A Little Less Costco, A Little More American Express

Written by Cecilia Sepp on April 17, 2017

For a number of years, I’ve heard conversations about “changing membership models.” This is a difficult discussion to have across individual membership societies and trade associations because who joins (individual v. company) in each model dictates the types of membership categories and/or access provided.

We all know that the “reason for being” for a professional society v. a trade association is also completely different. Broad Strokes: Individuals join for personal development and career advancement, while companies join to protect and promote their industry.

As the CEO of a small specialty professional society, my thoughts focus on that model. How can my association provide the most appropriate access points for the health care administrator/aging services provider across their career arc?

In answer to this question, we decided to use market segmentation tied to the career path. We reconfigured our membership categories to reflect the career milestones from student to retirement, and all the active career points in between. In reconfiguring our membership system, we have also adjusted price points for dues, with very low dues for students, the most expensive for the active, experienced professional, and lower again in the retirement stage of the career.

While I believe that these are on-point categories that recognize the stages of a professional’s life, reflective of the individual member experience, I keep thinking there is something else that needs fixing in the membership model, not just at our association but across the board.

I’ve come to realize lately that too many association membership models are set up like Costco.

This makes me fear for the future of professional societies if we don’t take a hard look at what we are doing and why. There is too much “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and not enough “is this what we should be doing?”

What?!? You might ask. What does Costco have to do with association membership models? A lot in my opinion because they are way too much alike. If you “join” Costco, you pay an annual fee to be a member so that you can go to their store and spend money.

If you “join” a professional society, you pay an annual fee to be a member so that you can go to the members only section to spend money.

Think about it. How many benefits (I mean true benefits that come with membership) do your members get? Not the soft ones like “networking” and “personal professional development” but actual services and/or products that come with that annual membership fee.

Too often in my opinion, our members pay so they can spend.

They pay for conference attendance. They pay to buy books. They pay to get toolkits.

Our own professional societies that we belong are great examples for most of us. I belong to one where we pay annual dues so we can spend money on conference fees, books, and other tools they provide – of course, all at lower member rates. The only things that come with these memberships (meaning no extra fees) are online communities (formerly listservs), some webinars, and . . . well, that’s all I can think of. There may be more, but I think it’s telling that someone who’s been a member for over 20 years can only think of two.

My professional society doesn’t provide regular local networking events, local chapters, or any other products or services that come with membership (other than the two I noted). But, my annual membership fee provides me the opportunity to pay lower rates when I spend more money.

I even get the opportunity to be asked to give MORE money to a foundation and a PAC. That’s also a common practice across associations – fundraising is important to support the visionary and the practical aspects of what we do.

While this may be the accepted model across the association community, in my opinion, it is not the correct model, and definitely not the best model.

American Express previously used the slogan “Membership has its privileges” and it actually does. When I pay my annual membership fee to American Express, I receive additional support services that don’t cost anything extra. And, I don’t have to even use my card for any purchases. I can use the services as much as I want without spending another dime.

Where is the privilege of belonging to an association/professional society for the individual if all their dues gets them is the opportunity to spend more money? I don’t think that offering the “privilege” of spending more money is the answer when dues rates are high already.

What if that annual dues payment came with a conference registration? Or a book? Or a professional coaching session? What if membership really did have its privileges, meaning that you received unique access, services, and products with that annual fee?

If we are only going to offer the opportunity to spend more money, then we need to lower dues rates. I believe that individuals need to make an investment in their profession which means supporting their professional society. However, I also believe that the concept of dues and what they provide needs a radical overhaul.