Membership organizations must rethink methods to attract professionals

networkingeventDespite the recession, conferences and industry membership organizations continue to host annual, regional, and local events. Zintro asked membership organizations how they are faring in a slow economy and what they are doing to increase membership and attendance.

Trish Wootten, CHHC, an expert in neurological health and wellness, says that membership organizations are both tenuous and advantaged by the current economic downturn. “On the one hand, individuals are filtering out their participation in some organizations to strengthen their personal budget. Yet, conversely, complimentary training typically provided by industry membership organization provides the benefit of enhancing one’s marketability and resume,” says Wootten. “This is particularly crucial in the ongoing rise in furloughs, layoffs and company closures. In fact, some non-profits are also aligned with government sector initiatives on the local, state and federal levels. As such, their non-profit status enables the group to provide a level of service that is otherwise more economically challenging to the corporate entity.”

Wootten says that most associations are increasing membership fees to supplant rising costs. “Online initiatives are increasingly popular in part due to the economic viability of lowering overhead while simultaneously raising revenue. The other positive aspect of this is the enhanced marketing role this provides each entity,” she says. “Webinars and online conference calls are now heavily preferred over in-person workshops and meetings. While some organizations stick to the traditional meeting format, a greater number have opted to join the online format, which includes workshops in numerous languages and time zones.”

The organic and green movements are excellent examples of using new trends to enhance their marketability through related partnerships and sponsorships, Wootten points out. These groups “maintain an active outreach campaign, vested in providing scholarships or other opportunities for the economically disadvantaged or special interest groups with a particular skill set or artistic talent,” she says. “Professional training and other forums enable networks to nurture and grow. But, online forums parallel with a plummet in strong interpersonal and communication skills, a point deserving of more finite exploration for its long-ranging societal impacts.”

Gina Kellogg, an expert in association publishing, thinks that membership organizations have not fared well in the downturn economy. “I’ve worked with several groups that have struggled to retain current members, much less attract new ones,” she says. “The reasons are many, but mostly budgets and a lack of conviction that the organizations truly offer tangible benefits. Some membership organizations are old school and set in their ways with cliques and networks that make women and younger individuals less than enthusiastic about joining. It doesn’t help when the executives of the organizations—whether they are paid by the organization, are volunteers, or employed by a hired management firm—haven’t stayed up to date with how members’ needs have changed in trying to adapt to the new economy.”

Businesses aren’t paying for memberships and/or travel to conventions like they did in the past, Kellogg admits, and as a result, individuals must pay out of their own pockets if they want to join a group. “In addition, people are trying to squeeze in time to participate in group-sponsored activities, which is simply not doable for folks. To compete, organizations must take a hard look at what they’re offering,” she says.

Kellogg has noticed that some standard practices need to be updated; for example, she recommends that conference organizers discontinue paper directories—outdated before they are even printed—and replace them with online versions that members can update themselves. “Organizers might want to reschedule the annual convention to every two or three years and replace it with regional meetings, webinars, and conference calls so that members need not travel long distances or be away from the office,” she says.
”Membership organizations can take steps to reverse the course many are facing, but it will take a sincere effort to be honest about what they are offering that makes membership in their group truly worthwhile.”

By Maureen Aylward