Associations have a reoccurring nightmare.
In this bad dream, a seemingly credible figure calls the organization out as not representing the people in, or interests of, a specific industry on national television.
There is a myth in this country. The myth is that most associations represent an entire industry.
The truth is that most associations have, in their membership, only a portion of the people or companies in a specific industry. However, this myth is allowed to perpetuate because all sides of an issue like to use the power of associations to make their case, saying things like, "The Association of XYZ is in favor of this bill." or "The ABC industry, including the International ABC Association stands firmly against that idea."
Recently, Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia and Mitt Romney adviser, Avik Roy, went to the dark side on national television. In a discussion about Medicare on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, they were asked why the American Medical Association supported President Obama's plan, if according to them, it would hurt doctors.
Mr. Roy answered, "The AMA doesn't represent the whole physician community. The AMA represents a tiny minority of all physicians." Congressman Kingston added, "It's about 15-20% of all physicians and most of those physicians that are in the AMA are academics." Those statements, along with other claims, implied that the American people should not take the AMA at its word when it comes to issues that impact medical professionals.
You can get the audio of the episode in iTunes (Episode #256, minute 18).
While the AMA does only count a portion of the country's medical professionals as members, the organization's value proposition to both members and legislators relies on the AMA being positioned at the center of the medical universe and being looked to as a less-biased authority on issues of medicine and public health.
In just a few sentences, these two public figures, Kingston and Roy, made the AMA irrelevant and unauthoriative on any medical issue. This could happen to any association.
Why Don't Associations Just Increase Membership?
Ideally, associations would grow their membership to protect themselves from these types of attacks. However, prospective members have an increasing number of options for getting education, networking, and advocacy for their careers. This slow dilution of associations' traditional value propositions, combined with the fact that few membership organizations are well-oiled recruiting machines, makes dramatically increasing the number of full dues-paying members an impossibility for many organizations.
Why don't all professionals belong to an association? There are a multitude of reasons that people don't join associations. According to a 2007 study by ASAE & the Center for Association Leadership, "That an association is 'capable of addressing the practical needs of members' is one of the fundamental assumptions that underlies the decision to join."
Since associations can't flip a switch and significantly grow their numbers under a traditional membership model, many organizations are experimenting with virtual memberships.
What Are Virtual Memberships?
Virtual memberships are an important tool in starting professionals on their way to full membership, increasing revenue, and claiming legitimacy.
Virtual members, also called online-only members, only receive access to the association's online resources, private social network, and web-based member benefits. Adding virtual members to an association's roster enables the organization to protect themselves from attacks on their credibility that stem from only having a portion of their industry as members.
They give associations an opportunity to strip down their offerings to specific benefits that appeal to a broader swath of their industry, while retooling their cost structure to keep overhead down. If someone does not feel as though they get enough value from the virtual membership package, they can always pay for a full membership.
The effectiveness of product and pricing strategies like this is the same reason that some restaurants have lunch specials. These bundled options are less formal and less expensive to appeal to a certain customer profile. If the customer wants more, they can order a regular entre.
Launching a Virtual Membership
Here is the makeup of a typical virtual membership:
Private Online Community. You'll need a business-class private online community platform to provide members the networking, technical information, and professional development resources that they seek.
Member Segmentation. Be sure that your membership database can manage multiple member types and integrate with your online community software.
Member Benefit Strategy. What does a virtual member get? Design a member benefit plan for your virtual membership program that does not cannibalize full membership offering, but provides enough value to "fly off the shelves."
Dues Structure. Decide on a pricing strategy that makes virtual membership very accessible to current non-members, but also fits within your costing limitations.
Community Management. It is very important to use the content, connections, and engagement tools in the community software to continously highlight the value of the online membership and keep members engaged.
Characteristics of a Successful Virtual Membership Program
Here are four areas to focus on in your private online community:
Value. Use the document and video libraries, surveys, idea generation tools, forums, listservs, and other online community features to making joining with a virtual membership a no-brainer.
Personalization. For virtual members, accessing the private social network may be the only interaction they have with your organization. Use the segmentation tools in your online community platform to provide each member with user experience, information, and messages that are relevant to them.
Engagement Engine. The value in your private online community will go to waste if you don't develop ways to consistently drive members back to community. Use the build-in email and notification tools in your private social network to keep your diverse membership engaged.
Events. Virtual members still want events. Include online events in your virtual membership plan. You can also offer discounts to live events to start virtual members on the path toward full membership.
Private Social Networking Takeaway
If you work for, or belong to, an association, you believe in and support that organization with your money, time, and social capital. There are few bigger kicks in the gut than being told by someone on a national stage that your organization is irrelevant and should not be listened to.
Most associations treat private online communities solely as an added member benefit for their existing members. Virtual membership programs put the private social network out in front as a recruiting tool to bring non-members into the organization.
Virtual memberships built on active online communities provide associations the opportunity to grow their membership rolls to represent a larger portion of their industry (65% of an industry sounds better than 15%), fine tune their value proposition by hearing from different voices, and generate additional revenue.