Free Online Communities: Problem or Opportunity for Association Membership?



Despite what many associations believe, association members (even next generation members) are engaged—daily, passionately, and in growing numbers. Increasingly, however, they are not engaged with association membership. The rules of engagement have changed and failure to accept and act on those changes is the crux of the problem facing associations today.

Consider the case of one association we’ve come across in our research on the mindset and practices that enable some associations to thrive while others decline in the same environment. In the past four years, despite aggressive acquisition efforts, membership has dropped by 35% and continues to decline. The chief reason lapsing members give for not renewing: not enough value for the money.

In short, their members are not engaged and are not finding value in membership. The association has responded with an all-out communications effort to increase engagement and members’ awareness and understanding of value (as defined by the association), and thus retention rates, without success. First-year members in this organization continue to drop out at rates of 60% or more, creating a churn that is putting increasing pressure on the association’s membership and its revenues. Sound familiar?

Over the same time period, the online community affiliated with this association has grown by leaps and bounds. Some 100-150 industry professionals from around the world join this community every week. In the past four years, membership in the online community has grown from 0 to 20,000, doubling in each of the past two years.

The online community is extremely vibrant. In daily discussions, community members pose and answer questions about specific technical processes, buy and sell products and equipment, share best practices, job opportunities, and additional sources of information to technical questions. According to group statistics, its members represent a microcosm of the global industry, from senior management to process technician and across the entire value chain.

To us, the online community seems like a perfect opportunity for the association to engage potential members and customers in a new, relevant, and profitable way. It’s a tailor-made research sample where the association could discover, first-hand, what keeps its current and future members and customers up at night and how the association can help. A custom-built laboratory where the association could test, for relatively little cost and risk, new products and services that match market demand, and where they could co-develop value and benefits—and a new concept of engagement—with the very audience the association needs to reach.

The association doesn’t see it that way, however. It defines “engagement” as publishing; presenting; exhibiting, purchasing a product or service, or volunteering. In other words, engagement equals service to the association. Therefore, it has written off all 20,000 members of this online group (which includes many paying association members) as being “only interested in what they can get for free.” It sees its own online community as competition for membership, products, and services, and engagement on the association’s terms.

What this association doesn’t see is the opportunity. It doesn’t see that these social media community members are deeply engaged—with one another, with the industry, with using and providing technical and business information—with all the things the association says are its mission to provide. They’re just not engaged in association membership and volunteerism.

Why? Because there is currently no way for these online community members to engage with the association for what they need and how they need it, and the association refuses to engage with them. So, they are doing what current and potential association members and customers are increasingly doing—finding and defining value outside the parameters of association membership.

The new rules of engagement are both an opportunity and a threat—a threat to the traditional association model, and an opportunity to engage members in a successful future.

The new rules of engagement demand that associations go where potential members and customers (or even current ones) are gathering, particularly if it is somewhere other than the association. Look at what they are doing, and how. Talk. To. Them. Understand. Empathize.

Ask how the association can fit into their world, not how can they fit into the association’s.

In other words: Engage.

This article was originally published on The Demand Perspective Blog, which was co-founded by Andrea Pellegrino.