Associations, unlike manufacturers or service companies in the for-profit sector, were since their beginnings marketed on a many-to-many model. That is, while for-profit companies spent most of the 20th and early 21st century marketing their brands and products via advertising in traditional media channels (one to many), professional and trade associations reached critical mass as members learned of and promoted the association through their colleagues (many to many).
This natural tendency of associations to grow via word of mouth and exposure through professional interaction suggests that it is inherently attractive to become a member of an association – still to this day the most commonly cited reasons for joining associations is to learn (keep up on the latest) and to make professional contacts. In some cases, joining a “cause,” is paramount, where advocacy is a primary driver for affiliation. In all cases, though, it is what the group — the critical mass — can ultimately do for the individual that forms a natural lure to join and contribute.
We read a lot lately that associations are in a panic. The economy has made it harder for individuals to pay dues or get their companies to pay their dues for them. Exhibitors are cutting back on floor space; attendees are deciding they can only afford to every few years to the annual meeting. Social media provides a means for professionals to interact and coordinate with one another, to exchange information and collaborate, once the sole domain of the professional association.
Associations have to ask themselves why these factors are threats to their organizations. What models have associations built that make them vulnerable? If there is inherent value for individuals to join colleagues in groups, shouldn’t associations, the most experienced purveyors of the professional collective experience, be as valuable and compelling today as they ever have been? Hasn’t the ability to facilitate interaction among professionals only gotten less expensive and more easily achieved?
The answer is that associations are organizations. And, as most organizations, they are susceptible to goal displacement. Goal displacement occurs when the organization’s focus strays from delivering on its original promise and instead becomes focused on perpetuating the organization. CEO’s have comfortable salaries, staff members have good jobs where they can exercise their talents and be recognized; volunteers relish in the status and recognition afforded them by their contributions, as well as the ability to have influence on the direction of their fields. The organization takes on a life of its own; long live the organization.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a focus on perpetuating an organization. Growing the power and capacity of an organization can often benefit all of the organization’s members. But the associations that are vulnerable today are likely vulnerable for one of two reasons: 1) they are no longer necessary in which case they probably should fold; or 2) they are no longer focused on delivering on their original promise and have therefore diluted value to the member. Ultimately, if the association is no longer growing or maintaining its prestige and allure many to many, something’s wrong.
In 2006, Fred Reichheld, a consultant with Bain & Company, popularized the Net Promoter Score (NPS) in his book The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth. The “ultimate question” that underpins the NPS is “how likely are you to recommend ____ to a colleague or friend.” This NPS question has now found its way onto many a member survey, and is used in a variety of industries to measure customer satisfaction. Some believe it’s the only question that needs to be on a survey. While the value and validity of the NPS as an indicator of customer or member satisfaction is debated (and some feel debunked), the popularity of the measure is a commentary not only on how managers are attracted to simple, efficient solutions to large problems (the “silver bullet question” as it were), but more importantly about how “value” is communicated: not by the organization (one to many) but by the organization’s members (many to many).
As an association leader, you need to have the courage to ask yourself and your leadership team constantly why anyone would want to join your association today and, more to the point, should you exist. Might even be a good idea to ask your members. Why? Why join? Why contribute? Can we help you transition out of our organization or to another one you are drawn to?
While this may sound flippant, it is not intended to be. Rather, it’s intended to bring the focus of your organization back to its original promise – to provide value to individuals by way of the group. Either this is inherently valuable to them, or it is not. You need only look to your members and what they are telling, or not telling, their colleagues, to find out. In this conversation, you will also find out what the kernel of the value is – why the group is providing value, or why it is not.
Be brave. Be a slave to value that is worthy of communicating many to many. Your association will either disappear or will be stronger and more compelling than ever.