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Examples of "free" in action at associations

A morning panel discussion at Digital Now offered up a bunch of examples of associations using the "free" model in various ways. Panel moderator Mark Golden, CAE, executive director and CEO of the National Court Reporters Association, used Chris Anderson's book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, as a framework for the discussion; you can get the crash course on Free via Anderson's article on the same topic from Wired magazine.

We've debated free here on Acronym before, but often without many association examples. So it was great to hear stories from associations that are trying it. Anyway, on with the examples:

  • At the Association for Information and Image Management, basic membership is free, while premium membership is $125.
  • AIIM also offers six online courses for free to give people a free sample of the quality of its additional courses. AIIM President John Mancini, cautions, however, that even being required to email to request an access code is a "cost" that detracted from the number of people who took up AIIM's offer.
  • The American Library Association and AIIM also offer free webinars that are sponsored by industry partners. Mary Ghikas, CAE, senior associate executive director of ALA and Mancini of AIIM each reported that these sponsorships are significant revenue generators for their associations, and they're also attractive to sponsors because the audience for a specialized webinar is a niche market by default (b/c it signed up for the webinar).
  • The Project Management Institute has greater success with free webinars at its chapter level, because sponsors can gain exposure to a geographically local market, says Mark Langley, PMI executive vice president and COO.
  • The American Counseling Association pays for student liability insurance for its student members. What would be a $25 insurance policy for these students to buy on their own becomes an attractive incentive for them to pay $85 to join ACA, says ACA executive director Richard Yep, CAE.
  • ACA also established a syllabus clearinghouse for its members. Access is free and the content is user generated (in that it's just an exchange of information among members), but the syllabi often list the books that professors assign in their classes. ACA sells those books.

These were just examples from the panelists. Others came up in discussion from the audience:

  • The American Geophysical Union has an "almost free" model. Its basic membership rate is $20 per year. Revenue comes from everything else that AGU sells to that broad membership audience.
  • Another audience member pointed out that the model above is the same as that of AARP.
  • The American Institute of Architects offered portions of its annual meeting for free online in 2009, which attracted more than 2,000 viewers, most of whom were new to the annual meeting. (Coincidentally, this was part of a feature in this month's issue of Associations Now: "Hybrid Meetings That Offer the Best of Both Worlds.")

And another version of free came up in a separate session about membership models:

  • The American Dental Education Association recently changed to an "open membership" model, in which its individual membership fee went from $125 per year to $0 (it also has institutional members). ADEA went from 2,000 individual members to 18,000. That expanded audience can be sold to, of course, but it also has enhanced the level of engagement, community, and educational quality at ADEA.

The moral of the story here from all of these examples? "Free" doesn't have to be completely revolutionary. It doesn't have to completely destroy your business model. Most of these examples above are rather simple and straightforward and could be emulated at other associations rather easily.



Great post Joe with lots of good (and diverse) examples. Thanks for covering this for everyone.

Great post. These ideas seem radical until you see that lots of associations are trying them!

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