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Future of Associations in a Digital Age

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Over the years I have addressed many different Associations in different parts of the world – organizations with shared interests, such as marketing, lawyers, accountants, management, business schools, energy companies, health workers, tourist agencies and so on. Every one of them is threatened by the digital world.

In times past, Associations were useful forums in the absence of any other obvious way to network, providing their members with unique access to the latest thinking and information, as well as acting as advocates on behalf of their members in representations to government or in the media. Communications were primarily newsletters or magazines, plus some direct mail, and community was created in local forums and seminars or in national conferences.

The business model was usually an annual membership fee – for which the member received a magazine and other mailings, plus invitations to exclusive forums or events (usually at an extra cost), and benefits from the resources of the Association office.

But the digital world is leaving many old-style Associations behind.

For a start, anyone these days can connect with others in their own industry at the speed of light, using forums such as LinkedIn which now has 75 million members in 200 nations. LinkedIn is now a primary recruitment tool for many companies and a vital source of information for managers needing to solve complex problems or gain advice.

Informal online groups can rapidly become vibrant specialist communities, starting out from something as modest as a Facebook posting.

And what was desk-based is now more often mobile: 100 million people now access Facebook alone using their Smartphones, and many of the 50 million Twitter account-holders.

Paper-based magazines are increasingly junked as soon as they arrive, along with masses of other publications hitting office desks, and the perceived value of the same information in an email attachment is often less, while people expect information on websites to be available at no charge.

So a business model built on the offer of – say – a monthly Association magazine, may not work so well in future.


We need to return then to three fundamental purposes of associating:

1) THOUGHT LEADERSHIP: Sharing vital information on latest industry trends, best practice, experience to help members

2) COMMUNITY SUPPORT: Facilitating members by enabling stronger networking with other organizations facing similar challenges

3) COLLECTIVE ACTION: advocacy to protect members and possibly a wider constituency

While it will be difficult in future to charge a huge premium for access to private association web pages, or for regular email bulletins, or for creating online networks of like-minded people, the fact is that the more virtual our world becomes, the more people value face to face interaction.

We have seen this in many other spheres of life – pop music for example, where most of the income of many artists now comes from live performance, and where music CDs have become downloads, often seen as mere promotions for “the real thing”, breathing the same air as a live band in front of an audience.

We can expect that perceived value of digital information will fall, but will rise for exclusive access to specialist forums, workshops, seminars and conferences – so long as they are high-quality, with outstanding world-class speakers, attended by delegates who are sufficiently senior to make the informal interactions valuable.

Success will depend on being able to demonstrate thought leadership: staying ahead of the game, anticipating key industry trends that will impact association members, and helping them adapt rapidly. Much of this will be demonstrated to members virtually.

Out of such live forums, events and conferences we can also expect:

1) Powerful mandates for COLLECTIVE ACTION

2) Opportunities for immediate ADVOCACY

A key example of the latter is inviting a government minister to open an annual Association event, exposing the minister to key industry concerns, and forcing them to justify certain government policies in front of a representative audience.


So we can expect Associations to print less and meet more. To communicate more through email, virtual groups, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, YouTube, SMS and web postings and less through magazines. To campaign and promote members interests more powerfully using a wide range of digital media.

We can expect Associations to grow their membership by allowing public access to part of their archive, and to a digest of current news postings and resources, including video extracts from recent conference keynotes and seminars.

The key is to focus totally on what individual members really need: practical, instant help on important issues, vital resources that save them weeks of time, important seminars that prevent costly mistakes and open huge new opportunities, quality training that will help underpin their success in future, and over all this a collective voice that is strong and well-respected.

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