If I had to bet money on a business model that is both one to emulate and one that is in desperate need of disruption, it would be the professional association.

Many businesses today are striving to deliver the kinds of benefits to their audiences that associations excel at:

  • Consistently deliver useful and helpful content
  • Provide educational opportunities in many formats, from webinars to f2f to online courses.
  • Deftly pulling together people who are facing similar struggles where they can share, learn from and help each other – and more importantly, strengthen the profession or industry by working as a single force.
  • Acquire and retain individual or company members who will pay for the privilege to be able to pay for other offerings, like meetings, education, or data.
  • Be the protectors and promoters of the niche to the world.

They have been at it for decades. It’s singularly impressive: many can boast 75 years of protecting a professional niche and consistently delivering useful information to further the profession. But a lot has changed in those years, technology is disrupting industries one after the other.

The Evolution of Business

We don’t publish books the same way.How we buy music, how we educate ourselves is forever changed. What people value in brands that they are loyal to has evolved. And our understanding is leading marketers to reach people on a personal and psychological level. Is it possible that associations are largely untouched by the disruption that almost every other industry is experiencing?

Associations are not invulnerable

Associations are facing competition from new sources: just ask APTA what they think about the for-profit competitor that came in and scooped their online learning audiences. (Could they be coming for your members next?)

It must be acknowledged that associations have indeed changed, especially in these past two decades. But responding to outside forces or doing things incrementally better is not evolution. The Japanese call it Kaizen, the process of continuous improvement. It’s important, but that’s the minimum of what I believe is needed.

Global corporations know the power of personal experiences with their audiences. They know content is the way to get access. They invest a lot of resources into being helpful, useful and entertaining with their content. Imagine a website for Coca-Cola that people will visit over and over? Well, it’s happening now that their website is an online lifestyle magazine. (A fantastic model for an association website by the way.)

Disruption, Don’t Get Numbed To This Overused Word

Associations are ripe for disruption. I see a future that is going to leave some associations behind; they won’t adapt in time. (But don’t worry, there will be plenty of for-profits there to provide for former members needs.)

Membership models are sound for the new business continuum, but what members get for free versus the premium offerings won’t look the same as they do today. Who is served and how the services and products are offered will be vastly different. The new reality will demand that associations consistently provide a lot of free and useful information to everyone, from members out to greater audiences, in order to attract the ones who will pay for the premium offerings. And more importantly, they’ll know that a most remarkable value of attracting new audiences is to learn from them: where should the association be headed?

What Matters Now

Associations are understandably concerned about  younger generations’ changing attitudes about joining organizations, competition from new sources, members not willing to pay the going membership fees, and the waning perception of value of all that the association does. They are justified in their concerns.

For associations to disrupt in order to thrive in the face of the never-to-slow technology onslaughts, never-before seen competition and successfully penetrate deeper into their audience base, a new reality is demanded. They’ll need to identify disruptive technology to catapult associations into a new service model so they can prevail over sophisticated for-profit competitors and become consistently valuable to new audiences.

In a world in which brands and companies are building loyalty one person at a time, I see marketing as the key to a paradigm shift. The type of marketing where you deliver useful and helpful information to your audiences. Imagine all you can learn by being in a constant dialog with your audiences of members and prospects. And that’s not talking about you, it’s learning what interests them and what matters to them.

Some have predicted the demise of associations, I think it is now becoming clear as to what that will look like.

By Monica Bussolati