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  • JAN 21, 2020

    The “Soaring 20s”? The Decade Ahead for Professional Associations


    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, wrote Charles Dickens in the opening line of his immortal Tale of Two Cities. The same might be said as we look at the decade ahead for professional associations.

    Professional associations and their members are facing a time of profound change. And associations are finding it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the rate of change in their members’ expectations and professional lives. This has led to a “relevance gap” between associations’ traditional value proposition and the realities of their members’ professional lives. The inevitable result is the erosion of member affinity. As the bonds between the association and the membership fray, the traditional economic pillars of associations—meetings, member dues, journal subscriptions, and industry support—are weakening.

    The relevance gap is a challenge that confronts all mature enterprises. As McDonald’s former CEO, Don Thompson, once observed, McDonald’s had failed to “evolve at the same rate as our customers’ expectations.” The same can be said for the changing expectations and evolving needs of today’s professional associations.

    For organizations that stand idle, unable to move beyond traditional products, services, and alliances, the 2020s could be “the worst of times.” As the pace of professional life continues to accelerate, members have less time to attend meetings, serve on committees, read journals, and meaningfully engage in association activities. And as content is now widely available across multiple channels, there’s less reason to consume association content. Perhaps most ominously, early career professionals seem less likely to view association membership as an essential component of their professional identity.

    While acknowledging these considerable challenges, I remain optimistic about the future of professional associations. I believe in the essential role that associations play in advancing quality and professionalism. I further believe that through adopting new tools, forging new alliances, and utilizing new management practices ( it’s very possible for these to be the “soaring 20s” for professional associations.

    New Alliances

    As I look at some of the most successful professional associations, one common trait is their willingness to embark on non-traditional alliances. One of the most fruitful areas for partnerships relates to the Internet of Things (IOT). Each day brings more news about internet connectivity for health-related devices, home health applications, consumer products, durable goods, vehicles, industrial components, sensors, and other everyday objects. Experts project up to 100 billion connected IOT devices and a global economic impact of more than $11 trillion by 2025. Health related apps and home devices are enjoying remarkable market growth, even though their clinical utility is often very modest. One common problem for developers is the lack of access to deep domain expertise. Here is where professional associations could play a critical role in linking emerging tech with experts in the field.

    Imagine the power of an alliance between tech and professional associations. Consider the important role that associations could play in the development of versatile, impactful, safe, and ethical new tools and services.

    Tech incubators offer another opportunity for impactful new alliances. I’ve seen some very productive and mutually beneficial relationships between professional associations and tech incubators. In this value exchange, the budding entrepreneurs receive domain expertise and the associations have an opportunity to bring a new spirit of innovation into their organizations. The same is true for another potential new ally, big data and AI companies. Several new alliances have formed already, bringing data scientists and association-related industry experts together to refine computation models, identify meaningful data sets, and validate and disseminate analytic results.

    New Tools

    The tool kit that’s now available to association executives has never been more varied nor more powerful. These new capabilities include social media of every stripe, blogs, webinars, podcasts, smart speaker skills, mobile apps, clinical data registries, real-world evidence, advanced membership analytics, AI-augmented search engines, and advanced business intelligence tools. Each of these, when used in concert with an overarching digital strategy, can play a powerful role in driving member affinity.

    Let’s focus on just one aspect of this new toolkit: advanced analytics and AI enhanced marketing. Commercial entities have made enormous strides segmenting customers and micro-targeting sub-cohorts, anticipating their behaviors and driving toward an understanding of the “intent” of clients. While these tactics come with some very valid concerns about privacy, they have been undoubtedly effective. There isn’t a week that goes by when an association board member doesn’t ask me why their society’s website isn’t as helpful as Netflix. AI and advanced membership analytics help remove guesswork and can allow an association to shape very specific messages to highly segmented member cohorts.

    Consider, for example, one of the key revenue drivers of associations, the annual meeting. Picture a bell curve with members who “always attend” on one end, and “never attend’ on the other. In this scenario, “sometimes attend” comprises the largest area under the curve. Now, what if you could meaningfully influence the behavior of the “sometimes attend” members? Consider the impact this could have on member affinity and the financial success of your meeting. AI and advanced analytics can enable you to micro-target the “sometimes attends” with annual meeting promotions that speak specifically to their areas of interest. This is accomplished by utilizing an AI augmented analytic tools that can leverage past content consumption behaviors, past meeting attendance, clinical registry, and demographic information drawn from your AMS.

    Consider your very specialized members, for example a pediatric nephrologist or an attorney specializing in commercial real estate. Each is highly trained, and each has very specific informational needs. A generic promotion to an annual conference will have very little appeal to these individuals. However, if you had the tools to parse the membership and promote the meeting content that specifically aligns with their areas of interest, the likelihood of driving increased meeting attendance is greatly improved.

    This type of advanced analytic and optimized marketing approach is more effective, more efficient, and more productive than the traditional scattershot approach. It is not, however, a one-and-done proposition. As the AI learns over time, and as the team becomes more proficient in its use, these marketing strategies can be continually refined. It is the combination of powerful new analytic tools in the hands of well trained and thoughtful team members that will maximize the beneficial results.

    The “Soaring 20s” are available to all of us. However, success is not guaranteed. The associations that will soar are those with the courage to experiment with new tools, implement new organizational structures, and empower their teams to stretch beyond their traditional roles. Let’s work together to ensure that this next decade is truly the “best of times” for professional associations and their members.