Associations vs Membership Sites: Competition and Confusion

Kevin Holland (no relation) writes a fantastic blog analyzing the association industry Model. Very much like the traditional print media industry, the Internet has kicked associations in the ass. Many of associations' traditional services, such as networking, classifieds, niche industry news, even events are now available free in all sorts of ways online, from social networking to Google News, to vendor webinars.As Kevin documents, many associations are floundering.   And, now the next line of Net competition has stepped in to kick them while they're down: membership sites.These are paid content sites usually owned by entrepreneurs, laid-off journalists, and independent publishers who generally come from an Internet publishing and/or Web marketing background. Unlike formal associations, they are for-profit, but since their primary revenues are from members, their content and services are member-focused (vs sponsor focused.) Their services tend to include private online social networking, premium niche content, webinars, member classifieds, vendor directories, etc.It's all the stuff you'd expect to find on an association member site. Plus, the more progressive membership sites are moving into association's offline territory as well now. For example, StomperNet runs live trade shows around the world and publishes a glossy print magazine.This morning I asked Kevin for his take on the situation. He replied, “In our industry we have a subscription site that is an aggressive competitor. I like that, because I get to beat 'em, but a lot of associations seem oblivious to what's happening around them. They're talking about ending membership while for-profit companies see membership as a goldmine!”So how can associations differentiate themselves and provide true value without bumping heads with the membership site crowd? My immediate thought was that associations often have lobbyists in DC working on behalf of their members' interests. Also, they often serve as a marketing agency/voice for their industry as a whole to its potential customers (albeit, usually fairly lamely.) I don't know of any membership or subscription sites that do either of these things.Kevin's impassioned reply, “At its most basic, I think you are correct. Sub sites — all content and connection. Assns — vary widely. But basically some mix of advocacy on behalf of industry or profession (govt, public, other audiences), possibly certification or credentialing, possibly standards development, and plus — content and connection.”Successful assns are what I call a perfect triangle of influence, value, and resources; need to focus on both influence and value equally (all influence, no value = nobody's willing to pay; all value, no influence = you're just another competitor, except one with a lot of nonprofit governance baggage). Assns have been getting cherry-picked for years: trade mags compete with assn mags, 4-profit tradeshow producers compete with assn expos, private buying groups compete with assn purchasing programs, etc. What usually happens is that assns put together a business that then draws private competitors (usually more agile, flexible, and much more focused). It's been happening with membership, too.”He continues, “Assns need to smack themselves in the forehead and stop giving up market share, learn what the strengths of their competitors are and figure out how they can counteract or in some cases change the assn's own culture/structure to build similar strengths. Assns focus too much on what other assns are doing and need to focus instead on their market and its own unique environment.”Yeah baby!

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