The Health of Associations in the 21st Century

The Health of Associations in the 21st Century
Three light bulbs

Compared to 50, 10 or even a few years ago, the appeal of associations appears to be in decline. Member growth has slowed, and the prevalence of social networking and free, digital thought leadership has left many wondering what associations contribute to the lives of modern professionals.

But rather than writing eulogies or preparing resumes, we need only to take a page from the current marketplace to get a little perspective—if we can understand how associations fit into the current moment (and the implications thereof), we can build on our strengths, transform our weaknesses and create personalized association experiences that engage our different audiences in meaningful ways.

To provide a foundation for this massive effort, McKinley Advisors conducted a study of how members across age groups and industries perceive associations based on brand and value. What we found is illuminating and provides clear indicators of how we match up against the for-profit sector, as well as where we need to head to succeed in the future.

Our Study

To truly understand how associations are perceived, we knew we needed a significant data sample that crossed industries and age groups. Tapping into our Protocol for Association Research (PAR) program—a service used to collect and benchmark customer research and data—we collected standardized survey data from nine different industry associations, including those from the science/engineering, medical/healthcare and education sectors.

Through a series of data points related to associations, we discovered clear directional indicators that suggest what associations must contend with to thrive in the 21st century.

Association Brand Perceptions

Few factors are more important to any organization than brand perception, so that’s where we kicked off the study. After all, the “idea” of associations themselves—what they are, what they’re for, why they matter professionally—have the power to drive memberships, engagement and beyond.

And while members typically associated positive terms with their association—among the top were respected, community, helpful, confident and effective—a comparative analysis of Net Promoter Score® (NPS) told a different story. (The data from the nine PAR datasets was combined with 37 other association surveys conducted by McKinley Advisors for the NPS analysis).

While associations tend to call to mind a kind of status and legitimacy, when asked how likely members were to recommend them to a colleague, the NPS yielded a score of only 21 (on a scale of -100 to 100). While demonstrating the fact that associations are generally positioned for growth, the NPS of 21 puts us in the bottom quartile of all industries—alongside cable companies, health insurance providers and internet providers.

A graph showing the comparison of associations' NPS across industries.


Unlike those businesses at the top of the list that are known to be innovative, customer-centric and consistently evolving with the times, our quartile is populated with what are essentially monopolies who are rigid in structure and struggle to evolve to customer needs. As associations, we are positioned for growth and are generally trusted and respected among our potential audiences. However, to truly realize that growth, we need to improve our perceptions and standing among members.  

Associations in Members’ Lives

Once we understood how association brands were perceived and where they fit in the larger marketplace, we wondered how they fit into their members’ lives. After all, despite a slowing in membership growth, it’s clear that many people across a variety of industries find significant value in association products, events, member benefits and more.

As it turns out, the most important benefits for members tend to be information-based, including staying updated on new developments and being informed of research. But there are some key differences among age groups. Younger members tend to be more interested in training and networking, while older members valued tools and resources that helped them stay current and understand the trajectory of the field.

Value Differs by Field

With a clearer understanding of both the association brand and the value they can potentially bring to members, we thought it important to ask, how does the value that we bring to industries and occupations differ according to each field?

We found that professionals that come from different fields do tend to value different types of benefits. For example, those in science/engineering tend to derive significant value from access to research and information, while those in healthcare also are likely to favor training and education resources. These nuances may be driven by the field itself, or some other unknown factor. Either way, the results from the study highlight the need for association managers to be well attuned to the nuances of their members, including their age, occupation/field, and other important background characteristics.

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