Professional associations, societies and membership bodies have been attempting to capture the mindset of the people who join and the staff who support them for over 100 years.
Marketers for these unusual commercial organizations that neither own or create the product have always had to “capture smoke” as they sort out a multiplicity of different elements into a coherent whole.
Nowadays, however, as membership organizations are being reshaped by powerful economic trends and the all-pervasive technological disruption, these same marketers appear to be struggling more than ever.
We need only look at Facebook, the world's largest association with over a billion members, to see that anyone can start a group for free. Little wonder people are increasingly less willing to hand over good money for the privilege of belonging. They need more tangible value.
It is too early to say what new shape membership organizations might take, yet it seems the most pressing issue marketers need to address is how to become relevant once again and demonstrate value to members.
Fragmented internal structures appear to be the key barrier across all organizations. This is particularly evident in the variety of different committees and departments following their own marketing and communication agendas.
As a result, many membership organizations are saddled with a portfolio of brands that threatens to become greater than the sum of its parts. Hence, the advent of incoherent branding that diminishes visibility, not to mention the perceived impact of the organization.
The constant imperative to demonstrate and deliver value to their membership seems to only encourages knee-jerk reaction to communication challenges based on perceived need, or internal pressures.
Often, the lack of an overarching holistic and strategic approach to delivering value occurs, and not just to the membership, but, crucially, to the organization itself.
Pulling these fragmented structures together without losing the value of each in the ensuing chaos is a juggling act leaders of professional associations, societies and membership bodies are increasingly having to manage in order to survive and remain relevant.
Striking a balance between supporting goals both at an individual and corporate level and providing clarity and relevance to all audiences requires a clear brand hierarchy to capture the membership organization’s key differentiator and represent their collective ambition.
No wonder marketers are struggling with the pithy issue of presenting membership services in a coherent and clear way. This issue, if left unaddressed, will mean that as portfolios grow, there is a risk they either become barren or a tangled mess.
To compound matters, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. Those who attempt to apply a blanket-style identity end up with a bland, un-engaging brand that neither appeals nor differentiates, resulting in individual services under-selling themselves.
Conversely, those who have separate and unlinked brands that focus on each service or product are generating silos that hide the collective breadth and depth of what the organization does. In so doing, they are squandering a valuable commercial asset that could help establish the credibility of new services and encourage cross usage, sales and membership.
Membership organizations need to define what they have got that really appeals, both on an emotional and a rational level, to their audiences and make up any shortfall to each and every audience. In other words, they need to ask, “How can we make what we do appealing to all our audiences, how can we represent our collective ambition?”
Only then are they likely to start shaping organizations that will have the clout to retain their dwindling numbers and draw new members.