There's an emerging trend in the video game industry called "free-to-play". In short, this is a business model whereby people can play a game for free (instead of going to the store to buy a $60 disc), generally via the web. Revenue is generated by other means, usually from advertising dollars or by selling premium items in the game (eg, fancy sword, access to a special level, etc).
This model was pioneered in Korea as a means to get over the piracy/blackmarket hump. As Korea had/has no retail market for games, companies had to find other means to generate revenue. And, for the most part, this approach is bringing great success. Some of the more successful games have player bases in the 15-million range, generating millions of dollars in monthly ad and item sale revenue.
Could such a model work for a large scale professional society? Membership dues are zero, and revenue is generated purely via "premium items" (ie, conference reg, book sales, DVD content, etc). Some of that discussion has come up as part of the whole "unbundling" trend, sure, but I've not seen it ever taken to the extreme of coupling it with a no-cost membership.
What issues would be solved or benefits accrue with a free-to-join model? Some thoughts:
- potentially much greater membership base
- broader reach into given industry/profession
- better leveraging of network effects
- more attractive to advertisers/sponsors
- never have to debate/question "value proposition"
- association output becomes more directly "market driven"
- likely easier to deliver on mission (since you don't ever have to exclude non-members)
Possible side effects or negatives:
- need to replace funds gap!
- likely a more pronounced level of participation inequality
- free = worthless perception
- huge reliance on web/tech tools
- likely more chaos and loss of control by staff
Admittedly, this is also very much inspired by Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations", as well as Chris Anderson's preliminary writings on "free" as the business model of the future.
Anyway, guess I'm getting bored with the yearly dues status quo... Hmm...