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The Digital Challenges Facing Associations

July 9th, 2019 ON24

Professional associations provide many benefits to members. Memberships can certify professional standing and maintain accredited status, provide up-to-date educational material and a forum to network with peers. But there are digital challenges facing the association sector, especially when it comes to engaging

Operating models in the associations sector have changed over the last few years, with globalization, digital disruption and demographic shifts providing an outsized impact. According to Sarah Sladek, author of ‘The End of Membership as We Know It,’ “associations are being forced to rethink what is valuable in today’s market.” Encouragingly, associations are up to the challenge of adapting to this newfound change.

The Battle for Retention

Flat or declining membership has become a large-scale concern for many associations.

Data from Marketing General’s Marketing Membership Benchmarking Report 2018 show that while slightly more associations reported increases in membership levels in 2018 (up by two percentage points since 2017 to 48%), the majority reported declines (25%) or no changes (26%). Taking a longer view over the past five years, nearly a third (29%) of associations reported membership declines over the last five years and 14% said there’s been no change.

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In addition, the proportion of associations seeing an uptick in renewal rates have decreased by 25% since 2012 (27% in 2018 vs. 36% in 2012). Lack of engagement was the most commonly cited reason for non-renewal in 2018, with almost two in five (37%) associations mentioning this as a top reason

With this picture in mind, taking steps to increase retention rates and engagement has never been more important. Engaged members are more likely to renew and even support advocacy programs so zeroing in on engagement is key.

Where Associations Can Win

Separate research from Memberwise has engagement ranked as the top goal for associations and membership organizations for the third year running, closely followed by member acquisition and retention. Interestingly, retention returned to the third spot after a dip in priority in 2018. This highlights the associations’ continued focus on strengthening relationships with members.

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The Membership Benchmarking Report also shows that associations are taking action, particularly larger bodies. Associations with an operating budget of $1 million or more are significantly more likely to have a tactical plan to increase member engagement than those with a smaller budget (64% vs. 51%). However, a large budget is not a prerequisite for success – across all associations surveyed, the majority (62%) already have a strategic initiative in place.

But although there is willingness to tackle the engagement challenge, there’s evidence that associations are not fully equipped to do so. Measuring the effectiveness of their engagement strategies is an area where associations are lagging behind, with nearly a third (29%) claiming that an inability to measure member engagement is one of their most significant operational challenges. Lifetime value analysis of a member’s economic contribution to the association, one of the key metrics associations should track, has declined in usage, from 16% in 2012 to only 10% in 2018.