December 19, 2014
Guide to avoiding "two-dimensional" association thinking

This article first appeared as "Parsing the association" in the 5/22/09 issue of Association TRENDS

By BRUCE BUTTERFIELD, CAE, APR

A recent story in the Washington Post really brought me up short. It was about the decline of newspapers due to their lack of vision. You could just as easily have substituted "associations." Author Howard Kurtz lamented that “back in 1993, before the Internet had become a consumer force, I argued in a book that newspapers [associations?] had become too cautious, too incremental and too dull, tailored largely for insiders…. Then the ’Net changed America, but newspapers [associations?] remained mired in two-dimensional thinking.”

Let's look at some of that two-dimensional association thinking.

• The drive for membership instead of customership (all members are customers, but not all customers are members).

• Adherence to the annual dues model, which forces members to pay in advance for future delivery of services and products some of which they might not want.

• Clinging to a volunteer governance model that continues the myth of representation, drains human and financial resources from pursuits that deliver member value, that asks people to do way too much or that gives them jobs for which they are poorly prepared or ill equipped.

• Continuing the exclusionary “club of membership” that results in opaqueness, even in strange areas such as putting staff contact information behind the Website’s member firewall. What’s that all about?

• And most egregious, giving away the best stuff. For example, an educational association gave away free downloads of two highly desirable documents for reinventing how their subject was taught because the board thought it was in “society’s” interest. Had they micropriced those documents at, say, $5 a download, they could have made millions (so far there have been more than a million downloads of just one of those offerings). Now they are facing a revenue shortfall that never would have occurred if they hadn’t been information socialists.

The article about newspapers points to some approaches in the publishing industry that are transferrable to the association sector. Author Kurtz says that Steve Brill, founder of Court TV, “is talking to publishers about a site that would allow consumers to easily buy subscriptions, day passes or single articles from numerous media organizations, each of which would decide how much to charge and how much to put behind a pay wall. Robert Murdoch, who is considering development of an e-reader that might be better suited to newspapers than Amazon’s Kindle, also plans to begin charging ‘micropayments’ for individual articles on the Wall Street Journal’s subscription-only web site….”

So, what if associations micropriced what they offer? What if you could be a member for a day, or a week or a month? The technology exists to allow that. What if associations charged for an article from their journal instead of the whole thing? What if you could “register” for a speaker or panel or session at an annual conference instead of buying the whole deal? What if sector-specific associations (e.g. healthcare, education, business, engineering) banded together to create the kind of site that Steve Brill envisions where in one stop you could get a boatload of knowledge at an affordable price that would create large revenue on volume for the providers?

Butterfield is president of The Forbes Group, Vienna VA.

 


Association TRENDS