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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.



These are clearly complex times for association leaders. As you rightly point out, the correct answer to the challenges at hand will more than likely be, "it depends". In many cases nobody else knows what to do either. Complexity and uncertainty isn’t confusing just you. It’s confusing everybody. Carving out your own path is more essential than ever. There won’t be many milestones in the early stages, but the fact you have a bias for action and are in motion instead of being paralyzed by the unknown will make you stand out.

The middle is too muddied. A little of this, a little of that, but not enough meaning for very many.

Wal-Mart is for everyone and focuses on everyday low prices.
Target is more niche and focuses on design for the masses.
K-Mart is lost in the middle and confused.

Collins and Porras pointed the way in Built to Last when they said what your core ideology is may matter less than having one and ensuring cult-like alignment around it. Plant a flag for people to rally around and then see who shows up.

Why not do both? Lots of associations have a fairly open and low-cost membership, and then a higher-priced, higher-value "elite" group that gets more services, more ego stroking, and much higher fees.

"Doing both" doesn't mean go for the muddy middle -- it means having different strategies (even different organizations) for different audiences.

Pick one over the other, and you're stuck with it.

Also, in regards to the posting on associations "losing their claim to represent whole industries" I'm not sure what was so shocking about the talking heads pointing out that AMA only represents a small portion of their profession. Politically active trade associations deal with regulators, legislators and the media bringing up this issue all the time (since almost none of them have a particularly high percentage of their target market within their membership), and the smart ones use it to their advantage (every industry/profession has crooks or bad actors; do you really want to represent them, too?).

Thanks Kerry, Jeffrey, and Kevin. I'm not surprised to see three different viewpoints w/in three comments here. I like the thoughts about being in motion instead of being paralyzed and that what your core ideology is may matter less than simply having one. That ideology may very well be to go for one part of an industry, or it may be to go tiered, as Kevin suggests. I think "doing both" would be a muddied-middle approach if it is built on complacency or upon an assumption that one strategy could still serve multiple types of members. But if there's a clear strategy (or strategies) for serving both big and niche, then there's no reason an association couldn't build itself to succeed in both ways. It just may be more challenging.

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