Membership: seven challenges facing associations

In an increasingly digital world, keeping members engaged is a challenge for associations...

man wearing headphones while sitting on chair in front of MacBook

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

How do associations shape their future vision and long-term strategy?

Here, Mathijs Vleeming consultant for associations at Yard Digital Agency, attempts to answer it as he addresses some of the most important challenges for associations and introduces strategies they can apply to overcome them.

1. External factors force adaptation

The digitalisation programmes of associations accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic forced associations to reconsider how they communicated and interacted with members.

For many, this was a forced replacement of face-to-face activities, rather than part of a long-term strategic vision. Associations had to act quickly to keep their members together and maintain momentum, while physical events were no longer possible.

But now that the pandemic is over, online activities are here to stay. Therefore, it is important not to fall back into old habits.

Associations must consider how to create an integrated digital and physical long-term strategy that puts contact with and between members at the centre.

2. Resistance to change and innovation

The goal of associations is to unite different people in the same field or with the same interests or concerns. And to give them the opportunity to share, expand and learn from each other's passion.

But associations are often conservative organisations that have existed for a long time and are used to working in a certain way.

They are often constrained by conservative boards that avoid risks and stick to hierarchical decision-making procedures and rules. This can lead to stagnation and a lack of innovation.

Instead of just reacting to external pressure, associations should stimulate internal innovation and change.

Change should not only be driven by the need to keep up with trends, but by the necessity to remain relevant to members. This kind of internal stimulus can help associations better meet the needs of their members and make themselves more future-proof.

3. Providing sustainability in a climate crisis

The unfolding environmental crisis and resulting flight shaming have challenged the association world for years, long before the pandemic.

Travel is an increasingly sensitive environmental issue. During the pandemic, many people saw that travel is not always necessary. Moreover, research shows that we need to keep our CO2 emissions as low as during the COVID lockdowns to achieve our goals of the Paris Agreement.

The more alarming the warming of the earth becomes, the more pressure there is to find alternatives to conferences and congresses that are exclusively on location and offline.

New generations are also more aware of their ecological footprint. A company's efforts on environmental, social, and philanthropic issues affect their purchasing decisions.

a woman holding a sign that says time is running out

4. Expectations of digital natives are increasing

man sitting while using phone

Younger generations joining associations and entering the professional world have new expectations. These digital natives want to be connected online, be involved and have quick access to information.

Millennials, who grew up with technology such as the internet, smartphones, social media, and online shopping, bring their digital skills to leadership roles.

Generation Z, the generation after the Millennials, was born in an era where it is commonplace to read the newspaper, read blogs and books, watch ‘TV’, play games, interact with friends and peers and listen to music through a screen.

They are also used to organising themselves into online communities.

These new members expect associations to promote engagement in ways that align with their digital experiences, which often conflict with traditional methods of communication.

5. No more exclusion

During the pandemic, it became clear that online events offer convenience.

They are also an important means of exchanging knowledge with more people. For some, it is simply not possible to travel to (international) events in person due to financial constraints, health issues, or other personal reasons.

Online communication and events remove these barriers and enable more people to participate in discussions on important topics in their professional or interest areas. This leads to a rich mix of perspectives and opinions that might otherwise remain underrepresented.

For associations, this is an opportunity to explore new formats and means that make knowledge exchange more transparent and accessible, even for members who cannot travel.

Additionally, the balance between private and work life has become increasingly important, and people are more accustomed to working and communicating from home.

It is now more important than ever to ensure that every voice is heard, regardless of location or background. If you find an effective way to bring all members together, the added value and relevance of your association will increase even more.

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6. Changing media landscape requires leadership and involvement

In an era of social media and an abundance of information, associations are struggling more and more to hold their members' attention. This is because people easily get distracted by the constant flow of information they receive daily through different channels.

As more and more professional activities take place online, associations cannot do without a strong online presence. Instead of relying solely on third-party social media platforms, it is important to invest in the association's own website and digital platforms.

Another strategy that associations can apply is creating exclusive content that is only available to members. This could include exclusive articles, webinars, or events that are not accessible to the general public. By providing this exclusivity, members remain more engaged with the association.

Lastly, associations can also use personalised communication to increase members' engagement.

7. Dealing with uncertainty

Uncertainty is becoming an increasingly significant problem for association boards and executive teams that traditionally execute a top-down strategic planning process. These plans are often based on predictions of future developments and trends. However, in a rapidly changing environment, it is increasingly difficult to predict what will happen.

Uncertainty diminishes the value of these plans, making collaboration with the membership crucial to remaining relevant.

The following ways are good examples of collaboration between association and members:

  • Collecting feedback - collecting feedback from members helps identify problems and opportunities, for example, through surveys, focus groups, or online discussions.
  • Co-creation - by working with members to create new products, services or content, associations better respond to the needs of their target audience.
  • Crowdsourcing - a way to gather ideas and input from a large group of members.
  • Ambassadorship - members are powerful ambassadors in attracting new members. By involving them in the promotion and recruitment of new members, an association can expand its reach.
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Mathijs Vleeming

With 20 years of experience in the international association meetings industry, Mathijs Vleeming is contributing to the transformation of association community building as consultant associations at Yard Digital Agency and an AMI Expert Contributor on the subject of online communities.