Turning Membership Inside Out

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I just back last week from Colorado Springs and ASAE’s Great Ideas conference, where, for the first time, Susan Cato, Director, Digital Strategies and Member Services at the American Society of Plant Biologists, Joe Colangelo, VP, business development at Bear Analytics and I were able to share the huge and exciting work we are doing for ASPB as part of a process of transformational change. Plantae.org is the result, a holistic, content-driven online community that is free and open to all plant scientists.

Turning Membership Inside Out

By rethinking their entire membership model, re-examining their member needs and digital habits, and re-evaluating collaborative relationships with partner organizations, discover how one small staff association is doing big things to redesign how they provide member value. Learn how they embarked on a data-driven, innovative, holistic and wide-reaching strategy to create an open, inclusive, content-driven community based membership model that connects online and offline engagement in whole new ways.

Main points from the presentation:

  • ASPB – traditional scientific society, 90 years old, publishes two big scientific journals, Plant Cell and Plant Physiology. 20 staff, 4,000 members.
  • Business model is under threat from open access – 80% of ASPB’s revenue has come from journals. About 4 years ago realized they needed to diversify their revenue stream, faced with the possibility that their business model was at risk.
  • ASPB only represents maybe 4% of the total number of plant scientists; wanted to think about how they can increase footprint and provide more value to more people.
  • Brought in the famous design thinking agency IDEO, to help them go through an ideation and market research process which resulted in a many really interesting ideas for digital products and services that would attract ASPB’s prospective customers.
  • Resulted in digital products like, a searchable member directory.  Professional websites for ASPB members. The Greenhouse – an incubator for crowdfunding for plant science research.  A digital career and job training program called Plant Food.  MyJournal, which was a way for plant scientists to collect articles into their own library. Each product, however, would need to be individually created and marketed. Beyond the realm of possibility to do it all.
    • Even though the IDEO concepts and recommendations were spot-on, we knew that this was just part of the overall strategy; we needed to improve our value to the community – we weren’t doing a very good job of this. Not only did we have to improve our value, but we had to get serious about expanding our footprint and growing our community. We also knew that beyond our traditional membership – we had a larger community interacting with us…
    • We started to evolve idea of traditional membership towards the idea of broader community. We were very siloed in our thinking – stuck in the “old” model of membership, so we were not approaching our community in a holistic manner.  We needed to truly understand who as in our community, so we brought in Bear Analytics.
  • The seed was planted with IDEO, but it continued to grow with everything Bear Analytics discovered in their data cleanup. Scoured thousands of records in multiple databases, plus market research, including examining organizational records.
  • Factored in natural abandonment and churn; distilled data down to most engaged based on recency of touchpoints with ASPB, frequency of touchpoints, and specific channels (e.g. journals vs events)
  • Armed with all this data and research, and the sense that the idea of membership was changing, we realized we needed the infrastructure to support the ideas that IDEO had helped them come up with. We were headed towards a fundamental shift in our overall organizational strategy.
  • When you put digital products together with a database of engaged people in the ecosystem around ASPB, you get online community.
  • But you can’t build online community without the infrastructure to support it ASPB went all in and upgraded their AMS and their CMS  as well as implementing Small World Labs for their online community platform.
  • And Plantae was born.
  • Plantae is an experience; content is what draws people in. We are ensuring that value is provided at all times and in many ways – content is organized in hubs – Research, Career Center, Education, Grants and Funding, Science Policy.  We are building valuable content in each of these hubs and throughout the site.
  • The marketplace powers the experience.
  • The revenue model – Amazon prime model; the community is free, members can level up for deeper functionality and access.  Monetizing products not the experience.   ASPB membership is decoupled (you don’t have to be an ASBP member to join Plantae) but ASPB members give you premium access to Plantae automatically. Still in the process of truly understanding how to differentiate Plantae membership and ASPB membership.
  • This is an incubator project that could evolve in many different ways, and we’ll watch to see what grows inside it.  We’ll make decisions based on what we learn.  And we know we’re only at the beginning of a long journey.
  • But if we’re successful, we will have turned a little seed of an idea into a huge, bold innovative project that turns the traditional membership model inside out.  And in the process, we’ll have nurtured a huge, thriving ecosystem for plant science – which ultimately is what this is all about.
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