Today’s association model, created more than 100 years ago, is dying. The days of homogenous markets are long gone. Industry consolidation and globalization have rendered many trade association’s traditional member markets virtually unserviceable. Increased competition and higher member expectations have combined with market changes to create an environment that is hostile to the broad-based association trying to serve a complex and diverse member market.
These macro and irreversible trends have resulted in an unprecedented quandary for most associations: Do we continue attempting to serve an increasingly diverse member market? Or do we refocus to serve a member market that has changed significantly from the one that the association was designed for?
In the past, the typical association’s approach was to focus on members’ considerable common interests and needs. They have a predisposition to the member market as it has been. “We serve CPAs.” “Automobile dealers are our members.” “We serve physicians.” “Manufacturers are our members.” And so on. They act as if nothing has changed, when the reality is that fundamental and irreversible changes have taken place in their member markets.
Now common interests and needs are scarce. As a matter of fact, the interests of one member are sometimes diametrically opposed to those of another member.
What is an association to do?
When you boil it all down, there are only three options:
* Continue to struggle with divergent interests and needs OR
* Organize and structure to meet diverse needs OR
* Focus solely on the needs of a definable segment
The first option is not defensible. For an association’s governance and management to acknowledge the situation and its consequences, but do nothing, would represent a major failure in their obligations. This would be like a newspaper seeing the impact of digital information alternatives and saying they’re not going to do anything differently.
The second option has been tried but with marginal success in most cases. Ask any association with sections, special interest groups or divisions, “How are they working?” and the answer will be “It varies. A few work well, some do OK, and others do poorly.”
The last option, focusing on the needs of a definable segment, is the radical solution to relevance.
Does focusing solely on the needs of a definable segment mean yours will be a smaller association? It might. If it looks that way, ask yourself: “Would our members want to belong to a large association or an association that helps them perform and succeed?” For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) and its constituent state and local societies have been unable to serve a population of doctors who are increasingly diverse in practices and interests. Hand surgeons don’t need the same information as family practitioners. Hospital-based physicians require different advocacy than rural, solo practitioners. And plastic surgeons have little, if anything, in common with pediatricians.
While the American Medical Association’s membership and market share have plummeted, the number of specialty and subspecialty medical societies has grown. The American Board of Medical Specialties certifies physicians in more than 145 specialties and subspecialties. With an average estimated membership of 5,300 in a specialty organization, more than 768,500 physicians could be members of these groups compared to the AMA’s membership, which estimated only represents 135,300 ‘real, practicing physicians’.
The growth of associations over the last 50 years shows almost all of them with a narrower focus than their predecessors, indicating that those associations with a precisely defined member market are in demand and succeeding. Their mission is clearer with a well-defined market. Their value proposition is stronger because their programs and services are more focused. Their organizations are more efficient because their resources are more concentrated. Their communications improve with more targeted messaging. Their competitiveness is enhanced with efforts dedicated to a more distinct market. The key to success is brand relevance: focus energy and resources on meeting well-defined member needs and problems rather than trying to be all things to all people in hopes of maximizing membership and dues income.