Associations have traditionally used membership “as an excuse to sell more stuff at discounted prices to members,” said Garth Jordan, senior vice president of corporate strategy at the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA). But, HFMA has cast that old non-dues revenue practice aside. Their new membership model includes unlimited access to certifications, online education, newsletters, industry analyses, and communities—the “pay-to-play ‘extras’ in most association business models.”
HFMA's approach sounds like a great way for an association to become indispensable to members, but there’s one challenge we must address: how to make up for lost non-dues revenue when free education is a membership benefit.
Rethinking non-dues revenue: from products to partnerships
Garth takes issue with the “plethora of product lines” offered by most associations. He said this approach is:
“…inefficient, overly-expensive, a heavy burden on marketing and product development, and often results in a confusing and under-utilized array of products that are labeled as ‘member benefits’ simply because members get a price discount compared to non-members.”
In another Association Success article, Garth advised using the 80/20 rule to pare down the number of products you sell. “Fewer products of a higher quality will return more to your association than an ever-growing range of offerings irrelevant to professionals.”
Here’s the approach he’s adopting at HFMA:
“When it comes to non-dues revenue, I’d rather pursue a share of mind than a share of wallet. Industry partnerships with vendors can bring new knowledge leadership to your association with a small set of carefully thought-through and custom-designed products to fulfil your members’ needs…” [emphasis added]
Sponsored educational programs
We’ve written before about partnering with companies in your industry to develop and deliver sponsored educational programs, and, recently, Associations Now did too. “When developing programs, be sure to hit the most pressing problems for members. ‘It cannot just be about revenue, but about content,’ said Bruce Rosenthal, strategic advisor at Bruce Rosenthal Associates, LLC. “Sometimes, companies will ask, ‘What is keeping your members up at night? What can we do to fill that gap?’”
Corporate partnerships (sponsorships) give your association access to a company’s subject matter expertise and marketing budget. In return, the company has opportunities to put their thought leadership and brand in front of your audience.
In most cases, a sponsoring partner will be involved in program development, but the extent of that involvement is up to you. You could also invite them to host or co-host, do introductions, moderate (if they have the skills), or appear as guest speakers, interview subjects, or panel participants. If the sponsoring company produces high-quality information, such as white papers or research reports, you could include this branded content as part of a course curriculum.
Other sponsorship opportunities are:
• Livestreaming events, such as webcasts, town halls, virtual roundtables, and virtual conferences or summits
• Online courses and mini-courses
• Learning pathways
• Blended learning events
• Exclusive learning events for young professionals, C-suite executives, or specialty corporate positions (HR, legal, sales & marketing, lobbyists, etc.)
• Video series
Corporate partners could also help subsidize special programs, for example, scholarships for leadership development programs or credentialing programs.
With constant change and growing skills gaps in many industries and professions, the interest in credentialing programs is increasing. Micro-credentials are especially popular since they offer a quick way for professionals to acquire skills and prove competency. Although certifications are part of HFMA’s all-access membership, your association could choose to provide free education, but charge for credentialing applications, exams, and renewals, and/or digital badges.
Digital badges provide an accessible proof of competency since they give people the ability to publicly display their credentials. If you embed an expiration date into your digital badge metadata, you can notify badge holders that they need to refresh or update their skills and renew their certification before their badge expires.
Dan Gaertner, executive vice president of membership solutions at Community Brands, believes a job board is the easiest way to increase non-dues revenue. “Employers looking for candidates will pay them a premium to get in front of their niche audience,” he said in an Associations Now article. “Most of the companies provide the service for you, and they have a staff that works on your behalf to get jobs on your site.”
A job board is the central element of a career center, but you should provide more than a list of open positions. Your career center is another opportunity for sponsored content.
The Public Relations Society of America leverages its job board for content partnerships with recruiters and PR agencies. Ask your corporate partners (sponsors) to help you develop career guides and tip sheets on, for example, preparing for an interview or networking event, or writing a cover letter. You could also generate non-dues revenue by selling career services such as coaching, or resume writing and review.
Licensing programs to corporate members
As you mull over these ideas, be aware that a powerful competitor is out there right now developing training and educational partnerships with companies in all kinds of industries. It’s only a matter of time before LinkedIn Learning comes knocking in your market. From an employer’s perspective, a partnership with LinkedIn makes sense. After all, their employees are already using the LinkedIn platform. Are they using your online learning platform?
Don’t lose your advantage. Your association has a reputation as a trusted brand. Plus, you already have relationships with many member employers and their staff. Take steps now to become the preferred educational partner for your corporate members by selling and licensing online courses and learning pathways for their company’s use.
Some of your corporate members may also be interested in co-designing programs that help them bridge internal skills gaps. You could also provide train-the-trainer programs for their instructor-led training.
Marketing education to non-members
Most associations focus their marketing efforts on members—an audience that’s hopefully paying attention to your emails. But what share do members represent in the total potential market for your educational programs? For most associations, non-members represent a larger percentage of the market.
“One of the easiest principles of increasing non-dues revenue is to treat non-members like customers and to aggressively cultivate people in this segment who have chosen not to pay dues,” said association consultant Kevin Whorton in a comment on an Associations Now article.
“An organization with 20% membership market penetration can easily sell into the other 80% (and make a credible claim to be a viable marketing channel to them to other firms who seek to sell to them) yet most associations choose to promote their products/services heavily only to their current members.”
Which programs are standing-room-only at your conferences? Focus your educational marketing efforts on your most in-demand programs—in demand by professionals and employers, both members and non-members. For example, a webinar on emerging trends featuring a compelling industry economist or futurist might attract both members and non-members. Give non-members a taste of your best. They’ll pay full price now but their educational ROI will persuade them to come back for more.
If you’d like to learn more about revenue partnership from your association peers, join the ASAE Collaborate discussion group for partnership professionals. If you’re not an ASAE member, this discussion group is a spin-off from the Partnership Professionals Network led by Bruce Rosenthal. It meets regularly in the Washington DC and Chicagoland areas to discuss challenges, ideas, strategies, and tactics related to corporate partnership (sponsorship) programs.
Talk with executives at your member companies about how an educational partnership (sponsorship) might help them achieve marketing goals and help your association achieve your strategic and revenue goals. Having a strong non-dues revenue program gives your association the freedom to experiment with new membership models and other innovation projects.