmark report, which includes some sobering findings. In addition to the familiar news about meetings taking a hit, membership has suffered a blow as well: Nearly half (45 percent) of associations surveyed reported a decline in membership renewals, doubling the rate of the previous year. And a larger proportion of associations say they’ve seen a decline in new member acquisition (37 percent) than those who’ve seen an increase (29 percent).

According to the report, a key factor in getting those first-time members has been its value proposition: “Associations reporting increases in their new members and overall membership in the past year are significantly more likely to say their association’s value proposition is very compelling or compelling.”

Addressing weak membership numbers may demand a more holistic approach—and more ambitious thinking about what members want from you.

Associations say they haven’t been sitting idly by: 78 percent of the survey’s respondents said they’ve developed “new products and services to assist members and member companies.” That’s meaningful, though I do wonder how much of the innovation being trumpeted by respondents involves much beyond launching a virtual conference in 2020. Addressing weak membership numbers may demand a more holistic approach—and more ambitious thinking about what members (and potential members) want from you.

I was thinking about this while reading about a recent effort by the magazine Outside to move away from its familiar subscription model to one that more closely resembles an association membership. As The Washington Post reported last week, Outside is a legacy brand that’s been pummeled by weak ad sales and an internet audience that expects free content. Robin Thurston, who bought the magazine in February, thinks he’s found a fix: Rather than peddling magazine subscriptions, he’s selling memberships around the lifestyle that the Outside audience represents.

That involves a $99 annual fee that includes access to not just the magazine but other publications, books, apps, online courses, and reduced entry fees to athletic events. That doesn’t sound radically different from an association membership’s familiar mix of content-plus-education-plus-events-plus-discounts. But as professor Sharon Bloyd-Peskin told the Post, the heart of Outside’s effort is to put it at the center of member’s everyday lives: “Here’s this brand saying that a magazine or two is part of our value proposition, but what you are really buying is a whole package of things that you’re used to paying for.”

And that’s the challenge that association leaders have to address now: What puts your association front-and-center in members’ professional lives, when so many of them have had their professional lives upended? Thurston’s bet may not pan out—it depends on converting 10 percent of online readers to members, which is a big lift. But it recognizes that standing still will mean falling behind.

In Fast Company, Tadiran Group CEO Elad Peleg points out that legacy companies have a hard time accessing their “inner startup” because they’re used to their tried-and-true processes. To resist that, he proposes a kind of “genetic therapy”: Looking beyond revenue growth and closely studying what products and services people actually use, and whether they sustain their engagement over time. Associations can get caught in similar ruts. Now is a good time to start breaking out of them.

(Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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