The past few years have been challenging for everyone, and associations are no exception. Sudden event cancellations caused unexpected revenue losses. A sluggish economy hit budgets for new memberships and renewals. Furloughs and cuts to association staff hours impacted marketing efforts. According to MGI’s annual Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 47% of associations reported declines in total membership in 2021.
While historical data from that same MGI report suggests that growth typically follows economic downturns, we can’t sit back and wait for that to happen. The reality is that the pandemic has taken slowly building pressures that associations have been facing for a while and turned them into seismic events.
Associations that understand shifting member needs and adapt their strategy and offerings to meet them will remain relevant and continue to grow. Looking at the big picture and anticipating possible future scenarios is at the heart of innovation. With the accelerated pace of digitization, examining how membership models and professional development offerings could evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of members and your industry will be vital.
Here are the trends you need to build into your strategic planning if you’re going to stay ahead.
1. The Switch to Remote and Hybrid Work
Research shows that anywhere from half to three-quarters of employees whose jobs can be done remotely wish to continue with remote or hybrid work arrangements permanently. This shift in the way people work impacts how, when and where they access resources and training—including the content and professional development activities offered by associations.
Associations are responding to this shift by offering learning content in a variety of ways. A survey we conducted in partnership with Training Industry, which is pending publication, found that 55% of respondents are using mobile learning, 43% are using video-based learning and 28% are using virtual learning labs in their education programs. Similarly, the MGI report found that in 2021, there were increases in member engagement in various professional development activities. Specifically:
This shift in engagement is a strong indication that members are eager to explore continuing professional development and learning opportunities. Associations can tap into this by creating more programs and online educational content that is accessible any time, anywhere, across a range of devices.
2. More Virtual and Hybrid Events and Offerings
While the MGI study reported that 85% of associations increased their virtual professional development offerings in response to the pandemic, it’s clear that was only an accelerating factor in an existing trend that probably began with the economic downturn in the late 2000s. Many associations are developing creative solutions to the demand for more accessible learning and engagement opportunities.
Fortunately, improvements in digital event technology and internet infrastructure have made hybrid events easier and more scalable. Adding a virtual option to in-person events increases your reach, and surveys show that fears about hybrid offerings eating into in-person attendance are unfounded. Consider the findings of a 2016 survey from Digitell:
Factors that made attendees choose the virtual option included money, work schedules, previous commitments, travel concerns, difficulty taking time away from home, and caregiving responsibilities.
Similarly, Meeting Professionals International Foundation (MPI) surveyed nearly 1,800 event planners back in 2012 and found that 65% did not see a change in their in-person attendance when offering a hybrid event—and 23% said attendance at in-person events went up in subsequent years after they added a virtual component.
Virtual Training Programs
Virtual learning and continuing professional development opportunities also improve your ability to engage current members and attract new ones who might not engage otherwise. The demand is certainly there: The MGI survey found that overall participation in professional development offerings went up with the increase in virtual offerings, with 57% of respondents reporting increased participation in professional development meetings.
“Learners can participate in the courses from their own office—they don’t need to travel or pay for hotel rooms. That’s going to help contractors a lot.”
Guy Petinga, Vice President New Jersey, International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA)
Many associations are ready to maximize the potential of virtual programs. Of the associations we surveyed in partnership with Training Industry, over half plan to keep virtual learning programs as primary offerings going forward, and another 44% will keep at least some—only 4% had no plans to maintain virtual learning opportunities going forward.
Virtual offerings are practical, accessible and scalable. There’s really no downside, especially if you have a good LMS to make program design and execution easy.
3. The Demand for Personalization
We’re met with personalized experiences everywhere—from media to retail to advertising. Personalization means curating experiences to individual needs and preferences—and members expect you to know who they are, what they want and need, and even what they don’t want. This expectation is so strong that 45% of consumers say they will take their business elsewhere if they don’t get a personalized experience when they expect to.
Member experience with your association is no different. Members want personalized learning experiences, from conferences to professional development opportunities to content recommendations. They want to be able to connect to an online community where they can get immediate answers, with access to subject matter experts at their fingertips.
Failing to respond to the demand for personalized experiences that members can get from the competition could be catastrophic to membership growth.
4. Shifting Labor Force Demographics
The baby boomer generation makes up the largest portion of association members (34%), according to the MGI report, despite representing only 25% of the US labor force. Meanwhile, Generation X, who make up 33% of the U.S. labor force, had 29% of the association memberships from survey respondents. Millennials, the largest portion of the U.S. labor force at 35%, hold only 21% of those memberships.
There are two major considerations revealed by these ratios. First, associations whose membership skews toward baby boomers are vulnerable to sharp declines from retirees letting their memberships lapse. Second, and more encouragingly, there is untapped potential for membership growth among younger generations.
We can already see evidence of this playing out in the MGI survey. It notes that associations reporting declines in one-year memberships, five-year memberships and overall renewals have a higher proportion of baby boomer members. Meanwhile, associations reporting increases in one-year and five-year membership levels tend to have a higher proportion of millennial and Generation X members.
Associations that actively pursue that untapped market now will be on the leading edge of the overall labor force shift, rather than scrambling to catch up.
To attract and retain younger members, your association needs to understand what professional supports members want and how to best serve them. The reality is that early to mid-career members have different needs than later-career members. They want career-building experiences like:
- training and certifications
- mentorship connections
- immediate access to industry expertise
- resume-building activities like leading and participating in committees
- job opportunities
It’s also important to consider outside factors that may impact a member’s ability to access in-person events—including caregiving responsibilities, financial barriers and work commitments. Providing digital programs makes it easier and more convenient for your members, including tech-savvy millennials and Gen Z, to take advantage of your association’s networking and continuing education offerings at various life stages.
Associations are uniquely positioned to offer communities of practice and social learning opportunities that are perfectly attuned to the needs of members. Digital platforms are an ideal solution for facilitating them because they’re scalable and flexible and are accessible virtually anywhere.
5. Rethinking Membership Models
Associations are reevaluating overall business models in response to these trends. Notably, many are reexamining their membership models and resulting shifts in revenue streams. Traditional membership models are often complicated and rigid and may inadvertently create inequities that discourage potential new members.
According to Associations Now, even before the pandemic 81% of association CEOs responding to a survey from Association Laboratory Inc. said that younger members were not interested in traditional membership models. The MGI survey found that as of 2021, 45% of associations had considered implementing a new membership model within the previous five years, while another 17% had done so in that time.
Associations that have traditionally relied on membership dues as their primary revenue stream are looking to diversify that strategy. Our survey with Training Industry found that of the associations that plan to maintain virtual learning programs going forward, 31% are using their virtual training as a revenue generator, ideally bringing in 51% of their revenue this way.
“The global healthcare community is enormous, and it’s growing as society’s healthcare needs grow. Our goal is to reach out beyond our existing membership of executives to a broader audience of healthcare professionals—which means expanding our education offerings by a factor of 100 or more.”
Dr. Tim Stettheimer, Vice President of Education, College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME)
Designing attractive membership models requires knowing the needs of your current and potential members and having the ability to articulate your value in a compelling way. Yet only a little over half of the associations responding to the MGI survey believe that their value proposition is compelling—which means there is plenty of room for differentiation here.
For example, you might consider a subscription-based all-access membership. This gives you the predictability of recurring revenue, while also strengthening your community by enabling full participation from all members. Or you might see ways to benefit from partnerships with other associations or organizations that offer complementary services, working in tandem to provide more value to potential members.
Don’t let traditional membership models limit your thinking. It’s a great time to think about ways you can capitalize on disruption rather than letting it sweep you away.
6. The Digital Revolution
Running through all these trends is one common thread—digitization. Technology does not just simplify individual tasks like payroll or marketing anymore. Organizations need to view digitization as infrastructure that enables creativity and innovation across all functions.
Embarking on a digital transformation is a complex strategic and cultural initiative, but it will ultimately change the way your association engages with members and other stakeholders. Consider how a digital-first culture could help you respond to the above trends. For example:
- Integrated systems make it easy to offer networking, content and services to members anywhere, any time, on any device.
- Strategic and integrated digitization allows you to create engaging hybrid components for events, and robust, interactive virtual learning programs.
- An integrated digital strategy allows you to create a personalized and responsive experience for each member based on how they are accessing your platforms.
- A digital-first culture enables you to be innovative in the ways you provide value to members and generate revenue for your association. As with personalization, data analysis helps you understand member needs and wishes, and gives you everything you need to develop, test and adjust your models and programming to benefit all stakeholders.
Standing out from the competition requires creativity. Transforming to a digital culture at your association makes you responsive to rapid changes in member needs and in the wider market.
Be Your Members’ Best Resource
Pressure from the shifting landscape has been building for some time, but the constant stream of sudden changes over the last few years has become an existential threat. Fortunately, transformational times also bring tremendous opportunities for growth and reinvention.
Keeping members connected and engaged has never been more important, and associations are uniquely positioned to offer the flexible and personalized resources, professional development, and services that those members are looking for. So take the time to examine the trends, get feedback from members and get creative.
Karen Karnis has a BA in sociology from the University of Guelph. She has worked in social services, higher education, communications and journalism. Karen is currently working toward a Master of Education in Sustainability, Creativity and Innovation through Cape Breton University.
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