If you work for a trade association and your organization hasn’t evaluated its membership and dues structure in the past five years, it’s probably time for a review. For the Water Quality Association, it had been much longer — perhaps even decades. Undergoing an evaluation of its dues structure translated into an opportunity to not only address the common issues facing trades today, but also to apply some creative association best practices to change the way WQA engaged its members.
The net result? A 35% dues increase. How did WQA pull that off? By knowing its members’ needs and interests, questioning the status quo, building a structure that addresses size and value, and selling the new structure through a strategic communications effort that stressed fairness and equity.
While market dynamics are impacting all associations, many trade associations have noticed transformational trends that have pushed their traditional dues model to the point of irrelevance. Mergers and acquisitions in various industries have created the common situation where associations have a divided membership — where large companies are at the top of the dues scale and start-ups sit at the bottom in a size-based trade association model.
As my colleague, McLean Gift, discussed in a past blog post, this creates the natural question of dues equity for an association.
So how should a trade association address market changes and turn threats into opportunities? For WQA, it started with data.
Jackie Price Osafo, CAE, WQA’s membership and development director, and Heather Duve, WQA’s membership and development manager, shared their story in June with attendees of Forum Forward 2018, Association Forum’s Annual Meeting. In 2016, McKinley Advisors partnered with WQA on a comprehensive member needs assessment, resulting in rich information and segmented value proposition statements for the association’s key audiences. The data identified key value drivers that could naturally serve as “anchors” for value tiers — in other words, compelling reasons to pay more to access certain benefits. At a fundamental level, education and certification were viewed as important by survey respondents, especially professionals who were new to the industry. This set WQA staff off on a broader journey to investigate different dues models that could fit the trends they were recognizing in the data.
“We took this opportunity to gather information on members to not only determine the new member structure but gather other intelligence to support new benefits and resources,” Jackie said.
“After collecting information from what we describe as a ‘member profile,’ we asked members about their areas of expertise, sales volume, and potential benefits. We also paid attention to discussions held during section or special interest group meetings.
“When adjusting the benefits, we gathered input from staff who were responsible for administering benefits outside of the membership department. This was the main catalyst to defining the three different levels we now offer. Our goal was to ‘Collect as much information as possible, leave no stone unturned.’”
WQA settled on a structure that was tiered both in terms of size and value. While the association now offers an e-membership to accommodate the needs of its start-ups and smaller companies, it also has “Core” and “Premier” member categories, with additional unique benefits to justify a higher cost. Smaller companies can elect any of the tiers; larger companies (based on sales volume) would automatically be placed in their respective category.
Determining a structure is only the beginning for a new dues model. The next steps come down to communicating and operationalizing the new structure. Find out how WQA did both in my follow-up blog post that takes a deeper look at the best practices for communicating and implementing a new dues model.