Why Your Members Don’t Care About You
It’s no secret that many associations struggle to retain and grow membership, and anyone who has been around the industry for a few years can rattle off some reasons.
The information once provided by associations is worth less in the Internet age. Conferences and networking are worth less with LinkedIn around. Challenging demographics, a sluggish economy and a do-nothing political environment have all contributed.
Yet there’s another reason that’s far more fundamental to why some longtime members walk away and some prospects decline to join. The reason is that these people are fixated on their own problems, and many associations are not well aligned to provide solutions.
‘They Care About Themselves’
Steve Lane, president of Vertical Leap Consulting, explained it well in a post for Association Trends.
Lane writes that the fundamental promise of all associations is to help members in ways they could not achieve on their own. “Yet most associations focus on pushing out offerings … and hoping someone cares,” he wrote. “Likely, your members aren’t aware of all your offerings. Their focus is on outcomes that address their business/professional challenges and opportunities. Everything else is just noise.”
Joe Pulizzi, a marketing expert, made the same point about American businesses in general, albeit more abruptly. “Your customers don’t care about you, your products or your services,” he wrote in his book, Epic Content Marketing. “They care about themselves, their wants and their needs.”
It’s Not About You
Indeed, associations are not facing this alone. The concept is fast becoming a central tenet of American marketing. Today’s customer, armed with only an internet connection, holds the biggest gun when it comes to making a buying decision of any kind, whether its a car or an association membership. They can study up, make their decision and pull the trigger, all without any input whatsoever from the seller.
In that environment, organizations that sell things — including association memberships — need a value proposition that is extraordinarily clear.
“God bless the baby boomers, they joined their trade association or professional society because they should,” wrote Ed Rigsbee in an article adapted from his book, The ROI of Membership. “Today the younger folks are saying … they want you to prove the ROI that you deliver.”
Of course, not all associations have membership problems, and many are eagerly serving member needs every day. But roughly 41 percent report that membership is declining or stagnant, according to a survey released earlier this year by ASI, a provider on non-profit software. And an equal number report that engagement is flat or dropping.
And so a great deal of thinking is being done about return on investment in the association world, with much of it focused on improving value propositions and providing solutions. Some, like Rigsbee, argue that associations should literally put a dollar figure on what they offer their members, thus proving their worth in business terms. Others talk about becoming less transactional and connecting with members in more fundamental ways.
As Lane put it, “When members feel connected, they stop viewing the organization as an output vendor, a meeting to attend or journal to read. They become the association’s evangelists and virally spread the word. They pay dues on time and enlist others to join. They contribute to research funds, join advocacy efforts and bring colleagues to meetings. They become speakers at your events and writers in your publications.”
Every organization will approach it differently. But whatever the strategy, you can be sure of one thing: the true solution will be more about members than the association.