Just listen to what we say and you’ll be okay. No, if I know you, dear reader, you’ll take in these predictions and the educated guesses of other pundits, scan the horizon yourself, and set a course based on your own analysis of where we are today and where you think we’re going. Bon voyage!
11 predictions for associations in 2024
Our predictions focus on professional development because that’s our thing. But many of these apply to other aspects of associations, especially this first one.
#1: For-profit competition comes for you from all directions
In Associations Evolve 2024, Tommy Goodwin, FASAE, CAE, PMP, CMP, vice president of the Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance, highlighted a finding from Association Laboratory’s Looking Forward research. He said the report, for the first time, identifies for-profit organizations as the top source of association competition.
We’ve written frequently about the rise of for-profit membership and learning communities. With their deep pockets, colleges and universities should be considered for-profits. Their continuing education (CE) departments are dynamic profit centers. Unlike the rest of campus, CE teams demonstrate agility, innovation and business acumen by delivering micro- and alternative credentials to adult learners.
Many higher ed institutions partner with corporations to develop and deliver the credentials needed to attract, reskill, upskill, and retain talented employees. As the industry leader, your association should be in on that.
#2: The AI-assisted association workplace is here
The People Powering Tech virtual conference asked attendees about the topics on their mind. The majority mentioned AI.
Association staff experimenting with AI—not just ChatGPT but other AI tools too—want to learn how to use it to save time. The challenge is figuring out which tasks are best done by humans and which by AI. The hope is AI giving us the time to be more human and do more complex and strategic work.
Associations already use AI for predictive analytics, content and engagement recommendations, chatbots, initial drafts for instructional, assessment, and marketing content, and much more. Associations will create their own LLMs and AI tools to meet member informational needs and to sell products and services to their market.
Microsoft’s New Future of Work Report 2023 describes how work may change as large language models (LLMs) are increasingly integrated into our lives. They say LLMs may accelerate the real-time collection and analysis of non-quantitative data from members and customers through expanded text processing capabilities. LLMs could also interact directly with members and customers as an interviewer or other conversational aid. Imagine the possibilities for needs assessments, engagement data analysis, and recommendations.
#3: AI enhances information, education, and connections
AI is already a competitor as an information source. Compared to traditional search, Microsoft says consumers use LLM-based search for more topics in professional domains and for more complex tasks.
Associations must become the authoritative source for industry-specific information and education on working with AI and knowing which tasks are best for AI and which are best for humans. Offer programs on how to prompt and manage privacy, security, and intellectual property issues.
McKinsey recommends CEOs quickly figure out three things—and your association can help:
• Which parts of the organization can benefit from AI
• How to scale from one AI application to many
• How new AI tools will reshape your industry
Host industry conversations on these issues. Encourage members to share “best-at-the-moment” practices and discuss what’s working, what’s not, and what’s on the horizon.
AI also offers the potential for personalized self-assessments, professional learning plans, educational content, and coaching. AI matchmaking tools could help members connect with peers, mentors, onboarding buddies, study partners, and solution providers.
#4: Education programs focus on competencies and workforce development
Members and industry professionals need other skills besides AI to keep up at work. In addition to online instructor-led courses, consider:
During The Great Resignation, employees bailed on supervisors who didn’t have the skills to effectively manage remote and hybrid teams. Do your industry a favor by offering training programs for managers who need to learn the basics of remote/hybrid team management, collaboration, and communication.
With AI taking over many tasks, people need to polish their human skills. Offer leadership training programs that teach the soft skills required for industry and volunteer leadership positions, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
The number of solo practitioners, contractors, freelancers, and fractional executives (CMO, CIO, and CFOs) is rising. Where are they learning how to run their businesses? Another market opportunity for your association.
Workforce development is a major concern for many industries, especially with the retirement of Boomers and the need for higher-level skills. Introductory programs, like bootcamps and jump-start programs, and early-career credentials attract people to your association and industry. Employers increasingly appreciate stackable microcredentials and digital badges as a degree alternative.
Host a career website that introduces young people, career changers, and military veterans to the learning and career paths in your industry.
Affordability remains an issue. Hopefully, the Freedom to Invest in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act will pass so people can use 529 savings plans for association training and credentialing programs. But you’ll need to find other creative ways to lighten the financial burden for prospective customers, such as scholarships, sponsorships, and employer financial aid programs.
#5: Careers go every which way
Careers are no longer predictable trajectories. People switch careers and bop around industries. Just think about the people you know who’ve gone from associations to consultancies to vendors and back again.
Successful professionals don’t wait for employers to suggest or subsidize professional development. They take ownership of their learning journey so they can learn and explore what they want.
Expectations have changed too. People, especially younger ones, don’t expect to have a career for life. If they’re not fulfilled by their job or career, they get up and go, figuring out which skills they need to land somewhere better.
Help them land in your industry. Provide online tools and resources for self-assessment, goal setting, and creating a personal learning plan aligned with professional aspirations.
#6: Associations double-down on social learning and community
More associations offer programs featuring peer connections as a major element, such as cohort programs, many of which offer coaching services too. Because in-person meetings are out of reach for many, experiment with new approaches to networking, like small volunteer- or sponsor-led online meetups with an educational focus.
People want to find their tribe—the people who do what they do. They want to talk with peers about issues and ideas. They also want to talk with people who do what they might want to do in the future.
Members and customers are spending less time on or abandoning social media because it’s become less social. But they want to be part of small, specialized, trusted communities where they can talk about professional and personal interests.
Is your association offering these niche communities? I’m not talking about your come-one come-all online community, although that’s a must, a place for people to start. For-profits are having enormous success with small private communities for executive, mid-level, and early-career professionals.
#7: Attendees flock to non-traditional meeting formats
Shake up your typical in-person and online event format. Try open space and fish bowl sessions. Give new voices a chance to step up and be heard. Replace the sage on the stage with the guide on the side. Dedicate more time to attendee interaction and connections.
Many people in your audience were left behind in the rush back to in-person events. They’re not willing or able to go due to lack of employer support, scheduling and financial issues, or personal preferences. Since post-Covid in-person meeting costs have risen dramatically, virtual events—and I don’t mean hybrid events—are good for your budget too.
#8: Membership is only one type of relationship
Many employers never paid for membership, and no thanks to inflation-induced budget cuts, many more won’t now. But some will still pay for professional development since it brings them immediate benefits.
Use education programs to warm up membership leads. But, keep in mind, some customers will always remain customers. Students and industry professionals don’t always have the budget for both membership and professional development. Since they’re choosing you for education, cultivate them as an important part of your learning community.
Don’t exhaust them with constant membership promotions but keep them close. Send them targeted content and invitations to online events and programs so they think of you first for what they need to advance in their job and career.
#9: Partnerships blossom as walls come down
You probably don’t have the resources to do everything yourself. For workforce development, partner with educational institutions, government agencies, and employers. Chapters can develop relationships with high schools, vocational schools, community colleges, employers, and local and state workforce development agencies.
Collaborate with employers on the design of microcredentials and other educational programs. Maybe even consider reaching out to potential competitors, like two- and four-year higher education institutions.
Leverage the expertise of corporate revenue partners (sponsors) when designing and delivering educational programs.
#10: Wellbeing isn’t just aspirational talk
Research confirms the rise of mental health issues, particularly in Gen Z and younger millennials. Many of them aren’t equipped for the harsh realities of life that await them after graduation. In some industries, workplace stressors worsen the situation.
Associations are a source of peer support, mentoring, professional development, community, and purpose needed by professionals of all ages. Promote mental health awareness and offer education programs for industry professionals and employers. Tommy Goodwin noted in his Associations Evolve 2024 article that for-profit competitors offer communities that foster deeper belonging by appealing to their members’ personal interests, not just their professional interests.
#11: Trust is your superpower
The trust barometer is dropping because of concerns about AI, social media algorithms favoring advertisements instead of friends’ posts, greenwashing, and DEI-washing. Did you see the story about the conference that created and promoted fake women speakers?
But your association is different. Unlike for-profit competitors, you’re driven by your mission, not your bottom line. You don’t have to cater to stockholders or investors. You focus on advancing your industry and the people who power the industry—a compelling differentiator you should always talk about.