Blog | 13 March 2020

Be something that matters

Membership organisations have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks when people were allowed to associate independently for a variety of reasons as long as they kept within the law.

During medieval times these’ clubs’ were more akin to informal gatherings of friends for drinking (how nothing changes) but evolved during the 17th century into a more formal invitation-only clubs held at ‘coffee-houses’ for the literati of the day and inevitably more dubious political purposes.

So, as the population grew and prospered, and economies and industry developed so too did the number and nature of organisations with a formal membership. During the latter part of the 19th century members only clubs became popular amongst the well-off as did the popularity of trade unions amongst the less so.

Right now, around 14 million of us belong to more than 450 professional organisations and more than 6 million of us still pay our fees to a trade union. So, nothing to see here right?

Actually, there is quite a bit to think about. For although these types of organisations have been with us a long time, many are under threat.

Gone are the days when we paid our membership dues and politely got in line for a monthly hand-out shaped like a newsletter.  Not only are consumers more demanding but there is a plethora of cheaper alternatives available to the traditional offer of many membership organisations.

Even the professional membership bodies are no longer sacrosanct. In some professions, alternatives have sprung up and professional industries have been de-regulated. Being a ‘chartered’ whatever just doesn’t hold the same kudos for a younger generation of practitioners.

So, membership organisations, just like any business, need to evolve to survive. In this week’s podcast, we heard from Anne Godfrey, CEO of CIEH as she described some of the challenges she faced in trying to re-engineer a business that was in danger of becoming obsolete.

Ultimately it is about identifying what your members want and more importantly what they want from you. It is about what matters. The passive member is long gone so embrace their passions and be a channel for them.

It is also about understanding what is valuable to a member at a particular point in their lives. Someone starting out in adult life has a drastically different set of needs both personally and professionally from someone middle-aged. That information should be common sense and yet many membership bodies have barely started unlocking the opportunities afforded by proper customer segmentation. Use content to tell your story and reflect theirs.

Thinking about new business models is imperative. You are a business not a charity (and even charities are now realising they must behave differently). Membership fees alone are doomed to fail. Think about what you are selling and the need to attract and engage with your membership on a regular basis, not just a once a year subscription drive.

Membership in all its forms is driven by the need to belong, for validation, recognition, and sometimes even survival. When what your organisation stands for no longer matters to its members it ceases to be relevant and a timely death is not far away.

Survival is not mandatory but if you want to thrive you need to continually evolve.

To paraphrase the father of evolution – It is not the strongest or most intelligent that survive, but those most adaptable to change.

Alex Marks
Alex Marks
Strategist

Alex supports the strategic development of River's business and acts as an experienced marketing partner for our client teams. He is a regular commentator, writer and conference speaker on a wide variety of digital,  marketing,  and content strategy issues.

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