Rethinking Membership As A Global Engagement Model


The following article was written by Nikki Walker, MCI’s Global Vice President, Association Management & Consulting.

No longer can associations continue with their traditional “one size fits all” approach to membership

For decades now, associations have maintained a very traditional approach towards “membership” and membership dues. However, the time has come for organizations to catch up with the realities of today’s consumer habits and reconsider how and why people around the world engage with organizations. Segmentation, customization and differentiation are key.

Members, customers or community?

Many associations have large numbers of “customers” who pay valuable sums of money to the organization for multiple reasons, such as: acquiring knowledge and continuing education; advancing their professional development; accessing the latest industry trends, benchmarks or standards; networking and exchanging ideas, cases, issues or breaking science; ensuring their company/ employer benefits from the most up to date, authoritative data; and so on.  Simply put customers are interested in your association’s offerings, products, programmes, body of knowledge – they are buying your publications and journals; paying to attend your congress, meetings, or training courses; purchasing your standards; following your certification or accreditation programs and yet they are not interested in, or do not see the relevance and value of, the bundled package and price point you call membership, so they will not become members under today’s traditional approach.

This is particularly true for associations trying to build their membership outside their home market.  Your value proposition must be adjusted (in its content, price and means of engagement) to suit the needs of the target audience and to offer value as it is perceived by that audience.

Instead of building membership through the traditional approach only, associations need to get into the mind-set of building community and considering their organizations as open professional communities rather than closed membership organizations.   Every customer has a role to play, value to add and should be considered as a valued member of the community, particularly as they are willing to spend money with you.  Why not let professionals engage with your organization at the level and point of interest that is relevant and adds value to them, personally and professionally?  But consider them also as “members of your community”, otherwise said: “members of your association”.

Defining value

Fundamental to this mind-set shift is the recognition that value is defined by the customer (the new member) not by the organization.  Value is a personal perception and is influenced by multiple issues such as generation, cultural and national norms, buying power, who pays or makes the decisions, professional status, corporate behaviour, competition, availability, preferred methods of acquiring knowledge – the list is endless. Let’s consider a few examples:

  • A simple monetary case, an international association who is trying to build membership in India for an annual fee of 180USD will not succeed in this country with this approach because the cultural and national norm around association membership in India is a lifetime membership for just 100USD.
  • Similarly, this culture, and many others, will look at the bundled list of benefits tied to the 180USD and argue that their interest is only in one of those benefits, so they should only pay for that single benefit.  Imagine this one benefit is online access to the journal.  Considering the market size of India – isn’t it more interesting to consider 5,000 professionals in India paying 50USD for access to your online journal content (that they value highly) and welcome them as digital members, than trying to flog the 180USD full membership package to 500 professionals?
  • A young professional who interacts daily online, using social networks and the internet to acquire knowledge and who wants to advance his/her career through training, values all the help he/she can get towards this goal and  will be willing to pay for tangible asset acquisition online. But initially, he will want to limit his engagement to your association’s body of knowledge, he does not yet “value” the other elements of full member engagement.
  • In China, for example, and in many Asian cultures, associations who try to promote to the individual are spending a lot of energy for little result, as the individual does not make the decision.  It is a top-down management driven culture, so associations need to communicate value to the employer, and consider bundling assets into a customized enterprise-wide membership package which includes in-house face-to-face training programmes and digital access to certain knowledge products.
  • In the socialist structure and culture of the majority of European countries, the culture of volunteerism is not broadly understood.  Professionals will not naturally choose to “join” in order to vote or get involved in leadership, but are willing to engage and pay for tangible knowledge assets, products and programmes provided by associations.

Evolving membership models

For associations to be successful and thrive over the next decade they must totally reconsider their approach to membership, become more versatile, use technology, segment their target audiences and allow individuals (or new customer segments) to choose their point of entry.   There is also a fundamental shift in realizing that many of the new members will not have the right to vote or influence the association’s direction, but that they don’t care about this – they are interested in the association’s content and are willing to pay for it.  The other key understanding is that you are not “giving away” your assets for free – the new membership categories clearly delineate what the member acquires.    For example if your print journal is a key asset under the Full Member (full price) bundled package your Training Member, or Special Interest Group Member will not have access to this.

Your new menu-driven or segmented approach to membership will allow the customer to choose and apply his/her own perception of value to his method of engagement in your professional community.  At any time, the XX-Category Member can purchase other products or programmes (outside his membership category) or can upgrade his membership to include more benefits and become a FULL member.  Your new rules of engagement, effectively serve as an extended recruitment strategy, whilst at the same time expanding your association’s outreach and member base.

Practically speaking your menu or segmentation can be as creative as you want but you must address your target audience’s needs and use technology wisely. Some simple examples:

Special Interest Group/Communities of Practice Member: instead of making this a sub category of Full Membership, why not allow professionals to engage with your organization for a modest fee to access their specific area of sub interest?  They will soon discover other areas of interest in your association and increase their engagement.

Product Member: why not consider all those valuable attendees at your annual Congress or meeting as Congress-Members (only benefit is the Congress).  When they register welcome them to your association community as a valued Congress-Member (you have given nothing away and they have paid nothing extra but you have engaged with them).  Imagine the boost to your influence and authority as the association of choice if you are one of the many international healthcare associations that attract tens of thousands of congress participations thirsty for your content, but struggle to interest even one thousand members?

Or allow professionals to become a Training-Member of your organization, providing them with access to one or two online learning modules and face to face courses.  Anything outside of their member category is extra, and payable on demand.

Corresponding Members:  most associations have an electronic newsletter which is informative, and provides a “taste” of more in-depth information (for which you have to pay to access).  It costs you the same time and money to prepare this newsletter for ten thousand members as it does for one hundred thousand members.  Instead of asking for subscribers to the newsletter and continuing to list them merely as subscribers, why not welcome them into your community as Corresponding Members?  Some associations call this Free Membership (as typically there is no fee to “subscribe” to the newsletter) but this undermines the whole principle of allowing a multiple choice towards engagement, and belittles the value of other categories. You will not provide any other services to these Corresponding Members but you will value them as part of your Member community and will increase your sphere of influence.

Virtual (e- or digital) Members:   those who have access to your virtual community or your online member area or restricted access to certain digital products and programs (typically online version of the journal).  Many associations have started to offer this category, to offer a lower membership fee and to minimize their costs in serving new members. 

Customized Members: allow your members to choose from a menu of pre-defined products/ benefits and compose their own membership package (à la carte shopping).  Eventually these members will realize that the Full membership deal offers better value, but you have allowed them in at the content and price point that is of interest to them at the start of their engagement with your organization.

FULL Members:  this category will not go away and will remain at the core of your association’s activities. The traditional association model asks professionals to engage with an association as a member, to adhere to a code of ethics, in many cases to prove their eligibility for membership, and to buy-in to a set of pre-established “so-called” benefits (often  these same benefits are also available to non-members but at a slightly higher price).  In return the member can vote, and become actively involved in the life the association, participating in committees, influencing policy and eventually assuming leadership positions.  However the membership numbers under this approach remain limited.    The new member categories do not undermine this, nor do any of the new categories allow the full engagement privileges that go with Full membership. Maybe this member category will evolve to some higher meaning – such as Fellow or Authorized Professional?

The trusted source of knowledge

Apart from allowing customers to engage with your organization according to their definition of value or their needs, this new approach towards membership helps in the positioning of your association as the organization of choice and authoritative source of knowledge.  Many associations today are not profiting from their broad community (of members and customers) and positioning themselves as representative of thousands of professionals, and therefore the voice of authority and the trusted source of choice.  Instead they talk of having 2,000 members when they could be referencing 50,000 members – 50,000 members who all see value in the association’s body of knowledge and who have all chosen their preferred method and price point of accessing this knowledge.

Isn’t it better to have 50-60% of your profession or industry in your community than just the 15% who are members of your association?  Not only does this increase your potential to generate revenues it increases your legitimacy as the authoritative, representative organization of choice.

Full voting members of your community remain those who are at the core of your membership offering today – i.e. those who meet the eligibility criteria or want to pay for and access the full package of benefits; those who want to contribute to the community in leadership positions; those who want to vote and influence strategy etc.  For the rest, they are members of your wider community and their point of entry restricts their access to other core services or activities, but they are engaged with you, they consider themselves “members” of your organization and at any moment they can pay for additional access, engagement or activities. The more they engage, the more they are likely to find additional value.  More importantly, you treat them as members and vital to your organization and your community now represents 50,000 professionals instead of 2,000.

The difference between your approach today and this new approach is that you will have multiple levels and types of “members”, but everyone who engages with your organization for his or her preferred reason is a valued member of your association community and every one of your members values certain elements of your association offering.


Nikki Walker -b&wNikki Walker is global Vice President of Association Management & Consulting for the MCI Group.  For the last 17 years, Nikki has focused on helping international professional associations design their global strategy, penetrate and succeed in new markets and develop relevant value propositions around the world.  Contact:  


    • Thomas Reiser on 02/12/2013 at 2:10 am

    Excellent blog and right on. Not always easy to implement but certainly very important food for thought. What is on the foundation of this, though, is that associations are challenged to think beyond their traditional benefits and develop more relevant products and services that can then make up this menu that allows ‘members’ with different needs pick and choose what fits them best and thereby engage with the Association.

    • Tim Sainty on 02/19/2013 at 4:24 am

    This is a very timely blog as it is something I am looking into at the moment. I would be really interested to hear how anyone has managed to address the inter-dependency of membership, journal circulation numbers and associated revenue streams. Cutting the number of people who receive our journal(s) has a terrible effect on other incoem streams.

    • Karen Burgess on 02/27/2013 at 8:19 am

    Nikki, I’d be interested in your perspective on organizations that do have a healthy market share of 60-70%. For these organizations, the strategy you outline could lead to a decrease in membership as well as dues and nondues revenue.

    I was struck by the potential utility of this strategy for international outreach, however.

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