For as long as anyone could remember, the American Society of Anesthesiologists included its annual meeting free with member dues, probably dating back to just after the Civil War, when the anesthesiology field emerged. In 2011, ASA made a dramatic move. It started charging a fee for meeting registration without adjusting the cost of dues. And what happened? Meeting attendance stayed strong and membership actually increased.
At about the same time, another McKinley Advisors client initiated explorations on how it could configure its membership to drive engagement of newer members, possibly by including access to programs with dues. While these seem to be opposite approaches, they are exactly the same: organizations reviewing all they do and offer in an effort to build and sustain long-term viability, value, and vigor.
Today people are talking a lot about bundling and unbundling as keys to maintaining salable relevance. But isn’t this the same question effective associations have always asked? That is, “How do we understand and meet member needs under frameworks that make sense for the members as well as the organization?” Even if you don’t view bundling or unbundling as exactly the same, they require the same approach, which follows the effective practice of applying data to association decision making. Here is a solid approach to look into bundling or unbundling, or offering members value in ways that are truly relevant:
- Understand what members want and value.
- Understand the dynamics of paying.
- Knock down barriers for members (and maybe customers).
- Assess and project financial implications of bundling or unbundling.
What Represents Value From the Member Perspective?
These days, almost all associations ask their members to rate their offerings. The preponderance of low-cost, electronic survey platforms has made it easy—some might argue too easy—for associations to survey their members about just about everything they do. And while asking is important, if your answers are consistently high with little variation, then the questions might need work.
Consider having members rank your offerings. Or, perhaps force them to choose between options. Challenge your members to give you more to work with than just good marks on today’s products and programs. Better yet, invest in some objective, qualitative research, which opens dialogues with members about unmet needs and preferences for meeting them. Then apply members’ input on value into considerations about modifying benefits, bundling or unbundling with dues.
What are the Economic Realities in Your Market?
You need a firm grasp on the economic environment in your field or industry before considering any changes. In some fields, getting employers to fund events is much easier than membership dues. We’ve seen this often with government employees. This situation helps make the case for bundling dues with events, as opposed to the other way around. Where is the flexibility or inflexibility in your field when it comes to making decisions to buy? You’ll need this knowledge, as well as who the real decision makers are and when budgets are planned and fixed if you are to make sound decisions about how you price, bundle, and market your offerings.
Having a well-regarded designation or compulsory continuing education requirements can be powerful tools as you consider what to offer with dues or as add-ons in addition to dues. But how else can these requirements be met or designations maintained? How do your offerings stack up compared to other offerings your members and customers see in the field? Where do you have elasticity in your market, i.e., uniquely valuable offerings that would be bought even at higher prices? Is there room to increase dues, programs, or products? Or, is your field currently under pressure with little tolerance for any increase?
Where are the Barriers to Participation?
What are the barriers in your field when it comes to full participation? Is travel now difficult? Do junior staffers who need professional development have to request permission from superiors? Is membership considered less important than accreditation or a designation? Knowing where the true obstacles lie will allow you to plan for them and deliver value in spite of them.
Some obstacles might exist around knowledge of what’s available or how to best participate. So, any changes to offerings must be supported by sound communications planning, which ensures members know how they can derive value, either with their dues or at extra costs.
What are the Implications of Changes?
What happens to your meeting budget when you bundle registration with dues? What happens to your dues levels when you take away or add new benefits? How do you account for these “swaps” internally and ensure that your overall impact is positive or neutral (depending on your intention)? How will you account for expenses if dues and program receipts are combined? What types of configurations are possible to meet your revenue goals and appeal to your marketplace?
When you can answer the questions above with data, your options for bundling or unbundling will come into sharp focus. But the first thing to clarify, before you ask anything of your members, is what you want to accomplish. What would be the end goal for making a change? Start there and success is likely to follow.
Jodie Slaughter, FASAE, is president and founding partner of McKinley Advisors, an association consulting firm in Washington, DC, and Chicago. She has been a long-term contributor to the association community and was recently named to the ASAE Academy of Leaders for her leadership, commitment, and contributions to associations.