4 Truths about the Future of Associations

four truths about the future of associations

“Innovation” is such a buzzword now that I wouldn’t blame association execs for tuning out when they hear it. But I like Jim Carroll’s slant: “Innovation is all about adapting to the future.” Now that’s something we can work with.

Jim Carroll is the opening keynote at the digitalNow conference which will take place in less than a month (April 21-23) in Orlando. Carroll will talk about:

  • technologies and innovations that will affect association business models
  • strategies for reacting to these innovations with greater speed
  • challenges associations will face ahead

Innovating is not about surviving, says Carroll, it’s about thriving. Surviving, like relevance, is a low bar. Associations must aim higher—aim to thrive and become indispensable to their community.

Carroll lays down ten truths about the future. Let’s take a look at four of those truths and think about how your association is handling them.

The future is incredibly fast.

How can you, your staff, and your board keep up? Can you adjust your business processes quickly? How long does it take to discover a need, develop a solution, and roll it out to your community?

Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate’s session at digitalNow, The Lean Startup Changes Everything, is bound to give us some ideas on how to experiment with and speed up program development. Get a sneak preview of his thinking in the white paper he co-authored with Elizabeth Engel: Innovate the Lean Way: Applying Lean Startup Methodology in the Association Environment.

The future involves a huge adaptability gap.

This one blew me away because it’s so true:

“Earlier generations – boomers – have participated in countless change management workshops, reflecting the reality that many of them have long struggled with change. Gen-Connect – today’s 15 and under – will never think of <the> change management issue. They just change.”

Change management experts say it isn’t the actual change we resist, it’s the psychological transition we have to make to accommodate change, that’s the tough part. Adapting to change is a skill set, one you can teach your staff and your members. Today, knowing how to develop new skills is the most important skill of all.

The future is being defined by renegades.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote two articles for Avectra (now Abila) about for-profit online communities: The New Competition: For-Profit Communities with Deep Pockets, part 1 and part 2. Since then these “renegades” have become even more popular and profitable. They saw an opportunity to deliver value to markets long served by associations, and they went for it.

“Increasingly, the future of many an industry is being defined by industry expatriates. When a real innovator can’t innovate within a company, they step outside, form a startup, and spark massive industry change on their own. Before you know, they’ve reinvented you.”

Keep an eye on innovators and hold them close. What if associations had been part of these ventures? What if associations were agile enough to play the game at that level?

The future involves partnership.

How can you help your members—both professional and vendor members—become more successful? Associations have always declared themselves member-centric, but too often their perspective is inside-out rather than outside-in, as Anna Caraveli points out in her excellent book, The Demand Perspective. The value proposition has always been based on what the association says is valuable, not what members believe is valuable. Crazy, right?

Partnering means regularly listening to members (and non-members) and involving them in the early stages of discussions about value delivery—behaving like a real partner in their success. Don’t assume you know what members need, instead be guided by member behavior (data) and conversations for your direction.

To do this, you’ll have to schedule more member interaction than you’re used to, and not just interaction with the usual suspects, but interaction with “regular” members and non-members too. But think about all you’ll learn—they call this business intelligence for a reason.

Don’t ignore those other members—you know, the vendors, consultants, affiliates, associates, or whatever you call them. Here’s what you should call them—partners. How can they help you become more successful and, in turn, how can you help them become more successful? What can you learn from each other? What access and resources can you provide each other?

Associations and their boards need to get over themselves and treat vendor members as partners in their success. You can help each other succeed if you get together and figure out how to deliver value to members in ways that help both of you.

The future requires rethinking value.

This bonus truth is from me. Many associations are still struggling financially and would benefit from rethinking the whole non-dues revenue issue. Heck, rethink the whole value issue. If you’re struggling, it’s a sign you aren’t delivering value to your community. If you were, they would be joining, renewing, registering, sponsoring, and buying.

The digitalNow conference is a great opportunity to get away for a few days to rethink everything in the company of curious association execs who don’t accept mere relevance. The speakers from outside and inside our industry poke at our assumptions and introduce us to new ideas. I can’t wait.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Rennett Stowe)

Author: deirdrereid

Deirdre is a freelance writer for companies serving the association market, who after more than 20 years in the association and restaurant industries, is enjoying the good life as a ghostblogger and content marketing writer. Away from her laptop, you can find her walking in the woods, doing yoga, going to shows, journaling, cooking, or relaxing in a comfy chair with a good book and a glass of something tasty in hand.

2 thoughts on “4 Truths about the Future of Associations”

  1. Good Article. Thank you. I am in my 6th year of transforming associations from the inside. All of the points above resonate strongly with me.

    The Economist last week described how the US economy and specific regions and cities are now developing in line with the ability of the firms within them to get into the digital economy, leaving those who do not behind. Of particular note is the comment that the place for the big middle ground of mediocre companies is rapidly disappearing because the digital upstarts are doing things much more efficiently, at a much higher level of usability than most associations can afford and at a global scale.

    Sadly, associations, who have defined themselves traditionally as serving all are increasingly been seen as the epitome of mediocrity. This is why there is such an outcry for relevance within associations! You know the saying, That you can’t please everyone all of the time! Never has that been more true than in the present digital revolution.

    The most important insight I have gained in the transformation process so far is the need to learn your communities most pressing needs and to focus on solving them with a laser sharp sense of purpose. Tackle one issue at a time aiming for absolute excellence in your approach and slowly move forward one issue at a time.

    Secondly associations lack the necessary skills to make any sort of meaningful product/service changes. The skills employed by traditional associations are administrative/project management skills for the most part. There is a serious lack of service/product development and technical/digital technology skills within associations.

    Without these skills associations are going to be left to the priorities of a vendor of digital services who have built their products to suit the needs of their traditional association clients, NOT THE MEMBERS OF ASSOCIATIONS, the real client!

    To get out of this trap, associations need to start employing design skills: designers such as product, UI/UX and graphic designers, design researchers (to gain a full and actionable understanding of their users problems) and product management skills to help them develop the new products and services required to compete in a digital world. A minimum of 2-3 full time people and sufficient budget to hire in specialist skills for at least another 1-2 man years of work are needed to get the services/product/digital competences of an association up and running in such a way that they can start to reinvent their value proposition and services to members in a meaningful way!

    My third insight is that the CEO has to own this set of issues. Without the CEO growing familiar with digital technologies and design, there is no hope at all for the staff to get pulled along with the wave of change and innovation that has to occur to drag an association into the 21st century! Getting started is easy with the right CEO mindset, making substantial progress will require the same if not bigger investment in the new as opposed to the existing and getting most Association leaders to recognize and make that decision will be the number one factor slowing association progress down!

    Digital cannot be delegated. It will be the beating heart of the 21st century association! It should be already 20 years into the digital revolution!


    1. Amen, brother! Your astute analysis deserves more attention than I’m afraid it will get here. I don’t often hear people talking about the need for new skills–and the courage to make difficult decisions when it comes to staff.

      Your points also resonate with the message of association consultant Anna Caraveli’s book, The Demand Perspective–the need to turn our thinking and doing from inside-out to outside-in.

      Thank you for making me think!


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