Big and niche
A few weeks ago, I watched the first 45 minutes or so of the movie 2012. My only takeaway from that experience is that it was really important to not ask questions about the science. The world was ending, and it didn't matter why. People just needed to run like hell.
Sometimes I feel the same way about the imminent doom of associations. The world is changing! Associations are doomed! Run!
I don't doubt the need to change. The world is indeed changing fast, and associations must follow suit. I feel that in my gut. But a lot of times I don't know exactly why or which way we should be running.
The threats to the traditional association model that we should be running away from (or toward) seem to be coming from multiple directions. Consider these two recent blog posts:
- In early August, Maggie McGary highlighted the niche community at socialmedia.org for big-brand social media pros. The concierge-level group costs $10,000 a year to join and promises a vendor-free environment, an exclusive online community, and VIP service for members. Maggie rightly suggests that this type of highly focused, premium-service community in any field could be a threat to traditional associations or at least an alternative model to consider.
- Last week, Joshua Paul pointed out that associations are losing their claim to representing whole industries (if they ever really had it), citing a case of political talking heads dismissing the American Medical Association as not representing the whole physician community. Josh suggests that associations could broaden their membership base (and thus their lobbying clout) through virtual memberships that would appeal to rank-and-file industry members.
On their own, each of these posts makes a compelling argument for action, but taken together they raise a tough dilemma: Is the future of the association model more niche or more broad? Deeper or wider? Customized solutions for a few or scalable solutions for the masses? This is a case when I'm glad I'm just a guy who writes about this stuff rather than the executive who has to make the decision.
There are a lot of options. Associations could go big or go niche, they could aim for a happy medium, or they could try to encompass both ends of the spectrum with tiered levels of membership and service.
You might have strong opinions on which of these models would be most viable (which you should share in the comments below), but for any particular association, the decision likely depends on its own mission, strategic priorities, and market conditions. So, the most important steps may just be to get clarity on those before charting a course forward—to ask a lot of questions about the science that drives change for your association. That process might not make for a good movie, but it could be a good way to ward off impending doom.