Helping Members and their Communities Succeed: the Future of What We Now Know as Membership

We all have had these moments. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the clouds of confusion part and you look at the world with new- found clarity. Of all places, my “moment” came today at my doctor’s office, while waiting nervously for the results of my annual mammogram. During our usual small talk at the end of visits, it somehow emerged that my doctor had been the president of her professional association and a passionate advocate of its causes.  Curiously enough, however, it was not her association she turned to in order to address the issues and problems that mattered the most to her daily practice of medicine.  Instead, her “go to” resource was a small, online network that another association member had launched and now boasted a few hundred members.  Members were accepted by invitation only. The group has no public website and no interest in growing too large.  Intimacy and depth–attributes missing from their other affiliations—were key sources of value on this private network.  The community was shaped to her needs and facilitated the kind of interactions, learning and development paths she needed to practice successfully. She could post and read about cases on this community platform; ask for advice; compare results; brainstorm on solutions; and go as deeply as she wanted into a specialized issue. Over time, trust among members, and hence the quality and value of the information shared among them, increased. Its value was not a list of “benefits” but the community itself: a facilitated joint journey of continuous discovery.

Human beings are social creatures.  I love my hot cup of coffee in the morning and catching up on world news, but it is only by interacting with people that ideas are clarified, concepts are translated into outcomes and life as I experience it becomes meaningful.  What’s more, in the knowledge age, unlike farming or manufacturing eras, we cannot succeed largely by completing solitary chores but depend on collaboration and knowledge sharing just to survive. Social media has enabled us to recreate and re-interpret in cyber space the dynamics of actual, physical human communities, and transfer their defining principles from the private to the professional realm.  And this is a good thing as far as I am concerned. You are no longer compartmentalized by the transaction you engage in or the function you perform. Increasingly, service providers and even manufacturers have to consider you, however superficially, as a whole person, beyond the specific transaction: your psychology, motivations, and sources of influence; your relationships, beliefs, behavior and actions.

You don’t just click on a product and make a purchase at Amazon.com, for example.  You are presented with opportunities for interaction, at every step of your purchasing experience, such as customer and suggestions for future purchases.  When you buy your car or software product are instantaneously presented with opportunities to join user groups; subscribe to technical support services, participate in forums, etc.  This is the thinking process associations must engage in instead of the transactional, benefits-and-dues-based framework. To me the message is crystal clear. You can no longer sell to, engage or think about customers/members the way you used to if you expect to be essential to their success.   To those who claim that they already have communities and forums and sophisticated social media and other cool stuff I say that they are still not getting the degree to which they have to turn the traditional membership model on its head and say good-bye to all past assumptions. At the heart of the business models of fast growing, market leading associations and other service providers in our research, are human relationships and interactions.

We found 3 shared characteristics:

  1. They see their role and sole measure of their success in terms of their relationship with their customers and the solutions they help them develop.
  2. They serve the entire community of stakeholders who are directly and indirectly instrumental to the health of the value chain in order to increase their customers/members’ chances at success.
  3. They see themselves as enablers of solutions rather than as the omnipotent and absolute sources of customer value –products, content, services etc. The new sources of value they deliver, instead, are relationship-based: facilitating meaningful interactions; making possible the right conversations; leveraging others’ resources through partnerships to improve the health of a sector, etc.

A few years ago, I was a member of a consulting team that interviewed the senior leadership of Cemex in Mexico, a global cement and building materials giant.  Last time I was at their website I was struck by a news announcement: Cemex was investing $5.5 million in a new cement bagging plant in the UK.   Why would a global building material company bother with bag manufacturing since it was clearly not their core business?  Because, they explain, the state-of-the-art CEMEX bags that have a longer shelf life, would deliver value added to everyone, “from us as producers, through logistics, to the merchant and onto the builder.”    And here is the point that is most valuable to associations: while the company’s goals are financial, the strategy for achieving them is, as Maddie and Jamie might say, to “humanize” the processes and the ways they think about and treat customers. And this means thinking beyond the sale to facilitate the experiences and larger complex of relationships and economic value sources that surround the use of their products.

Instead of “communicating” the value of their product over and over again until the customer “gets it”—the answer to attrition for many associations– Cemex ensures that the buying experience itself is smooth and problem-free and there is value for every stakeholder, at every point of the value chain.   This is why its constantly new and evolving products, services and solutions go far beyond technical competencies for the end-user to ensure the health and development of the economic communities around the manufacturing and use of building materials.  Services include education and professional development; workforce development initiatives in  collaboration with local communities; innovative construction financing; new and exciting applications of technology such as an ATM-like Bulk Cement Dispatch System that enables customers to get cement at their convenience etc.  When their network of small distributors was in danger of being overtaken by big chains, Cemex launched a program called: Construrama® offering them an alternative: a partnership that allows them “to offer customers an extensive range of brand name products at competitive prices.” Retailers also receive training, resources and support. This is the direction I see membership and service models take to survive and thrive today: shifting from producing their own products to facilitating interactions and relationships that are essential to members’ success; and from serving individuals and companies to assuming important roles in the success of the entire professional and economic ecosystem.

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