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Strategic Considerations for New Member Segments

Meredith Low provided this guest post.  She is a management consultant, focusing on helping organizations and companies understand how, when, and where to grow in the context of fast-changing environments. Her work with associations includes leading strategic and tactical planning, performing assessments to position conferences and meetings for growth and durability, and assessing the needs of members and other stakeholders. 

Strategic Considerations for New Member Segments
For associations looking to grow, tackling a new membership segment – perhaps colleagues, assistants, or supervisors of your current members – may be an attractive option to consider. However, there are risks; the benefits may prove to be a mirage, and the undertaking could sap enormous amounts of energy from the organization.

So, before plunging in, there is strategic work to do.

Why do you want to consider this? What underlying problem do you think it will solve for you? What strengths does it capitalize on? What makes this a strategic fit for your organization?

If you have a great operating system that is just a bit too expensive on a per capita basis for your current membership, or a crackerjack approach to marketing for member acquisition, then a new segment is worth considering.

However, if instead you are hoping that an influx of new members will shake up a hidebound political structure, more members may just exacerbate the problem.

Make sure this is a solution to the right problem, and make sure the key stakeholders (typically the Board) clearly understand the strategic hypotheses behind the idea.

What does yes look like? What would you have to believe to be true in order to say yes to this? What are the things that would make you turn away from the opportunity? How would the organization be different if this is what you choose to do?

What does no look like? Is your status quo sustainable? If pursuing a new segment doesn’t turn out to be the solution for the issues you are facing, what else might be? Do you have an attractive alternative – or is this really something that has become an imperative?

How will you make the decision? Who makes the call on whether this change should be made? What preparation or inputs will they need to make a good decision?

It’s important to think about decision-making in the abstract, for a couple of reasons. First, when you have data or information already in front of you, it’s easy to dwell on the details and miss the critical question of how the data answers the questions you are asking. Second, if you don’t know what data will influence the decision, you will waste time and energy chasing down answers that don’t help you figure out whether this is a good idea, and may distract you. Figure out what you need to know to make the decision, and then go answer those questions.

Due diligence should include at least some consideration of the following, although you may not need to address them all in the same detail:

  • Demand – Is there any sign this segment would respond to your overtures? What can you offer that is uniquely valuable?
  • Competition – Presumably these potential members are not entirely ignored now. Who are your competitors? What competitive moves can you anticipate if you target this segment? 
  • Organizational capabilities – What would it take? Do you have the right skills or, if not, can you get them? 
  • Finances – Can you do this profitably? Do you have the funds to make the investment that would be required? 
  • Governance - Does anything in your governance structure preclude this move? How would governance need to change? 
  • Advocacy – Would you be able to advocate effectively for both segments at once? Will there be conflicting interests?  
  • Brand – Would it benefit or dilute the brand? 

There is opportunity cost with every strategic initiative, in terms of senior leadership (staff and board) time and attention – is even studying this idea really the best use of that already-constrained resource? If this isn’t the right idea to help your organization thrive, then you need to focus on finding out what is. And if this is a good idea for you, the sooner you get a realistic sense of what it will actually demand to be successful, the better.